Northwest Coast Native Art: Komokwa, Masks, and Killer Whales

Assembled by Jodi Dimter

Historical / Cultural Significance


Of major importance in Kwakiutl myth, Komokwa was King of the Undersea World, Master and Protecter of the Seals, who were a symbol of wealth. His name means "Wealthy One", and he ruled from a great, rich house under the water. His house contained great wealth in blankets, coppers, and other treasures. Many human supplicants of legendary history tried to reach this kingdom and those ancestral heroes who achieved their goal became wealthy and powerful, returning to their home village with magical boxes full of treasure.


Much more important to some coastal cultures than to others, and the motivations for mask wearing are as diverse as the masks themselves. Yet it can be said fairly that, for all parts of the coast, masks are the means by which the supernatural world is made visible. They may represent powerful spirit helpers whose potency infuses a shaman or dramatic manifestations of fabled creatures of family history.

Killer Whales

The Killer Whale was an important character of Northwest Coast mythology, generally as a clan ancestor associated with sea beings, particularly Komokwa. The Killer Whale was generally represented by masks so large that they might be called body masks, since they partially covered the body. The mask was supported on the dancer's back and his hands were thus left free to manipulate the strings that moved the various appendenges.

Principles and Elements of Design


An important element of the cedar plank masks is color. Black, blue, and red are imaginatively applied, creating balance within the entire piece. Color is used to define each of the parts of the head as well as shape. Traditionally, just as today, paints were made from materials. Northwest Coast Indians produced red from iron oxide, black from graphite, and white from lime and burnt clamshells. Blue paint from the northern part of the coast has been analysed to be iron silica. All of these materials were mixed with oils, quite often salmon eggs, to make paint.


There is the avoidance of empty space where a design form or line will add to the interest of complexity. This embellishment is, however, done with sufficiant restraint to maintain a proper integral balance of line, form, and carving.


Geometric and freeform design. Some designs sometimes seem to represent internal body parts, sometimes external appendages, and sometimes magical powers. These special designs are both angular and loose, free forms. A prominent form which is used to depict the body parts is the "U-form". It frequently depicts feathers and ears.


Texture supplies variation in the design. The carved cross-hatching can be echoed by the use of painted cross-hatching.


Curves are emphasized on nostrils, eyes, and lips, by deeply incised carvings, contrasting color, or both. Nearly all lines, whether incised or painted, have a tendancy to run parallel and taper to a terminal point to each end.


The masks were carved in 3-dimensional form.

Integration with Music, Dance, Drama

Northwest Coast Indian art and culture could easily be integrated with drama, music, and dance. The class could study the ceremonies in greater detail. Listening to the music and experimenting with different drums and rattles as well as exploring the different dances would be very interesting. Through literature students could learn about different legends and myths of the Native culture and drama could be easily integrated (i.e. role play and reader's theatre).

For more Northwest and West Coast Native art ideas you can link to...


West Coast Native Art

Kwakiutl Masks

Tsimshian Art


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