[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]
It has always been a point of interest and pride that my football team, the Seattle Seahawks, based the team's logo on Northwest Native art motifs, but it wasn't until last year that anyone actually tracked down the original source:
In the Pacific Northwest it had been almost forgotten where the inspiration for the Seahawks logo came from. As Seahawks fever consumed Seattle during the run-up to the Super Bowl last year, Robin Wright, curator of Native American art at the Burke Museum, had students asking her if she knew the logo’s origin.
The students had found a blog post that mistakenly said the inspiration came from the Egyptian god Horus. But Wright, who has spent her career immersed in native art, knew that couldn’t be correct.
She recalled a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from 1975 about the new logo for Seattle’s fledgling NFL team, back when she was a graduate student working with Bill Holm. Now curator emeritus at the Burke Museum and one of the most knowledgeable experts in the field of native art, Holm took on the challenge when Wright asked for help earlier this year.
They found a familiar face in a book from the 1950s on native art — a mask that looked a lot like the Seahawks logo. But they had no idea where the mask might be found now.
It turned out that the mask was at the University of Maine's Hudson Museum. They loaned it to the Burke Museum in Seattle, where you have been able to see it since late November here.
Its original source was the Kwakwaka'wakw (aka Kwakiutl) tribe of the northern Vancouver Island region. This is a very special kind of mask, called a transformation mask, that was used in tribal ceremonies and in this case was used to invoke the power of the thunderbird, or eagle, spirit.
The religious beliefs of this tribe held that the great animal spirits came to earth at various times and transformed themselves into human shape. Thus, when a dancer opened up the mask at the key moment in the ceremony, this is what was revealed:
There is a spiritual power to the masks of the Kwakwaka'wakw, as anyone who has visited the awesome collection at the tribe's cultural center in Alert Bay, B.C., can tell you. You can scroll through them here.
This particular tribe and this symbology have deeper cultural resonance for us than most people realize. I write about it at the end of my forthcoming book, Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us:
Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology, got his start by spending time among the people who believed that the killer whales were their ancestors, the Kwakwaka’waka. It changed the world.
As a young man, Boas spent a great deal of time, between 1886 and 1890, off and on, in the Nort`hwest, collecting myths and legends and traveling among the various tribes that were scattered along the coastlines, mostly straggling remnants that had managed to survive the onslaught of smallpox and cholera that had nearly destroyed most coastal villages between 1800 and 1870. Over time, he became especially close to the Kwakwaka’waka (whose name, pronounced KWA-kwa-KEW-aka, Boas shortened to Kwakiutl). In 1892, he organized a delegation of fourteen of the tribe’s men and women to represent themselves in an exhibit of a mock cedar-longhouse village created for the Chicago World’s Fair, where they were gawked at by fairgoers.
Like the killer whales, the Kwakwaka’waka had a matrilineal familial and tribal structures. Boas eventually ascertained that this structure had evolved from patriarchal structures with men at the head, something that ran counter to then-popular theories about how cultures “naturally” evolved into patriarchies, which were seen as their highest development. Boas began to challenge these theories, arguing that instead of the biological forces that were popularly believed to drive human behavior, cultural forces were what make us tick.
In the end, after he had returned to Columbia University and founded the study of anthropology as an academic discipline there, the ideas Boas developed during his time among the Kwakiutl not only profoundly shaped academic thought, but they challenged the reigning worldview of the time: white supremacy, and its assorted pseudoscientific manifestations, particularly the fake “science” of racial purity known as eugenics. At the time, it was widely believed that there was a hierarchy of races and civilizations, with Western white society the supreme outcome of evolutionary forces. Tribesmen such as the Kwakwak’awaka were, in this view, hopelessly backward and primitive, scarcely capable of reasoned thought, let alone sophisticated art forms or other cultural expressions. In some eugenicist views, it was not even clear if they were fully human. Boas, himself a Jew who had observed the resemblance of the supremacist worldview to deepening anti-Semitism in his native Europe, had come to know from deep experience that this was utter bosh.
Boas’ theories, known popularly today as “multiculturalism,” held that cultures cannot be ranked higher or lower, advanced or primitive, superior or inferior; people form these judgments based on the biases inherent from their own cultural learning, he said. At the time, these ideas were widely ridiculed, but times have changed. Not only have Boas’ views completely replaced the old “biological racism” of his time and now hold sway throughout academia, but multiculturalism is also the dominant worldview of most modern democratic societies. White supremacy and its racist cohort are permanently discredited.
So, perhaps it is fitting that today we can turn to the same wellspring of transformative thought as a touchstone for examining not just our relationship with each other as humans, but our species’ relationship to the world in which we live and to the animals who inhabit it. We would do well to learn from the people who themselves have gleaned real wisdom from being in the world of whales.
The cornerstone of Kwakwaka’waka religious thought is the codependency of all of nature; no part of the natural order can exist without the rest. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency, whether for humans or their tribes, for animals or the supernatural beings whose powers they represent. Humans are somewhat naturally at the center of their universe, but they accept that all other members of their common world possess not just an indestructible and unique quality, but a spiritual and material parity in that world.
“Kwakiutl religion represents the concern of the people to occupy their own proper place within the total system of life, and to act responsibly within it, so as to acquire and control the powers that sustain life,” explained Boas’ student, Irving Goldman, in his study of the tribe's theology, The Mouth of Heaven. These concerns find their clearest expression in the mythology of animals and the supernatural beings who take their forms.
In the Kwakwaka’waka world, humans and animals have real kinship, reflected in the view of killer whales as their ancestors; they have social and spiritual ties that can never be severed. Indeed, they believe that when the tribesmen who hunt marine mammals die, they return to the undersea village of their orca ancestors. In this universe, humans are the recipients of powers, and the givers of those powers are the animals and the supernatural forces they represent. Of all the animals in their universe, the orca is the most powerful, one of the few (along with the raven, the otter, and the wolf) capable of giving a man enough power to become a shaman.
That's some awesome spiritual power that the Seahawks have tapped into. Unlike certain other NFL teams that will not be named, the Seahawks honor the Northwest Native culture from which they draw this power by drawing from Native art itself, instead of exploiting racist cartoon stereotypes.