Native American coppers of the Northwest Coast
© 1999 Don Macnaughtan
Copper Ethnographies no. 1
What is a Northwest Coast copper?
Willie Seaweed’s “Long top” copper
The copper “Causing Destitution”
Coppers from the Canadian Museum of Civilization
Franz Boas on the copper ritual of the Kwakiutl
The “Paalen” Copper
The Brooklyn Museum’s Haida copper
The Brooklyn Museum’s “Copper Breaker”
A Copper in Belgium
Harry Assu’s “Quluma” copper
Mungo Martin’s “Great Killer Whale” copper
Wilson Duff’s history of “Great Killer Whale”
Some images of coppers and their owners
What is a Northwest Coast copper?
The tlakwa or Copper is a symbol of surplus wealth, cultural nourishment, conspicuous consumption and spiritual power among the Kwakiutl, the Tsimshian, the Tlingit, the Haida, and other indigenous peoples of coastal British Columbia. Names of high ranking people often contained references to copper, such as “Born to be Copper Maker Woman” and “Copper Maker.” Copper was also used as a decorative motif on garments, staffs, and crest carvings, where it represented wealth. Copper was also considered to possess magical properties affecting human health.
The Copper was made of a large flat sheet of beaten metal cut in the shape of a flared shield, with a T shaped ridge beaten onto the lower portion. The shape perhaps reflects the trunk proportions of the human body, or possibly a filleted salmon. The Tsimshian thought it represented the backbone of an ancestor. The size varied in height from six inches to three feet.
It is possible that pre-contact societies made Coppers out of native ores, but none of these survive. The real impetus for the cultural development of the Copper was the appearance of European trading ships on the Northwest coast in the 1790s. Sheet copper (some of it derived from the copper cladding on ships’ hulls) soon became a prized trade item for all the coastal peoples from Alaska to Vancouver Island.
Traditional Coppers were named by engraving the conventionalized face of a crest animal onto a black background. Generally the Copper was painted in black lead, and the crest design engraved through the black coating. Coppers often had animal names such as “Beaver Face”, “Sea Lion”, “Bear Face”, or the illustrious “Great Killer Whale.” Other coppers reflected economic transactions, such as “Other Coppers Are Ashamed To Look At It” and “Making The House Empty Of Blankets.” Coppers were traditionally valued in numbers of blankets, the most prestigious being worth several thousand blankets.
The Copper was essential in the potlatch economy of the Kwakiutl, Haida, Tlingit, Bella Coola (Nuxalk) and Tsimshian peoples. The oral tradition of the these peoples “recorded” economic transactions through the Copper. The particular history of each Copper served to document some of the most important events and transactions engaged in during the life of its present and past owners. They were brought out to climax a potlatch, and formed an important part of marriage and dowry ceremonies. In naming ceremonies, the Copper and the child were given their names at the same time, with the Copper considered the child’s “blanket.” The Copper was valued at the actual price of its last purchase; new purchasers strove to invest more property in it than the previous owner, and thus gain stature.
Coppers portrayed in pictographs at Petley Point, Kingcome inlet
It was possible for a chief to break up a Copper, destroying the integrity of the crest design. He would then offer the broken pieces to a rival chief, who was then obliged to break a Copper of equal or higher value. Any rival who could not compete in this way would suffer great humiliation. Chiefs were also reported to have thrown the pieces or even the entire Copper into the sea, thereby trumping all rivals. Amongst the Tsimshian, the followers of a dead chief would buy a very valuable Copper and break it up, distributing the pieces to other chiefs as his “bones.”
The Copper represented a strategic complex and nexus of intense values: tradition, power, prestige, honor, wealth, and story-telling.
The decline in population due to death from infectious diseases created an uncertain ranking order amongst the coastal British Columbia peoples. The competitive potlatches of the 19th and 20th centuries were the cultural vehicle used to rebuild order. The value of the Copper was described by the number of Hudson’s Bay blankets accepted in its purchase. Today, the wealth exchanged in connection with a Copper is in the form of cash, not blankets. Nonetheless, values such as the prestige of the family and the proper use of a Copper in ceremony have been maintained.
