Dzunuk'wa Mask by Calvin Hunt
Hand-carved in red cedar, this oversized mask is painted in black and red acrylic. Horsehair adorns the face. The inside of the mask has a foam mount that enabled this mask to be danced. The mask is approximately 24" (62cm) in length, 18½" (47cm) wide, and 12" (31cm) in depth.
In story, ceremony and art, Dzunuk'wa is larger than life. Calvin Hunt’s sizeable Dzunuk'wa mask reflects the magnitude and import of this supernatural being that has appeared for centuries in Kwakwaka’wakw culture and continues to the present day.
This mask, worn in Calvin Hunt’s 2019 potlatch in Fort Rupert, was painted differently and used as a Wind Chief in the presentation of “Earthquake.” As Calvin Hunt explained, “It originally was a Dzunuk’wa, then I used it as a Wind Chief, and then I made it back into a Dzunuk’wa! This practice is often done in our potlatches.”
Sometimes referred to as a “Giant of the Woods” or “Wild Woman of the Woods,” Dzunuk'wa is a female member of a large family of giants who resided in far-away mountains and forests. Often described as an “ogress,” this supernatural creature appears with a black body, her head covered with bushy unkempt hair, large ears on the sides of her head and pendulous breasts. Dzunuk'wa is hairy like a bear and her mask-like face has recessed eyes, hollowed cheeks, and pursed protruding lips. From outside the big house, on the forest side, you can hear her coming: she cries, “Huuu! Huuu!”
Dzunuk'wa is a terrifying and threatening being who roams the forest and steals children who have disobediently wandered into the woods. She covers their eyes with pitch, puts them in a huge basket on her back, and takes them back to her home where she eats them. The children usually outwit her because she is nearsighted, vain, not very bright, and clumsy. Still, the story is a deterrent to anyone venturing too far away from the village.
Occasionally she may be festooned with hemlock decorations, symbols of her deep forest home. As a dancer, Dzunuk'wa comes into the big house as a lumbering shaggy creature with half-closed eyes She may appear in both the Tła’sala (Peace Dance) or the Tseka (Red Cedar Bark) ceremonies. In the T’seka she never seems awake enough to dance the normal 4 circuits around the fire. She stagers around the central fire in the wrong direction. She may pause from time to time to scoop something from the floor and swing her arms over her head as if to deposit something in her basket. She is usually weary and rubs her sleepy eyes. She sometimes falls asleep even as she is circumnavigating the dance floor. When she’s escorted to her seat, she generally falls asleep.
Dzunuk'wa can also be a benevolent being, bestowing some of her treasures on those fortunate enough to befriend her—gifts such as a self-paddling canoe, good fortune, or even K’wala’sta, the “Water of Life” that could restore health and even bring the dead back to life. Dzunuk'wa is also a bringer of wealth, a role that is emphasized in some ceremonies when she carries a basket of coppers to be distributed by a Chief or broken for a rival chief. Used as a crest, she is associated with great wealth and power.—Carol Sheehan—