Old Woman's Spirit Mask

This mask was used during healing ceremonies and represents a spirit the íxť controlled.

This is a very elaborate mask depicting an old woman. There is a double row of spirits that are carved on her forehead bordered by a land otter on one side and a pair of smaller land otters on the other side. On each cheek is a land otter and a frog is coming out of the mouth. There is sheet copper eyebrows and nostrils. Russian buttons make up her eyes. The labret helps form her lower lip which the frog sits on, and it is the labret that helps us identify this as a an old woman.

This mask was owned by a Kaagwaantaan íxť from Hoonah. The Kaagwaantaan are one of the four original clans that make up Xunaa Kaáwu, the indigenous people from Glacier Bay. The mask was collected by George T. Emmonds and was likely made around 1800. The mask is 32.5cm (12.8 in) tall x 21cm (8.25 in) wide and is probably carved from Red Alder since this was preferred because it is durable, takes detail and wears well. When green this is an easy wood to carve and takes detail well. Once Red Alder cures it is a difficult wood to work with as it exhibits its’ hardwood characteristics.

The photographs showing the side angles of the mask were taken during a Huna Heritage Foundation staff site visit to the National Museum of the American Indian object collections. We wanted to show other portions of the mask.

Cultural Narrative: 

This mask was used by an íxť to impersonate the spirit of an old woman that he controlled during healing ceremonies. This mask is covered with shamanic symbolism.

Traditional Knowledge: 

An ĺxť would call forth spirit helpers to help with healing the sick. In addition, land otters and frogs were also powerful spiritual creatures that could also be summoned for help. Of all the creatures an íxť would work with, the land otter was the most powerful and feared. Overall this is a very powerful ĺxt’ mask.


Carved and painted wood and copper mask representing the spirit of old woman with frog spirit coming out of the mouth; on either cheek is land otter and on forehead many land spirits, land otters and frogs. Russian buttons for eyes; copper nose;


Formerly owned by a shaman of the Kagwanton family who died in 1878; acquired by Lieutenant George T. Emmons (1852-1945, US Navy 1881-1899) at an unknown date; purchased by MAI from George T. Emmons in 1920 with funds donated by MAI trustees James B. Ford (1844-1928) and Harmon W. Hendricks (1846-1928).


And then more in a separate note: "Very remarkable mask of wood which was the property of Scah-tin-ah a very old shaman of the Ka-qwan-ton family, of the Hoonah tribe, living at Gan-dah-kan, Chickigof Island, Alaska. He died in 1878 when I attended the funeral ceremonies as one of the family. The mask was used in his practice and represents a spirit that he personated when he wore it. It represents the spirit of an old woman which is indicated by the very large labret in the lower lip. A frog spirit is coming out of the mouth. On either cheek is carved a land otter. On the forehead are carved many spirits, land otters, and frog. This was a very celebrated piece and the most elaborate mask I ever saw among the Tlingit. It is ornamented with copper, and the eyes are of old Russian bottoms."