FIRST NATIONS people in general do not make a distinction between what is art and what is not, nor do they have an indigenous term corresponding to the English word "art." Throughout the region, special objects were and are still made for the purpose of displaying the inherited privileges and rights of their owners. Although ways of reckoning kinship vary between groups, people claiming common descent also claim rights to ancestrally derived territories, spirit powers, names, songs, dances, crests and other "properties" that both contain and display their family's wealth and identity.
Potlatches are events of great pomp and formality arranged to celebrate the handing down of names, rights and privileges from one generation to the next. These privileges, together with the associated artifacts, are publicly displayed and their transfer committed to the collective memory of the potlatching community. Another defining feature of the POTLATCH is the distribution of wealth objects (and money in more recent times) by the host group to the guests, who include people from other villages and tribes. Acceptance of gifts constitutes validation by the guests that the host group is transferring its inheritance in the approved manner.
Northwest Coast societies were unique in aboriginal Canada in that they sustained a group of professional male artists who were largely freed from the general food quest by the support of wealthy patrons who commissioned works for potlatches and winter dances. It appears that while most men made objects for personal and family use, the specialists were responsible for the exceptional art objects preserved and treasured in museums. Such artists were trained from youth as apprentices by master artists who, in most cases, were their uncles or fathers. As well as making the objects, they were responsible for the stagecraft involved in ritual use. While all women wove (basketry and textiles), some women past their child-rearing years specialized as did their male counterparts.
In weaving, all of the techniques found elsewhere in N America were used, except true loom (heddle) weaving. The inland TLINGIT excelled in false embroidery; the HAIDA in "self-designed" twined spruce-root hats; the Coast SALISH in cherry-bark imbrication on coiled baskets; and the Nuu-cha-nulth (NOOTKA or West coast) women in twined cedar-bark hats with onion-shaped tops, overlaid with strands of beargrass woven in conventionalized whale-hunting scenes.
An exceptional formline weaving technique was developed in the north, becoming a specialty of the Chilkat Tlingit in the 19th century. Chilkat blankets are the highest-valued examples of the weaver's art, worn by chiefs as far south as the Southern Kwakwaka'awakw (KWAKIUTL). The warps are shredded cedar bark twisted with mountain goats' wool; the wefts are pure wool. The warps were hung from a horizontal bar and the double weft strands were twined across them. Designs were made in formline designs, copied from patterned boards painted by men (see CHILKAT BLANKET).
The Coast Salish made twill-plaited blankets in geometric designs out of goat wool, cattail fluff and (reportedly) the hair of a small fluffy dog, extinct since early contact times. In the 1980s, women from the Musqueam community near Vancouver revived the art of making twill-plaited blankets. With the introduction of domestic sheep around 1850 and of Scottish knitting techniques, Coast Salish women began producing knitted Cowichan sweaters, which have since become a successful cottage industry. Basket making has continued with some vitality among the Coast Salish and Nuu-cha-nulth women, and is being revived among the TSIMSHIAN and Haida. Woven blankets were replaced by Hudson's Bay Co woolen blankets - both for dancing and as potlatch gifts. Crest designs were sewn on woolen blankets in buttons, shells and appliqué.
Men worked a variety of materials - wood, stone, horn, copper, bone, antler, leather, ivory and abalone shells - since aboriginal times. Silver and gold were used in historic times, and works in bronze and on paper and canvas have been made in recent years. Knives, adzes, chisels, gouges and awls were made of stone, shell and beaver teeth, and hafted with sculptural forms. Metal was especially sought after from Europeans, and in the 19th century native paints were replaced by Western products. Traditional tool forms are still used, although now with steel blades.
Containers - bowls, dishes, boxes, chests, ladles, canoes - are a specialty. Boxes are made by a kerfing technique in which a single board is steamed and bent in 3 corner folds with a bottom and fourth corner attached by pegs. Stone, wooden and shell dishes and bowls are carved in animal shapes.
A series of conventions in Northwest Coast art permits the parts of animals to represent the entire creatures - eg, a raven's beak, beaver's teeth, whale's flukes. Two animals frequently share a single body, or a single animal is split at the face or along the backbone to create 2 bilaterally symmetrical profiles; animal parts are rearranged from their biological locations; some are placed inside other animals, or intertwined with them. All these conventions create great formal and iconographic complexities.
