Why were Winter Ceremonials performed by Northwest Native Americans?

In the spring and summer, most Northwest Native Americans could catch and preserve enough fish to feed them throughout the rest of the year.

This left groups such as the Kwakiutl, Bella Bella, and the Tsimshian free to devote winter months to staging elaborate ceremonies. Through these ceremonies, the Native Americans performed dances that told stories about the supernatural beings they believed controlled the universe.

Winter ceremonials were staged to create high drama and often made use of special effects that rival modern theater productions. Menacing ghost spirits that seemed to dance without human assistance were in fact marionettes, their strings invisible in the soft, ceremonial light.

The eyes of the evil, child-eating Dzonkwa, which seemed to pop out of her face, were actually sheep eyes that before the ceremony had been planted in the hair of the dancer depicting her. And one spirit-creature suddenly appeared to turn into another with the help of brilliantly designed “transformation masks,” whose moving parts allowed dancers to reveal one mask hidden behind another.

Winter ceremonials featured spirited dances that relayed stories of the supernatural. Noted photographer Edward Curtis immortalized a dramatic moment in the Hamatsa Dance, depicting the Cannibal emerging from the woods.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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