January 28, 2014

Introducing the mask that inspired the Seattle Seahawks logo

**Update: The Kwakwaka’wakw mask that inspired the Seattle Seahawks logo was at the Hudson Museum in Maine and is now on display at the Burke Museum in Seattle through July 27, 2015!

By Robin K. Wright

Since its debut in 1975, people have been speculating about the design influence for the Seattle Seahawks team logo, but until recently, a specific object that most likely inspired the designers had not been identified.

Copyright: Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture, Seattle, WA.

At the time of the 1975 logo design, the central and northern Northwest Coast art (traditional to the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakwaka’wakw tribes of Alaska and northern British Columbia) were the most readily recognized design styles from the Pacific Northwest Coast. 

The reasons for this are multi-faceted going back to the late 19th century popularity of the totem poles, seen by tourists on steam ship trips traveling to Alaska and British Columbia. One of these poles was appropriated (literally stolen) and used as a symbol of Seattle starting in 1899, gaining even more popularity during the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition of 1909. (1) 

Burke Museum Curator Emeritus Bill Holm’s pivotal 1965 book, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (2), provided us with the vocabulary now used to describe this northern art style, further bringing this northern design system into public awareness. 

These northern Northwest Coast art forms eclipsed the more subtle and private expressions of art made by the local Coast Salish tribes throughout western Washington, until local Coast Salish artists such as William Shelton and Joseph Hillaire began carving Salish-style “Story Poles” and displaying them publicly throughout the region. (3) 

The original Seahawks logo designers referenced books about Northwest Coast art for the design inspiration:
(Seahawks general manager) Thompson said the NFL firm did refer to some books on Northwest Indian culture. 'Our intent was to follow the Northwest Indian culture, but there was no condition placed on them (NFL) in designing.'(4)
I recently asked Bill Holm if the NFL designers had ever contacted him, and he said no, they never did, but that he knew they had relied on published illustrations of the art. 

Reaching to his bookshelf, he pulled Robert Bruce Inverarity’s 1950 book, Art of the Northwest Coast Indians (5), off the shelf, and flipping through the illustrations he found the most likely source for the Seahawks logo: a Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask depicting an eagle (in its closed form) with a human face inside (revealed when the mask opens when danced). 

Kwakwaka'wakw transformation mask in its closed form
Published in Robert Bruce Inverarity's book,
Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, 1950.
Kwakwaka'wakw transformation mask in its opened form
Published in Robert Bruce Inverarity's book,
Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, 1950.

The sweep of the bold painted line around the front of the eyesocket and back of the mouth, the open-ended eyelid lines, and the line of the mouth and beak all match nicely with the original Seattle Seahawks logo. The origin of this mask is half-way between Alaska and Seattle on the northeast side of Vancouver Island. 

In 1975, reacting to the first Seahawks logo, artist Marvin Oliver (Quinault/Isleta) who had studied with Bill Holm, offered a redesigned logo that he felt adhered more closely to the northern Northwest Coast “formline” design principles of northern design explained in Holm's book. (6)

Northwest Indian News, September 1975. Source: Olympia Time Blog.

Subsequent NFL redesigns of the logo have further streamlined the design, removing the eyelid lines, and giving the bird a more aggressive look.

Contemporary Coast Salish artist Shaun Peterson recently posted a video featuring his own rendition of the Seahawks logo using Coast Salish design elements.

Since Seattle is on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish, and is named for a prominent Duwamish/Suquamish (Coast Salish) leader, Chief Sealth, it might have been more appropriate for the NFL to have been inspired by a Coast Salish design.

Still, it's fascinating to learn of this Kwakwaka’wakw mask that could have inspired the original Seattle Seahawks logo, and I look forward to seeing what concepts other First Nations artists create in the future.


**Update: The Kwakwaka’wakw mask that inspired the Seattle Seahawks logo was at the Hudson Museum in Maine and is now on display at the Burke Museum in Seattle through July 27, 2015!


Dr. Robin K. Wright is the Curator of Native American Art and Director of the Bill Holm Center at the Burke Museum, University of Washington.

Graphics and editing by Cathy Morris, Digital Communications Manager

1: See Viola Garfield, The Seattle Totem Pole. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 1980, and Kate Duncan, 1001 Curious Things: 1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native American Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 2000
2: Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, UW Press 1965
3: See Pauline Hillaire, Pauline, A Totem Pole History: The Work of Lummi Carver Joe Hillaire. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press; 2013
4: See Emmett O'Connell, The time when the King County Arts Commission complained about the cultural insensitivity of the Seahawks logo, Olympia Time, November 28, 2013, link to article.
5: Robert Bruce Inverarity, Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, University of California Press, 1950
6: Northwest Indian News, September 1975