Despite what we know about the uses of the Copper, they are something of a mystery. According to Martine de Widerspach-Thor, “Coppers are indeed an ethnological puzzle. We know something about their multiple functions, but their origin and their unique shape are still a mystery. Few attempts have been made to interpret…what seem strangely formed plaques of worked copper.”
The term Copper is generally used, but “copper shield” is sometimes found, although somewhat inaccurate. In Kwakiutl Coppers are called tlakwa, in Tlingit tinneh (plate) or yek (metal), in Tsimshian ha’yatask, and in Haida taow.
Beynon, William, and James Lewis. “The Purchase of the Nahuhulk.” Tsimshian Narratives 2. Ed. George F. MacDonald and John J. Cove. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1987. 38-52. Print.
Boas, Franz. Ethnology of the Kwakiutl. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology, 1921. 883.
Boas, Franz. The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. Washington: U.S. National Museum, 1897. 344.
Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch. Ed. Aldona Jonaitis. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991. 41.
De Widerspach-Thor, Martine. “The Equation of Copper: In Memory of Wilson Duff.” The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff. Ed. Donald N. Abbott. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1981. 157-174. Print.
Duff, Wilson. “The Killer Whale Copper: A Chief’s Memorial to His Son.” The World Is as Sharp as a Knife: An Anthology in Honour of Wilson Duff. Ed. Donald N. Abbott. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1981. 153-156. Print.
Holm, Bill. Smoky-Top: The Art and Times of Willie Seaweed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983. 62.
Ickes, Karl J. “A Study of the Coppers of Northwest Coast Native Americans and the Issue of Their Origins and Antecedents.” Thesis (M.A.) Western Washington University, 1999. Print. 78p.
Jopling, Carol F. The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians: Their Origin, Development, and Possible Antecedents. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Soc., 1989. Print.
Keithahn, E. L. “Origin of the ‘Chief’s Copper’ or ‘Tinneh’.” Alaska University Anthropological Papers 12.2 (1964): 59-78. Print.
Rickard, T. A. “The Use of Iron and Copper by the Indians of B.C.” British Columbia Historical Quarterly 3 (1939): 25-50. Print.
Witthoft, J., and F. Eyman. “Metallurgy of the Tlingit, Dene and Eskimo.” Expedition 11.3 (1969): 12-23. Print.
Willie Seaweed’s Galgatu (Long Top)
This famous Copper is known as Galgatu (Long Top), and has been reconstructed around the T-shaped raised ridge of a very old, broken Copper. This Copper was at some point reduced to just the ridge ( ga’las), and then reconstructed twice over the decades. It is therefore extremely valuable. According to Boas, the Copper was sold in the early part of the century for the incredible sum of 9,000 blankets (1).
The surface of this work has been painted in the unique black and silvery gray color combination which Willie Seaweed liked to use. Lines were then etched through the paint, revealing the copper beneath (2).
Coppers have traditionally been engraved on a black background in the form of a conventionalized face which represents the original owner’s crest animal (3). With Long Top, the animal has a unique combination of stylized human and bird features. Nobody is sure what animal this engraving might depict.
Willie Seaweed with Galgatu (left), 1955
Photo by Wilson Duff
Two pieces have been broken off the Copper, thereby accentuating its value. The upper left corner and the entire right half of the face have been cut away. Bill Holm has been able to work out the chronology of these cuts by examining old photographs. The Copper was still whole when displayed around 1939 at Village Island. In the 1955 photo above, the right section is missing, and since then the small square section from the upper left-hand corner has been cut out (4).
In 1953, at a potlatch held at Gilford Island, Willie Seaweed was known to have broken one of his Coppers, perhaps the right side of Long Top (5).
This Copper was not broken up according to the customary pattern. According to Boas, the Copper was traditionally first broken at the upper right, then the lower left, followed by the upper left and finally the lower right side (6).
“The Copper still plays a significant role in the life of the contemporary Kwakiutl, but the rivalries played out through these works of art may not be so fierce as those of the past…[now] the breaking of Coppers is not permitted at all within the ceremonial house at Alert Bay, because it would be considered a hostile act comparable to wishing some one dead…The wealth exchanged in connection with contemporary Coppers is now in the form of cash, not blankets. Nonetheless, values such as the prestige of the family and the proper use of a copper in ceremony have been maintained. Furthermore, Long Top was valued not only for the price most recently paid for it, but for its title as well. The progress of this copper, as it has been displayed by the Seaweed family on significant social occasions, has punctuated the life-cycles of its various members.” (7)
More information on the life of Wille Seaweed.
