Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A 19th-century "transformation mask" from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, inspired the team's logo. A new exhibit explores the history and significance of the piece.
At the peak of Seattle's obsession with its NFL team last winter, art-loving Seahawks fans wanted to trace the roots of its logo. After a Super Bowl win, a few months of research, and a Kickstarter campaign, a local museum exhibit will now be showing the very object that inspired the design.
The name "Seahawks" came from the winning submission to a 1975 naming competition, but the logo was done by NFL Properties, the merchandising and licensing arm of the NFL. The league's designers looked through books about Pacific Northwest art for inspiration, and it turns out that there was one specific piece that inspired the logo: a Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask seen in Robert Bruce Inverarity’s 1950 book, Art of the Northwest Coast Indians.
The mask, with origins tracing back to 19th-century Vancouver Island, British Columbia, depicts an eagle before opening up to reveal a human face inside. According to Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, an assistant director at the University of Washington's Burke Museum, it was used in ceremonial dances, "that showed the rights and privileges of a particular chief." As told to the museum by Bruce Alfred, a member of the Namgis Band of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations:
...a dancer would enter the longhouse, hunched low with the mask on his back, firelight reflecting in the mask’s mirrored eyes. As the drum beat grew stronger, the dancer would spin rapidly, whipping open the mask to reveal the face inside. The face represents the eagle—or Thunderbird—coming to earth to take human form.
Inside it is a catalogue number from 1910 that belongs to the Fred Harvey Company. Known for its hotels, restaurants and marketplaces across the Southwest U.S., Bunn-Marcuse says the company traveled around Western U.S. states obtaining art for its marketplaces. Their collection included objects from Plains and Alaskan tribes, which may explain how the they obtained the mask. It eventually came into the possession of surrealist Max Ernst (who lived in the U.S. in the 1940s) before landing at its now-permanent home, the University of Maine's Hudson Museum.
Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign ($14,653 raised), the mask is making a trip to Seattle. On loan from the Hudson Museum from November 22 to July 27, it'll be on display as part of the Burke's Here & Now: Native Artists Inspired exhibit. Here & Now will highlight contemporary art specifically inspired by the museum's own collection, one of the largest for Native American Art in the country. The mask that inspired the Seahawks logo will be displayed next to Native artists' interpretations of the team's identity.
As part of the Kickstarter funding, the museum will also pay for two Kwakwaka’wakw community members to travel down to study the mask and help curators discover more about its origins.