Most obviously in the winter dances, but also widely recognizable in other Northwest Coast iconography, is the theme of transformation or metamorphosis between beings of the land, sea and sky, and ultimately between the domains of the living and the dead. A special type of transformation mask has double faces operated by strings so that an outer (usually animal) face opens to reveal a human face within. Masks frequently have movable eyes, jaws and other parts.
Three major styles have been identified - Northern, Central and Southern, corresponding to the major cultural divisions which are used by anthropologists.
The Northern Province
The northern province, composed of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Nishga, Gitksan, Haisla and HEILTSUK (Bella Bella), exhibits a defining style of 2-dimensional painting, engraving and shallow relief carving based on a formline aesthetic. Formline compositions in the 19th century were most highly developed on housefronts, screens and chiefs' chests. The works of individual 19th-century masters of the formline aesthetic are being identified according to art historical principles by modern scholars.
Formline painting was based on a 3-colour scheme of primary black lines (aboriginally, charcoal and lignite), secondary red lines (ochres) and tertiary blue-green elements (copper minerals). Pigments were mixed with a medium derived from dried salmon eggs and paint brushes were made of porcupine hairs. Designs were rendered freehand, although templates were frequently used for the recurring ovoid shapes.
A northern painting style was highly developed at contact, in which painted designs extended to the limits of the field (varying according to the object being decorated). All of the constituent elements in these designs harmonize according to a subtle and sophisticated aesthetic.
Sculpted formlines also occur as surface decoration on northern sculpture, including totem poles, headdresses, masks, rattles, canoes, canoe paddles, staffs and various forms of bowls, dishes and boxes. Early in the 19th century, Haida carvers began working a soft, black shale (argillite) in order to make curios for sailors and traders, and later for settlers and tourists.
The Central Province
By 1880, elements of northern formline painting had been incorporated by the Kwakwaka'awakw and Nuu-chah-nulth people, who adapted them to a prehistoric Old Wakashan style encountered by Captain James COOK a century earlier. The Nuu-chah-nulth people developed a new and distinctive combination of formlines, geometric and naturalistic elements. The Kwakwaka'awakw continued to evolve an exuberant, colourful and flamboyant manner all their own. In the early 20th century, they added orange, yellow and green paint to the repertoire. The NUXALK (Bella Coola) borrowed many stylistic and ceremonial elements from their neighbours, creating a style easily recognized by the heavy and bulbous features of its masks, and the typical use of a medium blue paint.
The Southern Province
Painting and relief carving in the Coast Salish area is geometric - circles, chevrons, crescents, rows of dots, triangles and T-shapes. In recent years, scholars have noticed that these elements revealed a negative (recessed) formline-type design which is considered by some to be possibly ancestral to the northern formline tradition. Strong, simplified human and animal sculptures - house pots, coffins, grave posts and a single-mask type, the protruding-eye Sxayxway - were also made. The Southern tradition barely survived into the 20th century, although it too has enjoyed a revival since the 1970s.
After millenia of what appears to be continuous development, native artistic traditions and society were severely disrupted by European contact which, from the native point of view, amounted to an invasion. Although in the first century of white intrusion Native art and culture flourished under the stimulus of money, the FUR TRADE, new metal tools and other aspects of European technology, the native population became decimated and demoralized by alcoholism and disease, by white schools for native children, by political and religious suppression of the potlatch and by other forms of colonial oppression.
By 1910 the traditional social structure and belief system was in such severe dislocation that white observers predicted its complete collapse and the inevitable assimilation of a remnant population into Canadian society. Except for a handful of artists, especially in the Central Province, who maintained their skills through traditional apprentice training, the great artistic tradition developed over 3000 years degenerated into souvenir production for infrequent tourists. It looked like the end of one of humankind's most distinctive cultural achievements.
The Contemporary Revival
In 1958 Haida carver Bill REID (1920-98) and Nimpkish carver Douglas Cranmer began recreating traditional Haida houses and totem poles for UBC Museum of Anthropology. Reid since became acknowledged as the leader of the Northwest Coast artistic revival. By the 1980s, there were an estimated 200 men (and a growing number of women) seriously engaged in artistic production in all the former styles. A sizable collector's market has developed around their work, and some experts believe that certain new pieces achieve the technical skill of 19th-century masters.
Native artists such as Bill Reid, Robert DAVIDSON, Joe DAVID, Norman Tait, Tony Hunt Sr., Freda Diesing, Susan Point, Dorothy Grant and many others are now training a new generation of artists who both sell to the collector's market and make masks, blankets and other traditional objects and regalia, including totem poles, for use by their own people. Since the 1980s, the colour palette has exploded to embrace the full spectrum, and many new materials are utilized, including ceramics, glass and clothing, with objects in the latter category ranging from sweat shirts to haute couture.