1. Boas, Franz. Ethnology of the Kwakiutl. Washington: Bureau of American Ethnology, 1921. 883.
2. Holm, Bill. Smoky-Top: The Art and Times of Willie Seaweed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983. 62.
3. Boas, Franz. The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. Washington: U.S. National Museum, 1897. 344.
4. Holm, Bill. Smoky-Top: The Art and Times of Willie Seaweed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983. 62.
5. Duff, Wilson. The Killer Whale Copper: A Chief’s Memorial to His Son. Victoria, BC: British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1961.
6. Boas, Franz. The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. Washington: U.S. National Museum, 1897. 354.
7. Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch. Ed. Aldona Jonaitis. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991. 41.
This is my own copper which I acquired in Victoria, British Columbia in 1998. It is a small undecorated Copper around 30cm tall, and beautifully crafted in the traditional style. Even these modern Coppers are now difficult to find, and rarely appear in Victoria or Vancouver galleries. Traditional Coppers are unobtainable.
It was made by Ed McDougall (Tlakwa’gila), a descendant of Chief John Scow of the Kwicksuitaineuk, who live in the mainland inlets opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Ed’s mother Christine grew up in the “Raven” bighouse on Gilford Island which was later sold to a Seattle museum. She did not speak English until she attended the Residential School in Alert Bay. Ed and his family are presently rebuilding the Raven bighouse in Alert Bay, and he also took part in the voyage of the Galuda canoe from Alert Bay to Bella Bella.
Ed has carved for twenty years and some of his art has been used in recent potlatches. He is well known for his canoes and paddles as well as bowls, spoons and wooden copper carving. Recently he has focused on these traditional Coppers made from sheet metal.
The story of the Copper known as “Causing Destitution”
Some coppers acquired mythic status. Among the Nimpkish Kwakiutl who lived at Alert Bay, near Fort Rupert, there was a legend of a copper called “Causing Destitution”, which had ruined everyone who had attempted to claim it. The first owner sold it for 10 slaves, 10 canoes, and 10 blankets of lynx fur. Somebody tried to rob the new owner, who was murdered in the attempt. The next owner also died a violent death trying to hold onto “Causing Destitution”. Everyone who handled the copper was reputed to meet a ghastly doom, but it continued to soar in value. Its price apparently peaked at 20 canoes, 20 slaves, 100 painted boxes, and 200 cedar blankets. Nobody knows where the copper is today, or whether it continues to plow its path of destruction.
Some other notable Coppers
A large Haida copper decorated with a double-headed Eagle (not a traditional Haida crest but adopted from the Imperial Russian form of this bird, introduced by Russian fur traders in Alaska). Collected from Skedans before 1900 by Charles F. Newcombe.
This very large Haida copper shield (117 cm. high) once belonged to Albert Edward Edenshaw. He was a talented shield engraver and sold his decorated coppers as far south as the Fraser River. This copper portrays his female Grizzly Bear crest. Purchased from Mary Yaltatse of Masset in 1970.
Painted in the mid-1800s by a resident of Fort Simpson, Fred Alexcee. A man in a bear costume displays a copper shield, while performing at a feast. The bear probably was the crest of the chief holding the feast.
Franz Boas on the copper ritual of the Kwakiutl
“The trade is discussed and arranged long beforehand. When the buyer is ready, he gives to the owner of the copper blankets about one-sixth of the total value of the copper. This is called “making a pillow” for the copper; or “making a feather bed” or “the harpoon line at which game is hanging,” meaning that in the same manner the copper is attached to the long line of blankets; or “taken in hand, in order to lift the copper.” The owner of the copper loans these blankets out, and when he has called them in again, he repays the total amount received, with 100 per cent interest, to the purchaser.
“On the following day the tribes assemble for the sale of the copper. The prescribed proceeding is as follows: the buyer offers first the lowest prices at which the copper was sold. The owner declares that he is satisfied, but his friends demand by degrees higher and higher prices, according to all the previous sales of the copper….
