David Neel - Artist.

The Kingdom of the Endangered Animals


When people think of masks they may imagine of a facade or a disguise to hide a person’s identity; this is not the case with NCN masks which represent tribal history through symbolism. This approach to history is unique to NCN people, as embodied in the potlatch system, where history in told in song and dance. The characters, the legends, the songs and right to display them are a prerogative that is handed down from generation to generation. Symbolic and representational, the masks chronicle history, both past and present, in a non-written format. Of the legends that are performed in Kwakiutl big-houses one of the most dramatic is the Kingdom of the Animals. The concise version of the legend: A young boy is reproached by his father, who is the chief of the village; humiliated he walks deep into the forest where he has a vision in which he is shown a Kingdom where the animals talk and act like people. They learn of his dishonor and feel sympathy for him; he is given supernatural powers and taught their songs and dances, and then he returns to his village to find that he has been away not for a few days but four years. He is welcomed by his father and his family and in time he becomes a great chief. When performed in a big-house up to 30 masks are danced together to reenact the legend.

  • “If the legends fall silent, who will teach the children of our ways? ” — Chief Dan George

  • “It does not require many words to speak the truth.” — Chief Joseph

  • “Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” — Chief Seattle


This exhibition will display a contemporary version of the Kingdom of the Animals: 25 masks that depict endangered species of animals from North America. This will be a modern extension of the traditional masks that have been danced in coastal big-houses for generations. The masks will be exhibited and they will be used for a contemporary Kwakiutl dance performance at the opening event; a video will be taken of the performance that will be shared on a website created for the project. David began carving contemporary masks after researching the art of the early NCN masters with the support of the Canada Council and a Community Scholar Grant from the Smithsonian Institution. He visited and studied the major public collections of NCN art, such as: the British Museum, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Chicago Field Museum among others. He realized that there was a tradition of carving masks that depict contemporary events and issues. The master carvers of old created masks which depicted people and events of their time, such as: a dance frontlet of a chief’s late daughter, a portrait mask of a contemporary chief, a mask representing starvation and a portrait mask of the captain of a fur trading ship. This inspired Neel to carve masks that depicted contemporary issues, such as: the Nuclear Disaster Mask, Residential School Mask and Mask of the Injustice System. This experience is a good foundation for this project - to contemporize a traditional Kwakiutl legend through masks and performance.