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Whales Exhibition Features Intricately Carved Feast Dish

by AMNH on

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The Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast—roughly 20 diverse communities united by a common language—share a rich oral tradition. Stories passed down from generation to generation tell of ancient encounters between human ancestors and animals such as the bear, raven, wolf, or whale.

One such tale inspired this exquisite carved feast dish, featured in the special exhibition Whales: Giants of the Deep.

Whale Feast Dish
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Animal imagery in Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw artifacts may serve to depict a close family association with a species, even common ancestry in Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw mythology. The connection is said to confer supernatural powers and special privileges on living human kin, including rank and the right to perform certain dances and songs.

“Individual families will have a totemic identification with a specific creature,” says Peter Whiteley, curator of North American Ethnology in the Division of Anthropology. “But, as well as natural species serving as social symbols, there is also a sense of a fundamental lack of distinction between the human and natural world.”

Aptly, the feast dish depicts a killer whale with a human head and a second human head within its dorsal fin. The human is Siwidi, a mythic hero who travels undersea in a canoe that transforms into a killer whale.

Front view, whale feast dish
More than a century old, this feast dish's carvings include a killer whale with a human head; it was created by a Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw artist on the Pacific Northwest Coast.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

The dish was most likely used to serve fish oil, a delicacy, during a potlatch, an elaborate ritual of feasting and gift-giving.

The dish, one of a dozen artifacts from the Museum’s anthropology collections added to the Whales exhibition while it is on view in New York, was collected for the Museum in 1901 by ethnologist George Hunt, the son of a Tlingit noblewoman and an English trader. Multilingual and well-versed in the Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw culture of his native Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island, Hunt was a uniquely valuable field collaborator with the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, including during the Jesup North Pacific Expedition from 1897 to 1902.

Together, Boas and Hunt built an unrivaled collection for the Museum.

A version of this story appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.