“Finally, the amount offered is deemed satisfactory. Then the owner asks for boxes to carry away the blankets. These are counted five pairs a box, and are also paid in blankets or other objects. After these have been paid, the owner of the copper calls his friends – members of his own tribe – to rise, and asks for a belt, which he values at several hundred blankets. While these are being brought, he and his tribe generally repair to the house, where they paint their faces and dress in new blankets. When they have finished, drums are beaten in the house, they shout “hi!” and go out again, the speaker of the seller first. As soon as the latter has left the house, he turns and calls his chief to come down, who goes back to where the sale is going on, followed by his tribe They all stand in a row and the buyer puts down the blankets which were demanded as a belt, “to adorn the owner of the copper.” This whole purchase is called “putting the copper under the name of the buyer.”
“On the following day all the blankets which have been paid for the copper must be distributed by the owner among his own tribe, paying to them his old debts first, and, if the amount is sufficient, giving new presents. This is called “doing a great thing.”
Source: Boas, Franz, and George Hunt. The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp, 1970. 345. Print.
The “Paalen” copper
“Coppers have been shaped into this characteristic form and employed to represent great amounts of wealth by Northwest Coast tribal leaders over a period spanning unknown centuries. Such objects are said to have been made originally of native placer copper from the Copper River region of south central Alaska. The origin of the copper’s enigmatic form has been postulated by scholars such as Lt. George T. Emmons, though its true development is unknown. When Euro-American contact at the start of the fur trade in the late 18th century brought large amounts of sheet copper to the coast, the making of numerous copper artifacts was greatly facilitated. Early sailing vessels employed a full sheathing of thin copper (and also carried repair stock) as an antifoulant for their wooden hulls. Commercial ships began to bring loose copper sheet (in heavier weights) specifically for trade as soon as the Native demand for it was realized. Many examples of these uniquely shaped symbols of wealth are extant in museums and private collections around the world, though only a small percentage of these are decorated with such a finely conceived and executed upper design area as this large and elegant piece.”
“The always present T-shaped ridge is known as the “backbone” of the copper, and is formed by bending and hammering the sheet into this characteristic form. This term comes from Kwakwala, the language of the Kwakiutl, whose tradition it is to ceremonially cut pieces from the upper and lower faces of the copper and to challenge a rival with them to test their foundation of wealth. Some Kwakiutl coppers have been cut away until only the central T-ridge, or backbone, remains, which is then sometimes riveted onto a new copper sheet that continues the life of the original copper. The minor cracking at the apex of the T-ridge on this piece probably came about from the work-hardening of the metal during the hammering and forming process. The “face” of the copper is typically bulged out in this form, creating a beautifully sculptural aspect to the overall form of the objects. The edges of the copper are also typically hammered edgewise to increase their thickness, a process known as upsetting the metal.”
“This fine example appears to have been painted black, and the negative design areas engraved through and scraped off to expose the copper surface beneath, a common technique for producing a design form on the copper’s face. On some examples of these objects, the lower quarter panels are also decorated in this fashion, though this is not the case here. The image on the face of this copper is very smoothly and elegantly designed in a formline style that suggests a mid-19th century origin. The thin formlines, arching of the mouth and eye socket forms and certain design relationships are representative of artists’ styles that developed in this period. The execution of design shapes and selection of secondary design forms suggest most strongly a Haida style influence, though many of these characteristics are shared by artists from the Coast Tsimshian/Nishga region of the northern British Columbia mainland. The design exhibits the clear and precise control of form and flow within the image that indicates the hand of a very accomplished artist.”
“The image on this copper features a broad head area spanning the width of the object’s face, with a box design-type arrangement of a body area and an animal’s claws in the lower design field. The actual representation depicted is a somewhat ambiguous one, though aspects of the design tend to suggest a bird image. There are no teeth or mammal-like nostrils depicted, and the turning down of the secondary U-shapes at the center of the mouth may represent the tip of a bird’s beak. The feet or claws also are formed in a way that suggests a bird’s delicate talons. The tall U-shape with large negative circles within it may represent the figure’s vertebrae.”