Author MARJORIE M. HALPIN
M. Barbeau, Totem Poles (1950) and Haida Carvers in Argillite (1957); F. Boas, Primitive Art (1927, repr 1955); R.L. Carlson, ed, Indian Art Traditions of the Northwest Coast (1983); R. Davidson, Eagle Transforming (1994); .P. Gustafson, Salish Weaving (1980); Marjorie M. Halpin, Totem Poles: An Illustrated Guide (1981); A. Hawthorn, Art of the Kwakiutl Indians (1967); B. Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (1965); V. Jensen, Where the People Gather: Carving a Totem Pole (1993); P.L. MacNair, A.L. Hoover and K. Neary, The Legacy: Continuing Traditions of Canadian Northwest (1980); C. Samuel, The Chilkat Dancing Blanket (1982); D. Shadbolt, Bill Reid (1987).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
A detailed and nicely illustrated history of totem poles from the Royal BC Museum. A PDF file.
An illustrated visitor’s guide to the natural history and First Nations landmarks on the Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands.
The 'Respect to Bill Reid' Pole
This site captures the spiritual beauty of the "The Respect to Bill Reid Pole", which was created as a tribute to the great Haida artist, Bill Reid. Follow along a timeline to see the fascinating process involved in carving a totem pole. From the Virtual Museum of Canada.
From Time Immemorial: Tsimshian Prehistory
Learn how archeologists interpret the cultural significance of ancient Tsimshian artifacts uncovered in the North Coast Prehistory Project in British Columbia. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
The Canadian Crafts Federation
View collections of beautiful craft work from across Canada. The "education" section features a history of Canadian crafts and a glossary of crafts terms.
Telling Stories: Narratives of Nationhood
See what Canadian art reveals about our geographical, historical and cultural make-up. This superb multimedia presentation is accompanied by extensive K – 12 educational resources. From the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
The website for Robert Davidson, one of Canada’s most respected and important contemporary artists. This superb online collection of paintings, prints, sculptures and jewellery features many Haida cultural themes.
Aboriginal Arts Secretariat
Site for the Aboriginal Arts Secretariat, which supports Aboriginal Peoples projects and programs in all arts disciplines. From the Canada Council.
Haida Spirits of the Sea
Ancient artifacts and works of art reveal the history and traditions of the Haida at this Virtual Museum website.
Haida house models
An illustrated guide to models of houses constructed by the Haida people. Features photos of Chief Wiah's Monster House. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Our World - Our Way of Life
Learn about Haida and Inuit culture as revealed through oral histories, works of art, and photographs in this extensively illustrated Virtual Museum of Canada exhibit.
First nations ceremony welcomes city's new Bill Reid gallery
This article highlights the opening of the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver. From the Vancouver Sun website.
The new school: Today's BC First Nations art
This CBC photo gallery offers a glimpse at how today's artists on the northwest coast are infusing their cultural heritage with new influences and inspirations.
A photo of a Bakwas Mask by Don Svanvik, Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations artist. From hicker-stock-photography.com.
Photos of a Bakwas mask carved by artist Aubrey Johnson, member of the Weka'yi First Nation. From the website for the Just Art Gallery.
Native Cultures of Western Alaska and the Pacific Northwest Coast
An extensive paper about the culture and history of First Nations peoples on Canada's West Coast. From the website for the Community College Humanities Association in the US.
A painting that depicts a performance of the Winter Dance by Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations in British Columbia. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
The Raven's Call
An online multimedia exhibit that showcases the life and works of legendary Haida artist Bill Reid. From the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art and the Virtual Museum of Canada.
The website for the Kwakiutl Band, one of the original inhabitants of the northern Vancouver Island region. Features an illustrated overview of their culture, history, and heritage and information about treaty negotiations and reserve lands. Click on the Our Land: History section for links to articles about the fragile relationship between local First Nations communities and the Hudson's Bay Company in this area.
The Bill Reid Centre For Northwest Coast Art Studies
Part of the Department of First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University, this centre is devoted to "the study of First Nations art of the Northwest Coast as the visual embodiment of a broad cultural development since the end of the last Ice Age." Click the links on the right side of the page to view an illustrated profile of the history and heritage of featured language groups and villages.