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How masks help tell the legend of the Wild Woman of the Woods and other cultural stories

Tsonokwa transformation masks made by artist Scott Jensen are part of the Whatcom Museum education collection.
Tsonokwa transformation masks made by artist Scott Jensen are part of the Whatcom Museum education collection. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The story of Tsonokwa (Dzunuk’wa, Tsonoqua) or Wild Woman of the Woods, is a Northwest Coast Native legend about a mythical, dark-haired, large female being who captures children and carries them home in a basket to eventually eat them.

Parents used the Tsonokwa story as a warning to keep their children safe and discourage them from venturing too far into the forest “or Tsonokwa might get you and eat you.”

In the story, the children usually manage to outwit Tsonokwa and escape from her captivity. Many Northwest Coast native artists have created cedar masks to share stories and legends such as Tsonokwa.

This coming Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher building, Museum educators will share examples of multi-cultural masks, including a Tsonokwa mask, as part of the “Making Faces – Masks & Masquerading Around the World Community Art Museum Day.”

People of all ages are invited to attend this event between noon and 4 p.m. to participate in a variety of activities that will explore the fascinating world of masks and their stories.

The story of Tsonokwa will be part of a transformation mask activity, where visitors will learn how masks are used around the world to represent a metamorphosis by becoming other forms such as animals or spirits.

In addition to Northwest Coast native masks, museum educators will also demonstrate how Japanese Noh theater masks have been used since the 14th century to convey emotions.

Visitors will have a chance to create their own transformation masks using various art supplies in the Lightcatcher Art Studio.

A variety of other events will take place throughout the afternoon, highlighting different cultures and uses for masks, from Venetian masquerade face-painting for children, to metaphorical mask-making that helps children express emotions, to an impromptu “Paw Plays” interactive theater presentation.

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Tsonokwa transformation masks made by artist Scott Jensen are part of the Whatcom Museum education collection. Whatcom Museum Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

For those interested in learning about museum collection practices, there will be a presentation answering questions and docent-led tours of the current exhibitions in the galleries.

A reduced general admission of $3 will be offered during Community Art Museum Day and includes entrance to both the Lightcatcher and Old City Hall, as well as participation in all activities. A full schedule of events and more information about activities, is online at whatcommuseum.org.

Opening this weekend: The exhibit “Green Gold: Logging the Pacific Northwest” opens Saturday, Oct. 28, at Old City Hall. Relive the history of logging in our corner of the Pacific Northwest through photographs, artifacts and stories documenting both the good and the bad of Bellingham’s timber era during the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

Historic video footage takes you back to a time when only the sheer strength of lumberjacks felled enormous trees. Learn about the long days and hard work that it took to be a lumberjack.

More on the Wild Woman of the Woods legend from Aboriginal Tourism BC

Christina M. Claassen is Whatcom Museum’s marketing and public relations manager. Reach her at cmclaassen@cob.org.

Whatcom Museum

The non-profit Whatcom Museum is operated by the Whatcom Museum Foundation and the city of Bellingham. The Old City Hall building at 121 Prospect St. and the Lightcatcher Building at 250 Flora St. are open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays. The Family Interactive Gallery, located inside the Lightcatcher, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission, good for all sites in a day, is $10 general, $8 youth (6-17 years) and student, senior or military, $5 children (2-5 years). Memberships start at $50 and include free museum admission.

The museum offers a variety of programs and exhibitions about art, nature and Northwest history. Its collections contain more than 200,000 artifacts and art of regional importance, including a photographic archive. The museum is accredited nationally by the American Alliance of Museums and is a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate.

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