Source: Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection. Cooperstown: Fenimore Art Museum, 2010. 344-345. Print.
A copper from the collection of the National Bank of Belgium
This old Kwakiutl copper was acquired at auction by the Belgian National Bank in 1997, and now forms part of their collection of monetary objects. It was originally part of the Wellman Collection. The copper has been cut on the top left quadrant, thereby enhancing its value – this is the conventional pattern for cutting a copper. There is also evidence of riveting along the top cut – another common practice. Some coppers were cut down to just the backbone, then graduallly riveted back together. The spiritual and economic power of these pieces was beyond calculation.
The Brooklyn Museum’s Haida copper
This Haida copper was collected by Charles F. Newcombe in Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands, in 1911, and entered the Brooklyn Museum’s collections in 1916 at a price of only $20. At the time Newcombe claimed to have seen two much older coppers that he “thoroughly believed were of genuine Alaskan copper” ie made of native-smelted ore rather than from trade sheet copper. This is possible but unlikely. The surface of this magnificent copper is painted black, with the classic Haida bear design on an area of bare copper. Note that Haida coppers also had a distinctive “flared” shape, as compared to other coppers.
Source: Objects of Myth and Memory: American Indian Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum/University of Washington Press, 1991. 274. Print.
The Brooklyn Museum’s Copper Breaker
This is a fine example of a “Copper breaker” from the Brooklyn Museum. Sometimes called a “slave-killer”, these clubs were probably not used for that purpose. By the end of the 1800s, these ceremonial tools were used by the Kwakiutl to ritually “break” or cut a valuable Copper, thereby establishing the prestige of the owner and increasing the value of the copper. This copper breaker was collected by C. F. Newcombe in Victoria in 1905. These artifacts are exceedingly rare.
Chief Harry Assu’s Copper Quluma
In his memoir Assu of Cape Mudge, Chief Harry Assu from the southern Kwakiutl village of Cape Mudge, describes how he came to acquire his copper:
“The name of my copper is quluma. It is so old that the meaning has been lost. Jim Sewid got it from his uncle Henry Bell, who passed it on to Jim … Before that it belonged to Jim’s grandfather, Jim Bell from Village Island …. When you receive wealth in a potlatch, it is like making a will. You have to do it in front of all the people so that these rights are known.” (Assu, p. 111-113)
Chief Assu also mentioned that “every high-ranking man here had a copper, or owned a share in a copper. They probably came down the coast from the northern people. I know of a few coppers that were obtained by marriage with the Alert Bay and Rivers Inlet people. In those early days, white men in Victoria were making coppers with grooved sections and designs on them, and selling them for $150 up along the coast.” (Assu, p. 45).
Mungo Martin’s Max’inuxwadzi (Great Killer Whale)
This is Mungo Martin’s Max’inuxwadzi (“Great Killer Whale”) copper, one of the few coppers preserved in ethnological collections that retains its history. It was bought by Chief Mungo Martin from Peter Scow about 1942 for $2,010. Willie Seaweed painted the killer whale design on the blackened surface. The top corner was broken off by chiefs invited to do so at the initiation of Martin’s son David into the hamatsa secret society. The bottom section was broken off by Martin to shame a rival chief who had publicly questioned the status of his son as a hamatsa. The piece was never given to that chief, since Martin decided the man did not have the power to respond; instead, he threw it into the sea at the death of his brother.
It was also used in Dec. 1953 at the opening ceremonies of Mungo Martin’s house in Thunderbird Park, B.C., as part of a cradle ceremony for his son’s daughter, wherein the copper was placed in an elaborately decorated cradle as the child’s symbolic “comforter.” Just as the original display had “filled his son’s belly” as a hamatsa, showing that he would never be hungry, this later display showed that the baby would never be cold, that it would always be wrapped in the softest of blankets.
The copper was last used in public display as the “coffin” for his dead son. It was given by Mungo Martin to the B.C. Provincial Museum in 1960, because with the death of his son, it could go no further. The value of this copper had increased with its sale and display. Its being broken in no way diminished its value; rather, it added to its prestige and worth. When broken sections of coppers were riveted together, the refurbished copper would carry an even greater value. People in a village or along a long section of coast would know all the valuable coppers, who owned them, what displays they had been used in, and what titles or names they had been used to validate. Height 63 cm.
