Northwest Coast Masks – The Benchmark for Mask Carving!

Northwest Coast Masks ....

The Indians of the Pacific Northwest Coast produced more than totem poles!!! Their carving traditions carried over to ornate and awe-inspiring masks.


Although there are various tribes in the Pacific Northwest, there are many techniques and styles that are common. Traditionally, the Northwest Coast mask maker is anonymous, always male and always of high status, and not necessarily an artisan only; he also hunted, fished and contributed to the community as well as practicing his art.

The carver would seclude himself from his community while concentrating on the task of carving a mask, usually from red cedar. After contact with the Europeans in the late 1700's, the carver had a new set of tools making carving significantly easier. More of these Northwest Coast Masks were made, more complex masks were made, and some masks had moving parts.

The Mask...

Ceremonial carved and painted masks of the Pacific Northwest Coast are spectacular. Many, though cast in the form of a human face, represent supernatural beings or mythical monsters. There are also clan masks that represent the totem of the individual clans.

There are 3 types of Northwest Coast masks:

  • The single face mask is the simplest and is carved from a single piece of wood (red cedar).
  • The mechanical mask has movable parts and came to be after European contact...with the Europeans came hinges and strings. Using these, the Northwest natives were able to make eyes and mouths open and close.
  • Transformation masks, when closed depicted an animal or bird, and when open showed man as the animal or bird. Sometimes there is third mask form involved.

Only experienced carvers could produce such a complicated and beautiful piece. They had to take into account shrinkage and warpage. Traditional forms and colors were used on these masks. In addition to painting, many masks had other materials such as hair, feathers, gold, straw and skin added to enhance or make them more realistic.

Pacific Northwest Coast masks were used in ceremonies and rituals. Specially trained dancers would wear these masks and act out stories or legends.

Info Snippet: Did you know... women and children were not allowed to know the actual meanings of either the masks or the stories being acted out????

Masks were also used in secret society rituals for war, inducting young members into a tribe, shamanism and conjuring.


Masks are still used by the Pacific Northwest Indians in ceremonies and performed for non-Natives and tourists. These masks are some of the most sought after items by collectors.

Check out the Masks of the Hopi
Check out the Masks of the Iroquois

Return from Northwest Coast Masks to Native American Masks Return Home