The Way of the Masks


249 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88894-358-X





Translated by Sylvia Modelski
Reviewed by Thomas S. Abler

Thomas S. Abler is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo and the author of A Canadian Indian Bibliography, 1960-1970.


No other contemporary anthropologist has had an impact on the world’s intellectual community approaching that of Claude Levi-Strauss. This study is yet another intricate web spun by this master of French structuralism. No one can deny its beauty or fail to recognize how easily one is trapped like a fly in its strands; a sceptic, though, might question the strength of the web or the firmness of its anchors.

Levi-Strauss admits to an “almost carnal bond” (p. 10) tying him to the indigenous art of the coast of British Columbia and southern Alaska. His sense of wonder and awe is infectious. But he also suggests that he was long disturbed by the form of the Swaihwé mask of the Coast Salish and their Kwakiutl neighbours. The book is an effort to explain that peculiar form, with its protruding eyes and pendulous tongue.

His argument is complex and ingenious. He relates the Swaihwé form and myth and its Kwakiutl variant to the Kwakiutl Dzonokwa, which he sees as mirroring the form of the Swaihwé. Also entering the explanation are the magnificent and valuable “coppers” displayed or given away at potlatches. Transformation of physical form and legendary foundations are suggested as mask and myth cross ethnic boundaries in aboriginal British Columbia.

Few will be able to view these objects in quite the same manner after reading this persuasive text. Even the unbeliever will find the argument challenging and the exposition exciting. Well-chosen illustrations and well-drawn maps accompany the text, matching well the author’s artistry and clarity.


Levi-Strauss, Claude, “The Way of the Masks,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,