Source: Smithsonian Handbook of North American Indians, volume 7.
The Killer Whale Copper: a chief’s memorial to his son
by Wilson Duff
Provincial Museum, Victoria, British Columbia
[In 1961, Wilson Duff published the history of Mungo's "Great Killer Whale" copper Max'inuxwadzi. It was a remarkable piece of ethnological reporting, and one of the finest accounts of the cultural history of a single object.]
In December, 1960, Chief Mungo Martin put into the permanent care of the Provincial Museum his valued copper Max’inuxwadzi or “Great Killer Whale.” It had been his intention to fix it to a stone monument which he had erected in Centennial Park, Courtenay, in memory of his son David, who lost his life by drowning in September, 1959. However, the suggestion was made to him that it would be safer, and would make a more meaningful memorial, if it were placed on permanent exhibit in the Museum. To that he agreed.
The history of the copper was recorded on tape, with Mrs. Helen Hunt acting as interpreter. It is the purpose of this brief article to put the story into print, along with enough introductory information to give it a context Certain sections are given verbatim from the tape, as they convey some of the eloquence of the original Kwakiutl phrasings. Mungo Martin was risen to a high social position among his people. A member of the “real” Kwakiutl tribe of Fort Rupert, he holds at present the name Naka’pankum. He is the leading chief of the second ranking clan of the tribe, and ranks third in the entire tribe, after Tom Johnson (Tla-kwageela) and James Knox (Tla’kodlas). At the time he purchased his copper, however, he had not yet attained such a high position of rank. His older brother, Spruce Martin, preceded him as leader of the clan and holder of the name Naka’penkum. It wasn’t just the highest chiefs who could own coppers.
Coppers were owned by the Indian tribes of the Coast from the Tlingit of Alaska to the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. Their only use, aside from the tiny ones sometimes used as ornaments on costumes, was as objects of wealth and prestige. They served, in general, as the currency of the highest denomination in the complicated native systems of high finance. They were bought and sold (for ever-larger prices), given away, “broken”, and even thrown into the sea as the chiefs who owned them strove for superiority by “fighting each other with property”. The most important coppers had their own names. Mungo remembers the names of thirty-two others which belonged to various tribes of the southern Kwakiutl, and their histories and values were widely known.
The origin of the custom of using coppers had not been satisfactorily explained, nor has their distinctive shape. It is generally believed that coppers were used in pre-contact times, being made of native copper from sources far to the north, in Alaska. Native traditions reveal that the metal was held in very high esteem, and the first explorers to the Coast did find a small amount of it already in use in the form of weapons and ornaments. However, native copper went out of use very quickly as the traders flooded the market with sheet copper. We do not know directly of any existing “copper” which is made of the native metal.
The Copper “Max’inuxwadzi“
This copper is 26 inches high and was about 13 inches across at its widest point; its size is not unusual, but its proportions are somewhat more long and narrow than most. It has been “broken” in two places. It was not uncommon for pieces to be removed from a copper in this way until only the raised T-shaped central ridge remained, and in fact this copper actually consists of an old central T riveted to a new copper shaped sheet. The arms of the T, as was customary, form a shallow inverted V in cross-section, although they have been somewhat flattened out when riveted to the flat sheet below. The upper (larger) part of the copper is shallowly dished out from behind. The entire surface has been blackened with some type of lacquer, and a design of a killer whale has been engraved on the front.
History of the Copper
Mungo bought Max’inuxwadzi from Peter Scow about 1942 for $2,010. He does not know its earlier history, except that it is an old T on a new copper, and Peter Scow had it remade in a machine shop at Alert Bay. Willie Siwid engraved the design on it.
Most of the money which Mungo used to buy this copper was obtained in earlier transactions involving another copper. In the late 1930’s, when he married Abaya (the present Mrs. Martin), her “cousin” Willie Siwid gave him many things as part of her dowry – money, blankets, pots and pans, a hamatsa mask and hamatsa name, and other privileges (ki-su). In addition, he bought a copper named Tlaksoo’yala and gave that to Mungo as well. Some years later Mungo sold Tlaksoo’yala to his brother Spruce for $1,600. He kept the money and later used it to buy Max’inuxwadzi.
