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Behind the Mask Behind the Logo

November 6, 2014

A Kwakwaka’wakw artist shares insight about the mask that inspired the logo for the Seattle Seahawks.

One look, and there’s no mistaking it. A Northwest Coast native mask was undoubtedly the inspiration for the first logo of the Seattle Seahawks football team. Soon, Seahawk fans will be able to see it for themselves, when the mask goes on display at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle later this month.

“It’s pretty distinctive,” says artist Bruce Alfred. “You know we have a lot of transformation masks in our area and there’s no other one really like this one.”

Alfred is a wood carver with the Kwakwaka’wakw People in British Columbia, where the mask originated. Visiting the Burke on a grant to study pieces in the museum’s vast collection, Alfred had to see the mask that inspired the Seahawk logo for himself. “Most of the people at home, they’re big Seahawk fans,” he says.

Kwakwaka’wakw artist Bruce Alfred examines the mask that inspired the Seattle Seahawks logo. Photo by Aileen Imperial.

Alfred says the mask is a transformation mask—likely used in a dance at a potlatch to help tell the story of the Kwakwaka’wakw People. “A lot these pieces were used to re-enact the legend of origin of our people after the floods.”

When closed, the mask clearly resembles a fierce bird, probably an eagle according to Alfred. But the sides and top of the mask open to reveal another mask inside—a person’s face. “The transformation itself when it’s danced, it shows him shedding off his outer shell to become a human.”

The Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask opens to reveal a second mask of a human face inside.Photo by Aileen Imperial.

How the mask came to the Burke is a story unto itself. Once part of a private collection owned by German artist Max Ernst, the mask was acquired by another collector, and later donated to the Hudson Museum in Maine. A photograph of the mask ended up in a book by Robert Bruce Inverarity, called “Art of the Northwest Coast Indians.” That’s where an artist commissioned by the NFL saw the mask—and used it to design the team’s first logo in the 1970s.

Photograph of the Kwakwaka'wakw transformation mask published in Robert Bruce Inverarity's book, "Art of the Northwest Coast Indians," 1950.

That fact was largely forgotten until last year, when the Burke Museum’s Native Art Curator Robin Wright was teaching an art history class at the University of Washington, and some of her students asked about it. “There was a frenzy about the Seahawks,” Wright says. “Everyone was excited and they were going online and looking for sources for the Seahawks logo.”

Wright contacted her former professor, Burke Curator Emeritus Bill Holm, who confirmed where the photo of the mask came from. The Burke blogged about it, and the story went viral. That’s when curators at the Hudson Museum called the Burke to say they had the mask.

“We thought wouldn’t it be fun to borrow this mask and bring it back to Seattle so all the Seahawk fans could see the original mask,” says Wright.

Burke Museum Native Art Curator Robin Wright helped find the photo after some of her art students asked about the origin of the Seahawks logo.Photo by Aileen Imperial.

The Hudson agreed to lend the mask to the Burke for an upcoming exhibit. But bringing the mask to Seattle hasn’t been cheap. The Seattle Seahawks donated $1,212 to the cause. But the Burke could use some additional help from 12th Man fans to support the move. The museum is asking fans to donate to a Kickstarter campaign.

The mask will be incorporated into the Burke’s upcoming exhibit, “Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired.” The exhibit opens November 22nd and runs through next July. It’s a chance for Seahawk fans to see for themselves the mask that inspired the team’s famous logo. One look, and there’s no mistaking it.



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