Movement 3: Consciousness and Plants: Image-Tree-Word / Coscienze vegetali: immagine-albero-parola

The Living Forest. Personifications of the Plant World in Native North America


For the peoples of the North-West Coast of America the forest was regarded as the domain of the non-human, where plants and animals lived and prospered. This distinction is not to be understood, as was customary in anthropology, as an opposition between Nature and Culture. The animals were not regarded as deprived of culture: they were assumed to live in villages, having ceremonies and a social organization of their own. When at home they took off their skins and appeared as human beings. However, it is undeniable that the world of animals and plants was a realm different from the world of humans, it was in some sense an “other world”, where things that were uncommon or unthinkable in the human domain could occur at ease.


The forest was also the place where some beings lived, who were intermediate forms between the human and the animal, inhabitants of the borders that separate the human from the animal world.


On the other side of the continent, East of the Great Lakes, in what is now the state of New York, the Iroquois celebrated, in January or February, the Midwinter Ceremony, a sort of New Year’s celebration, during which appeared the False Faces masks, among a variety of other Medicine societies, who provided curing and cleansing rituals for the people. The wooden masks of the False Faces depict beings seen in the forest or in dreams. When wearing these masks, members of the society have special powers and can handle hot coals without being burned. During the Winter ceremonial and also once or twice a year the members went through the houses of the community performing rituals to clean them of diseases.


Analogously, in many Carnival festivals all through Europe the figure of the Wild Man makes his appearance, a character that has a long literary and iconographic heritage since the Middle Ages, and which is not always easily distinguishable from a wide array of other figures, all of them showing certain significant analogies. In the Carnival parades are frequently encountered figures with long hair and beard and wearing clothes made from leafs or animal skins. They could be confused with human-animal masquerades, where the most common elements are the sheep-skin clothes, the blackened faces and the shaggy hair, which we have already described for the Amerindian masks, while at other times they have vegetal connotations, like costumes with leaves or branches, holding boughs or sticks in their hands, giving the impression to be personifications of the trees or of the woods.


Trees; forest; Cedar; North-West Coast Indians; Iroquois; masks; carnivals; rituals; Green Man; Wild Man

Full Text:

PDF (Italiano)



Bancroft-Hunt, Norman. 1979. People of the Totem: The Indians of the Pacific Northwest. London: Orbis.

Boas, Franz. 1892. “Vocabulary of the Kwakiutl Language.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical So-ciety 31:34-82.

Boas, Franz. 1897. “The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians.” Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1895: 311-738.

Boas, Franz. 1910. Kwakiutl Tales (“Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology 2”). New York: Columbia University Press.

Boas, Franz. 1921. “Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, 2 vols.” 35th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Eth-nology for 1913-1914: 43-1481.

Boas, Franz. 1935. Kwakiutl Culture as Reflected in Mythology (“Memoirs of the American Folklore Society 2”). New York: Stechert.

Brosse, Jacques. 1989. Mythologie des arbres. Paris: Plon.

Caro Baroja, Julio. 1979. Le Carnaval. Paris: Gallimard.

Codere, Helen. 1990. “Kwakiutl: Traditional Culture.” In: Handbook of North American Indians. Vol.7: Northwest Coast, edited by Wayne Suttles, 359-377. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Cole, Douglas. 1999. Franz Boas: The Early Years 1858-1906. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Comba, Enrico. 1992. Cannibali e uomini-lupo: metamorfosi rituali dall’America indigena all’Europa antica. Torino: Il Segnalibro.

Curtis, Edward S. 1915. The North American Indian, vol. 10. Cambridge, Mass.: The University Press.

Descola, Philippe. 2005. Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard.

Fenton, William N. 1978. “Northern Iroquoian Culture Patterns.” In: Handbook of North American Indians. Vol.15: Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 296-321. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Fenton, William N. 1991. The False Faces of the Iroquois. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Goldman, Irving. 1975. The Mouth of Heaven: An Introduction to Kwakiutl Religious Thought. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Hallowell, A. Irving. 1926. “Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere.” American Anthropologist 28.1:1-175.

Hallowell, A. Irving. 1960. “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View.” In: Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, edited by Stanley Diamond, 19-52. New York: Columbia University Press [repr. in Contributions to Ojibwe Studies. Essays, 1934-1972. Lincoln-London: University of Nebraska Press, 2010: 535-568].

Holm, Bill. 1990. “Kwakiutl: Winter Ceremonies.” In: Handbook of North American Indians. Vol.7: North-west Coast, edited by Wayne Suttles, 378-386. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Kezich, Giovanni. 2015. Carnevale Re d’Europa: viaggio antropologico nelle mascherate d’inverno. Scarmagno: Priuli & Verlucca.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1964. Le cru et le cuit (Mythologiques 1). Paris : Plon.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1983. The Way of the Masks. London: Jonathan Cape.

Mauzé, Marie. 1998. “Northwest Coast Trees: From Metaphors in Culture to Symbols for Culture.” In The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism, edited by Laura Rival, 233-251. Oxford: Berg.

Pavel, D. Michael. Gerald B. Miller and Mary J. Pavel. 1993. “Too Long, Too Silent: The Threat to Cedar and the Sacred Ways of the Skokomish.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17.3:53-80.

Stewart, Hilary. 1984. Cedar: Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. Vancouver-Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre.

Stewart, Hilary (ed.). 2009. Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Hewitt, Captive of Chief Maquinna. Vancou-ver-Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre.

Suttles, Wayne. 1990. “Environment.” In: Handbook of North American Indians. Vol.7: Northwest Coast, ed-ited by Wayne Suttles, 16-29. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Tooker, Elisabeth. 1978. “Iroquois Since 1820.” In: Handbook of North American Indians. Vol.15: Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 449-465. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 1998. “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4.3:469-488.

Article Metrics

Metrics Loading ...

Metrics powered by PLOS ALM


  • There are currently no refbacks.

ISSN: 1825-263X

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.