Mungo bought Max’inuxwadzi with the thought in mind that he didn’t want to put up a potlatch or winter dance without a copper for his children to dance on. Another reason was that if he died, his son would never be ashamed, but could say, “I have a copper to dance on, and for my children to dance on, through my father.” And nobody could say otherwise.
The first time Mungo showed the copper in public was at the initiation of his son David into the hamatsa “secret society.” After Mungo had the copper to use as a shield against anyone who would say anything wrong against his family, after he had his security, then he put on a big winter dance and brought out Dave as a hamatsa on that copper. Mungo selected one of the big chiefs, Harry Mountain, to place the copper in Dave’s arms the moment he came back from being initiated back to the tribe. Mountain made the motion of having Dave swallow the copper, tail end (small end) first. Then it was placed on the floor. Now it was said that Dave had had a feast of copper.
The copper was then broken for the first time. The Chiefs of the tribes were then invited to break the copper. Not all Chiefs can break copper – only the Chiefs that had the right to break copper were invited. They got eagle down and put it over the copper, so that it would be perfect, and te’lkw (tender, soft). The Chiefs all put their hands on it as Harry Mountain broke it. All the Chiefs are said to have broken it because they had their hands on it.
Then they got the piece off (it is the piece off the top of the copper). They gave Mungo the piece, and he gave it to Frank Walker. In that way, he only returned what Frank Walker had given to his brother Spruce. Frank Walker was a Kwakiutl who had broken a copper for Spruce. They didn’t want to have the name of not returning against them. This cleared that.
The next occasion on which the copper was shown in public was during the performance at Gwayastums, Gilford Island, at one of Mungo’s own ceremonies ( ki’su), which he used to celebrate the coming of age and naming of a young girl in the family. The ceremony makes use of a very large decorated wooden cradle, which is hung at the back of the house. The copper was placed in the cradle as a “comforter” (blanket) for the “baby” concerned. This ceremony was repeated in Thunderbird Park in 1953, and will be described in more detail below.
The story behind the other piece “broken” from the copper is as follows: Mungo got quite angry at Chief Tom Omhid one time about 1944, and made all the arrangements to break his copper to give to Omhid. But after he had the piece broken off he changed his mind, because Omhid didn’t have any power to do anything about it if he did give him the piece.
Omhid had spoken out of hand and said that Dave was a hamatsa without a copper. He was a hamatsa with an empty stomach. That is what angered Mungo. Mungo disposed of the piece of copper when his brother died So instead of giving it to Omhid (when he changed his mind and didn’t want to hurt anybody with that piece of copper), when Spruce died, to comfort his own sorrow, he threw it in the water. He didn’t want to bring up hard feelings about things that had happened years before, so he just vanished that piece with his brother. That was at Fort Rupert, when he invited the tribes to have the sa’la (mourning) for his brother.
The copper was shown again in December, 1953, when it played a very prominent role in the opening ceremonies of Mungo’s Kwakiutl house in Thunderbird Park. First, Mungo went through the motions of financing the event by “selling” the copper to his wife Abaya for $1,500. The cradle ceremony was performed in honour of David’s daughter Dorothy, with the copper serving as her “comforter” in the large wooden cradle. The copper also appeared at times during the hamatsa dance, carried on the arms of the hamatsa, David Martin. The following summaries of these events are taken from the complete transcript made at the time, and now in the Museum files.
The “sale” of the copper took place, with proper speeches and ceremony, during a rehearsal on the evening before the main performance. The procedure was that Mungo “took up” (brought out) his valued copper and “sold” it to Abaya for $1,500, so that he would have money to give away and thus show the extent of his pride in his new house. In actual fact it was Mungo’s own money, and the figure included expenditures which had already been made in the preparations for the event.
Tom Omhid, who was Mungo’s speaker, took up the copper and said (in part): This is what the Chief has taken up, this that has a name, the name Max’inuxwadzi. He doesn’t want to take up just anything. He comes from a proud tribe. He is proud of the new house. You will recognize this house, Chiefs. It is a copy of the first house that all you tribes used to gather in, the house that belonged to my Chief, the house of Naka’penkum… and now I am selling this. There it is.”
