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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Dlam (interior housepost)

Photo: Susan Cole

Dlam (interior housepost)

ca. 1907

Arthur Shaughnessy (Hemasilakw)

Native American, Kwakwaka'wakw, Dzawada'enuxw, Kingcome Inlet, 1884 - 1945

This house post is one of a pair of house posts carved from the straight-grained heartwood of the western red cedar. The house posts were once positioned at the rear of a great house erected in 1915 by John Scow of the Gwa'yasdams village on the central British Columbia coast. In addition to these two posts, a pair of posts also flanked the entrance to the house. Some time after all four posts were erected, a special dedication potlatch was held to validate the long-ago origins of the Scow family. This history would include descriptions of the place where the first ancestor settled and the connections of the ancestors to powerful mythic beings, including stories of great deeds that brought them into contact with the supernatural beings depicted on the posts.

Symbolically, this esteemed family lineage supports the house. These posts, positioned at the rear of the house, depict supernatural thunderbirds (called kolus) with outstretched wings, perched atop a crouching bear.
Red cedar, paint
180 x 132 x 34 in. (457.2 x 335.28 x 86.36 cm)
Gift of John H. Hauberg
Provenance: Chief John Scow (Minlass), Gwa'yasdam village, Gilford Island, British Columbia; Chief William Scow (his son), Gwa'yasdam village, Gilford Island, British Columbia, until 1966; John H. Hauberg, Seattle, Washington, 1966-1982; Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington
Photo: Susan Cole
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

The Story of the House Posts Before They Came to SAM

House posts at the Pacific Science Center, 82.169.1-2
House posts at the Pacific Science Center, 82.168.1-2
House posts at the Pacific Science Center, 82.168.1-2
Codfish Mask, ca. 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.1
Bakwus Mask, ca. 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.2
Porcupine Mask, ca. 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.3
Kingfisher Mask, 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.4
Grizzly Bear Mask, ca. 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.6
Deer Mask, ca. 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.7
Mouse Woman Mask, ca. 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.8
Raccoon Mask, ca. 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.9
Wolf Mask, ca. 1970-71, Sam Johnson, SC2006.10

If We Don't Potlatch, Our Hearts Will Break

The public display of a family's privileges-songs, stories, and dances-is a necessary demonstration of social status and inheritance of those privileges generation to generation. In the words of one elder, "The potlatch is our court of law and it is where we transact important business," like giving names to our children, transacting marriages, installing new leaders and passing down family treasures. (George Bennett)

The Potlatch

Potlatch is term of Chinook jargon that means "to give." It refers to a complex ceremony that is important throughout Northwest Coast and involves sharing wealth and maintaining the social and political position of leaders. Some of the reasons to stage a potlatch include raising house posts or totem poles, naming children, passing down family dances and songs, marriages and memorials. Guests are invited to witness the proceedings and receive gifts as payment for their services as witnesses. Witnessing is crucial to the event because it serves to confirm that the family hosting the potlatch does indeed have the right to the dances, songs, masks and other treasures that are displayed during the potlatch. New masks are carved, regalia made, and the skills of many artists, singers, composers and dancers are engaged.

The host family, with the valued assistance of many relatives, assembles the food for feasting and the goods to be given as gifts. In times before contact with westerners, gifts might include food, carved boxes and bowls, headdresses, jewelry, basketry and weavings. After contact, gift-giving sometimes reached elaborate levels and could involve cash, bags of flour, boxes of pilot bread, enamel and glass kitchen wares, sewing machines, furniture, piles of Hudson's Bay Company wool blankets and even diesel-powered boats. In the modern era, gifts include cash and Pendleton-type blankets for special guests, food, fruit, dishes, towels, scarves and sometimes hand-crocheted items and silkscreen prints. A large potlatch can cost many thousands of dollars and, in the old days, last from several days to several weeks.

During the nineteenth century, potlatching was discouraged by missionaries who deemed it a heathen practice, by Indian agents who wanted to assimilate Natives and be certain that children were in school, and by employers who needed a reliable work force. The Canadian government passed legislation in 1885 that banned the potlatch, a restriction that was not lifted until 1951.
A display of articles to be given away at a potlatch, Alert Bay, BC, early 20th century, William May Halliday
British Columbia Archives, H-03976

What Is a Crest?

Crests are hereditary family emblems that represent supernatural entities or mythic ancestors whose deeds and powers established the histories of the families. The representation of clan and family crests on ceremonial regalia (such as masks) and monumental sculpture (such as house posts) is fundamental to Northwest Coast Native culture. The display of crests demonstrates one's history, wealth and rank and links living people to their ancestors. Crests can be transferred through marriage and, in former times, were acquired in warfare.

The kolus, a type of supernatural thunderbird seen prominently on these posts, is said to have descended in myth time from his celestial home in human form and to have married a descendant of the Scow family. That is why the family can claim the kolus as a crest.
Detail of thunderbird, 82.169.1


Bill Holm, Professor Emeritus of Art History and Curator Emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, discusses function & design of NW coast house posts
Bill Holm, Professor Emeritus of Art History and Curator Emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, describes the orientation of SAM's house posts
Bill Holm talks about potlatch ban


Published ReferencesThe Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Native Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection, Seattle Art Museum, 1995, pg. 250

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures, London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, p. 28

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

Learn more about Equity at SAM