Tlingit Shaman's mask
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Shaman's Mask.
Asymmetric mask painting is a common feature of Tlingit shaman masks. Asymmetrical features, like closed or missing eyes, or twisted sockets, recall historical reports of such people. Most Tlingit masks are humanlike, but this one is semihuman, perhaps representing a female salmon spirit. The significance of hair streaming from the eyes is mysterious.

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Northwest Coast ceremonialism was founded on the religious belief in personal encounters between men and supernatural spirits or beings. Ceremonies involved the elaborate display, by individuals, by kin groups, or by secret societies, of the powers or privileges obtained through such supernatural encounters. Display privileges might include names, titles, crests (emblems) as well as songs, dances, costumes, ceremonial paraphernalia, ritual acts, and magical feats. These were sanctioned or explained by tales of their supernatural origins, and the rights to them were validated by gifts to the invited audience. Much of representative art in carving and painting had ceremonial functions, drawing its inspiration and themes from the same supernatural experiences.

The shaman was one who had received powers from personal encounters with supernaturals. Although the spirits that had served a dead shaman were sometimes believed to return more readily to a close relative than to another, each novice shaman had to seek the power for himself or herself after receiving the call. The supernatural was most often met in its animal guise, but this was only the outer shape, or garment, which the supernatural could doff to show its "real" humanlike form. This transformation was symbolized by the elaborate animal and bird masks of the central Northwest Coast, which opened to reveal the human face inside.

- Frederica de Laguna
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