Skip to main content

Forehead Mask Nuxalk, ca. 1880 Alder, red cedar bark, copper, pins, paint 4 1/8 x 11 3/8 x 5 1/8 inches Gift of John H. Hauberg 91.1.71

What was supposed to be a fun football bet between the art museums in Denver and Seattle has turned into a cross-border cultural fumble involving a First Nation in B.C.

When the Nuxalk Nation in the Bella Coola area found out that the Seattle Art Museum was wagering a ceremonial Nuxalk forehead mask on the outcome of Sunday's Super Bowl game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos, it felt blindsided – and upset.

"Nuxalk masks are sacred ceremonial items, not simply 'art' display pieces. #decolonize" read a statement on the Nuxalk Nation's Twitter account.

On Wednesday, SAM announced it had withdrawn its offer. "We have the greatest respect for the Nuxalk's art and culture and intended the forehead mask to be a cultural exchange with the Denver region," SAM director Kimerly Rorschach said in a statement.

The idea behind the friendly wager was that the museum in the winning city would receive a three-month loan from the losing city's museum.

"My perspective was: 'Okay, I want to send to Denver some absolutely stunning masterpiece from our collection and this is it,'" said Barbara Brotherton, SAM's curator of Native American art. "And it [became] associated with betting and wagering, and I know that's not okay, and I heard from the chief that it's not okay, and I accept that."

The Nuxalk learned about the bet through the media. When SAM officials heard Nuxalk Chief Wally Webber was concerned, they called him.

"They're not against our showing or lending their works of art at all. But it just got caught up in the arena of the kind of crazy American frenzy of betting on the Super Bowl, and so it just got skewed in a way that we never intended," Ms. Brotherton said, acknowledging, "We probably should have ... asked them if it was okay to do this at the front end."

Charles Nelson, a hereditary leader of the Nuxalk, said the First Nation is upset with the lack of communication, but primarily that the treasured coloured mask, circa 1880, was being used in a bet.

"It was difficult to know that a wager was done because ... a mask like that is really important to our people."

SAM is speaking with the Nuxalk about travelling to their territory with an apology and the mask, which has not been there since the 1880s, Mr. Nelson said.

"What was done was disheartening and wrong," he said. "But at the same time, we realize it's a mistake, so we want to learn from this mistake and move forward."

The mask was selected for the bet with the Denver Art Museum because of its resemblance to the Seahawk logo. SAM is now offering Tsuji Kako's 1901 Japanese screen Sound of Waves, which features a sea hawk. DAM is putting up the Frederic Remington bronze sculpture The Broncho Buster.

Follow me on Twitter: @marshalederman