SAM Art: An angry – or singing – healer

This Tlingit figure has the protruding diamond-shaped mouth associated with an angry or a singing spirit. The mask-like head held by the figure—carved from a separate piece of wood—takes the form of an animal. The knees, hands, lips, nostrils, and a line around the ankles and neck have been painted red, and the eyes, eyebrows, and feet have been painted black.

Small carved figures such as this one which represent shamans or shamans’ spirit helpers, and were part of the work of healing people. The animal head clasped before the figure’s chest may represent the shaman’s personal spirit power. Despite their diminutive size, figures such as this helped destroy the evil spirits which caused illness.

Shaman figure, ca. 1880, Tlingit, yellow cedar and paint, 12 1/4 x 3 x 3 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.235. Currently on view in the Native American art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.