Ceremonial Belt, unknown maker, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw. Wood, textile, paint, iron alloy, cordage. 39 7/8 x 11 1/4 x 1 7/8 in. (101.28 x 28.58 x 4.76 cm). Accessioned by the Field Columbian Museum in 1897. © The Field Museum, cat. no. 18863. Photographer John Weinstein.

From the Exhibition:
The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology

This ceremonial belt depicts a Sisiyutł, a fearsome double-headed serpent said to bestow supernatural powers on those with hereditary rights to it and to kill those who do not.1 It is also one the most important heraldic crests of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, belonging to multiple bands and ’na̱’mima (lineage groups). The Sisiyutł is depicted on a variety of art forms, including totem poles, house fronts and beams, settees (like the one in The Story Box exhibition), bowls and spoons, masks and headdresses, clothing, and ceremonial bows and belts.2

The front of this belt features a low-relief carving, likely in red cedar, of a humanoid face baring its teeth and surmounted by curved horns that designate supernatural beings. On either side of this face are bands of cotton fabric, painted with scalloped and hatched designs that represent the skin of the Sisiyutł, which attach to horned serpent heads with extended tongues. Toggle closures are tethered to the back of both serpent heads by yarn. When the belt is worn around the waist, the human face looks forward and the two serpents face backward (Sisiyutł headdresses often take similar form).

This belt is now in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum, although neither Boas’s 1897 book, The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, nor the museum’s records explain exactly how it arrived there. Between 1891 and 1892, George Hunt collected more than 365 Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw objects for display at the World’s Columbian Exposition, in addition to coordinating a visiting troupe.3 However, Hunt’s extant shipping lists only include one object (a “staff”) noted as depicting a Sisiyutł and mentions no belts or bows.4 It is possible that the belt was brought by one of the troupe members and sold to Hunt or Boas at the fair itself. Most of the Northwest Coast items assembled before or during the Exposition were not officially catalogued by the Field Museum until later, between 1895 and 1897, and this obscured details of their acquisition in many cases. In addition, Hunt didn’t document his own collection for the fair very well, as Boas had not yet trained him to record detailed provenance for the ceremonial regalia he purchased.

In fact the belt is pictured in Plate 15 of Boas’s 1897 book being worn by a dancer at the Exposition, although the fairground context was carefully removed for publication and is not indicated in the caption or accompanying text (Figs. 1–3).

1 of 3
Fig. 1. Plate 15 from Boas’s 1897 book.
Fig. 2. G̱wayułalas performing a dance at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Seated behind him, left to right: Xwani, Tom Hemasi’lakw, Hix̱haisaga̱mi, Exu’las(?), Chicago Jim(?), Iwanuxwdzi, John Wanukw. Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM # 93-1-10/100266.1.35.
Fig. 3. This hand-painted print was the basis for the book’s Plate 15. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, INV 000697.00 SPC.

The anonymous dancer is staring intently into the camera while pulling the string on a long Sisiyutł bow taut.5 Boas used the altered photograph to illustrate how the ceremonial crests and regalia worn by chiefs refer to ancestral narratives of particular lineages, in this case the “Haa’naleno clan,” according to the picture caption. Years later, in the 1920s, Hunt noted the following for Plate 15:

sēsEyoʟ̣ łEk!wes
Double Head snake Bow

sełEx̣sdege wEᵋsē´gāᵋnos q!ānē´qēᵋlākw -

Double Head snake Belt on waist of
Born to face any thing Hard or toff
this man who use them is gwEᵋyołElas
of the nE´qEm´gElī´sEla.6

Hunt’s notes reveal that the dancer’s name was G̱wayułalas, who was connected to the Ha’a̱nadłeno ’na’mima with rights to the specific hereditary regalia he wore. G̱wayułalas died shortly after returning to Vancouver Island from Chicago (possibly from the measles).7

Leela Outcalt, Senior Collections Caretaker in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, participated in the course given by professor (and curator of this exhibition) Aaron Glass, entitled In Focus: Native Arts of the Northwest Coast—Ethnography, Museums, and Conservation. She will complete her MA this spring.

1.Aldona Jonaitis, ed., Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch (New York: American Museum of Natural History) 90; “Education: Sisiyutł,” Living Tradition: The Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw Potlatch on the Northwest Coast, Virtual Museum of Canada/U’mista Cultural Centre (https://umistapotlatch.ca/enseignants-education/cours_7-lesson_7-eng.php).

2.Boas pictured other Sisiyutł belts in The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians (Washington, DC: U.S. National Museum, 1897) 370, 514. The exhibition’s settee, depicted on page 371 in Boas’s 1897 book, is in the American Museum of Natural History (16/7964).

3.Douglas Cole, Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985) 124.

4.George Hunt, “Shipping list, 1891” 2, Accession 61: George Hunt, Oct. 31, 1897, WCE Dept. of Ethnology Gift, Ft. Rupert, Field Museum Department of Anthropology Archives, Chicago, IL.

5.The Sisiyutł bow pictured in the Plate 15 is also at the Field Museum (18856).

6.George Hunt, “Kwakiutl Materials” [unpublished manuscripts], Franz Boas Collection of Materials for American Linguistics (497.3 B63c W1a.3), American Philosophical Society [APS], Philadelphia, PA.

7.Judith Berman, personal communication. Chief Mungo Martin had also identified Gwayułalas in this photo around 1960 (Bill Holm, personal communication).