Omhid placed the copper on the floor. George Scow, who spoke for Abaya, picked it up and made a speech. “She will take it, you Chiefs. She will buy it.” He placed the copper down in front of Abaya and took from her a bag of money. Now we will need your help,” he said, addressing Omhid and Daniel Cranmer. Mr. Cranmer took the money and he too made a speech, praising Abaya and Mungo for what they were doing. He passed the money to Omhid, who spoke again, then handed it to Mungo.
Helen Hunt later explained the speeches: “They were talking about the copper being brought out. It was given to Mungo by Abaya in the first place, and now Abaya has bought it back so that Mungo will have money to distribute to the people, so that all the performers will not be ashamed of themselves. They will have the copper to dance on. That is the value of the dance that is going to be performed.”
The cradle ceremony was performed early on the first day of the opening ceremonies, at a performance to which only Indian guest and anthropologists had been invited. It followed the set of mourning songs which had opened the performance, and preceded the dances, which were of the winter ceremonial type. The large cradle had been suspended prominently in front of the painted screen that closed off the rear of the house. The main performers grouped themselves in front of the cradle. There were strange sounds as the voices of spirits were heard from the back corners of the house. Mungo called out, as though to a baby in a cradle, not to be afraid. Then the song was sung, there were speeches, and the ceremony ended with 50 cent pieces being distributed to everyone in the house.
Omhid’s speech was in the typical figurative language of Kwakiutl speeches, referring to the copper as a blanket, and to Dorothy as the new-born baby: “The blanket to keep this child from getting cold has already been prepared. This man with the great name has already bought it. The softest of all blankets. Its price is enough to distribute to all your tribes. That is why it can never be cold, the new-born baby, it starts its life by keeping warm.” At other points during the 1953 ceremonies references were made to the copper. In one speech Omhid pointed to where it rested on the floor: “This is the work of Naka’pankam. This is proof of his courage, Iying right there. This belongs to the Chief, and he can never fail the name of it.”
But at some point Omhid must have said something that made Mungo angry, because Mungo renewed his threat to break the copper for Omhid. However, that was not done. Mungo brought the copper out once more before David’s death. When Dave decided to marry Robina Ferrie, of Campbell River, Mungo gave her father Johnny Ferrie $2,000.00 and the copper to make the ceremony big enough and known. Johnny Ferrie couldn’t keep the money or the copper; he had to give it to Dave. That’s what Robina carried to her husband, the copper and that money.
So then the copper belonged to Dave. Mungo didn’t want it to go and stay with Dave – he bought it back from him, so that Dave would have the money to throw a big potlatch. That was the last one that was at Gilford, that last winter before Dave died. That is how the copper came back to Mungo. On the death of his son, the grieving Chief determined at first to comfort himself and erase the memory of the old insult by breaking the copper for Omhid. From this he was soon dissuaded, and decided to use the copper as David’s “coffin”.
For a while, Mungo wanted to cut off the T and give it to Omhid. It was just to erase the memory of the name he gave Dave when he said he was an empty stomach hamatsa, and he wanted to get that off his mind. But the family said no, because they didn’t want to shame the copper. The copper was never brought out in public again, but Mungo told different tribes that it was Dave’s coffin. In the old days, he would most likely have used it as a tombstone – as you have seen in some of the old graveyards. In the olden days they placed them over the graves. It is said to be the coffin. Because it is valuable, not only for the price that was paid for it, but for the name and all the things the copper has come through and covered for the family, and it comes to an awful lot of money. That if why he used that copper as Dave’s coffin.
Earlier in the interview Mungo said that he had always tried his best to use his copper as he had been taught it should be used. He said that he had tried to bring it out in any kind of circumstances the way it was supposed to be brought out, right up to now. And it stopped because he lost his son. It was as far as the copper can go.
Source: Report of the Provincial Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, 1960.
Images of coppers and their owners
The copper collection in the University of Britsh Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver
Another copper from the Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver
A Haida copper from Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands, depicting a totemic bear.
An unusual Kwakiutl wooden copper from Vancouver Island.
The Kwakiutl chief Tulthidi prepares to give away his valuable copper in honor of his son
Recording a spectacular copper sale
A selection of very old coppers
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