Frontlet depicting Dogfish Woman with Frog, c. 1970 by Lelooska (1933-1996)
Frontlet depicting Dogfish Woman with Frog, c. 1970
by Lelooska (1933-1996), Cherokee and adopted Kwakwaka'wakw
alder, abalone inlays, pigment
7" tall x 5.25" wide X 3.25" deep
One of the most powerful supernatural beings of Haida mythology is the elusive Dogfish Woman, who derives her shamanic powers from the dogfish (a small shark). Seen here in her transformational form, she wears a labret in her lower lip, which is a sign of aristocracy among the Haida. The story of the Dogfish Woman is difficult to trace, and only fragments of the narrative have survived into the present. Like many Haida stories, the story of the Dogfish Woman is one of transformation and movement between the human and non-human realms. Among many other themes, this story speaks to the attraction between sexes, barriers between species, and lost love.
The story as recorded by Franz Boas:
A woman went traveling with her husband. She used to make fun of the dogfish. They went to visit a small rock in the sea. When they were out there, the dogfish, whose home the rock was, came and took the woman down into the sea. There she discovered that the dogfish were really people. They had taken off their dogfish blankets. After she had stayed in the house for some time, fins began to grow upon her arms, her legs, and her back. Her husband was searching for her everywhere, but he was not able to find her. After a number of years he found her. Her face had remained unchanged; but fins had grown on her arms, on her legs, on her back, and on her head. She never returned. Ever since that time her family have used the dogfish crest, and their house is called the Dogfish House.
This carving is a recreation of a 19th century, Haida Dogfish Woman Frontlet in the permanent collection of the Canadian Museum of History (formally the Museum of Civilization) in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. A frontlet is a wood adornment, usually depicting the clan or crest animal of the owner, that is attached to a headdress of ermine tail and seal ion whiskers.
Master carver and storyteller Lelooska was born Don Smith in Sonora, California in 1933. He was called Yana the Bear at birth, but it was the name Lelooska, meaning "To Cut Against Wood With a Knife," that brought him fame. Lelooska and his family moved to Hubbard, Oregon in 1936, where they ran a gift shop, and where Lelooska began to carve under the tutelage of his grandfather He-Kill, Cherokee Nation from Oklahoma.
Though Lelooska was taught the traditional art and stories of the Cherokee, it was the carvings and myths of the Northwest Coast culture that inspired him to make carving a full time endeavor. He won acclaim for his totem poles, carved out of old-growth cedar. He is said to have carved 100 or more totem poles and thousands of masks, using only the D adze, the elbow adze and the hooked knives.
During Oregon's Centennial in 1959, Lelooska carved a 50-foot totem pole celebrating the state's role in Operation Deep Freeze, which established a scientific station at the geographic South Pole. The pole now towers over Washington Park Zoo in Portland. He carved a duplicate 30-foot Friendship pole, which dominates the entrance to the international airport at Christchurch, New Zealand.
In 1961, the family moved to Ariel. Volunteers helped build a traditional longhouse, a log museum, and later an art gallery. In 1968, Chief James Sewid, hereditary chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation on Vancouver Island, held a potlatch to adopt Lelooska, his mother Shona-Hah, his sister Patty Fawn, and his brother Tsungani into the Sewid family.
Lelooska and his family offered traditional dance and storytelling performances, wearing the masks and robes of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation of British Columbia. Lelooska, with his deep and commanding voice, brought to life the myths and legends of his ancestors.
The longhouse shows were among his proudest accomplishments, attracting 25,000 visitors a year. There were also workshops in American Indian culture offered by the nonprofit Lelooska Foundation, where students can earn college credits from Central Washington University and Lewis & Clark College.
Lelooska received an honorary doctorate from Lewis & Clark for his leadership in American Indian art and culture. He also was given the school's Aubrey Watzek Award for his contributions to American Indian culture. Lelooska has works in both Private and Public Collections including the National Museum of the American Indian, The Chicago Art Institute, The Portland Art Museum, and The Estate Collection of Arlene Schnitzer.
Lelooska passed away peacefully at home in Ariel, Washington in 1996.