Artist: Bob Harris
Returned From: Canadian Museum of Civilization, VII.E.588
Materials: wood, cedar; fibre, cotton; hair, horse; metal, copper; feathers
The Bak´was is a diminutive, but authoritative character about half the size of a grown man. He has a hooked nose that curves to touch the upper lip of a usually open mouth and a hairy, green body. His name translates into, “man-of-the-ground embodiment” in English. Bak´was, who lives in the country of ghosts, is the Chief of the woodsmen and keeper of drowned souls. If an individual is lost in the woods, or while traveling in a canoe, and happens to come upon a Bak´was, the creature will offer what appears to be dried salmon, but is actually rotten wood, maggots, snakes or lizards. If this offering is eaten, the person immediately turns into a ghost and becomes a member of the Bak´was entourage forever. Bak´was sometimes leaves the dark forest and travels to isolated beaches where he digs for another of his favourite foods, dzoli or cockles. Bak´was is sometimes called, “The Cockle Hunter” or “Chief of the Ghosts” or “ Hunter of the Night.” Because Bak´was is a shy creature and in one sense afraid of humans, the performer often holds his forearm up to hide his masked face from observers. Bak´was can appear in both the T´seka and Tüa’sala. The first mentioned is higher in rank. The dancer appears wearing a mask representing this supernatural being and a hair-covered costume along with hemlock rings, wrist and ankle bands acknowledging the forest as the dwelling place of the Bak´was.
Interesting note: Duncan Campbell Scott, the Canadian Superintendent General of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, played a major role in the systemic destruction of First Nations’ cultures. It is ironic that the man who championed the anti-potlatch legislation that led to the removal of sacred Kwak´wala potlatch regalia from its community of origin kept this confiscated Bak´was mask in his office for his own enjoyment.