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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Carpe Fin

Photo: Michael Nicol Yahgulanaas

Carpe Fin


Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

First Nations, Haida, born 1954

An ancient Haida oral account—told with embellishments unique to each storyteller—inspired the intricate story depicted here.

After years in the city, Carpenter returns to his village to find little fuel or food—the world is out of balance. He locates a canoe, makes a spear, and hunts sea lions, an indigenous food. The weather turns bad, and Carpenter is left on Lord’s Rock. In the two center sheets, Carpenter plunges into the watery realm of the Lord (the blue masked figure with the fin), who chastises him for killing his “women” (the sea lions). These sheets, outlined in red and referencing the carved headdress nearby, frame a moment of transition where Carpenter loses his humanity and life.

In the last two sheets, Carpenter rejoins the living, emerging from a sea lion carcass. Again encountering scarcity, he builds vessels that indiscriminately catch sea life and damage the ocean ecosystem. To make up for this failure, he then returns to ancestral and sustainable methods, such as fish weirs carved from cedar. A new understanding prompts a feast attended by the Lord himself, and Carpenter rides away on a whale’s back to Lord’s Rock.

Carpe fin means “seize the end.” What might that mean as a framing for this modern tale?
Watercolor and ink on handmade Japanese paper
Each sheet: 39 2/5 x 78 3/4 in.
Overall: 6.5 x 19.7 ft
Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, The MacRae Foundation and Karen Jones
Provenance: The artist
Photo: Michael Nicol Yahgulanaas
Not currently on view


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: Carpe Fin, Nov. 1, 2019 - Nov. 1, 2020.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

Learn more about Equity at SAM