Pacific Northwest Coast Indian Art & Lore
The distinctive artistic tradition of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest has shown a continuing vitality despite the generally devastating effect of the coming of the Europeans upon their culture. Today this tradition is flourishing with younger artists both following and reinterpreting the traditions of the older culture and responding to the newer forces of their present life. The carvings, paintings, textiles and jewelry are finding an enthusiastic reception not only within the tribal communities and with tourists, but in the artistic world at large. We invite you to learn more about the background to our Pacific Northwest Coast Indian jewelry and argellite reproductions.
The most important of all creatures to the Northwest coast Indian peoples was the Raven. He took many forms to many peoples — the Transformer, the cultural hero, the trickster, the Big Man. Full of magical powers, the Raven could transform himself into anything. He put the sun in the sky, the fish in the sea, the salmon into the rivers. His antics were often motivated by greed, and he loved to tease, to cheat, to woo, and to trick.
The Eagle is not a supernatural figure as the raven, but as the largest and most powerful of the birds is used as a symbol of social position and prestige among the Indian peoples. Eagles are present in great numbers along the Pacific Northwest coast where the Indians live and fish. Eagle down, a symbol of peace and friendship, was sprinkled before guests in welcome dances and on other ceremonial occasions; eagle feathers were used in many rituals and worn on masks, headdresses and dance aprons.
Haida and Tlingit Indians have two main clans, the Eagles and the Ravens. Traditionally, members of the same clan cannot marry, so marriages typically signify the joining of an eagle to a raven. Eagle and Raven, when linked together, are consequently known as the Lovebirds. The Lovebirds are a popular design for items such as bracelets and rings, given as gifts between couples of these clans.
Raven Stealing the Sun
Long ago, by the mouth of a great river, lived an old chief and his only daughter. It was said that the old man kept the sun hidden away in a box. Raven wanted to have this sun and had tried to get it many times without success. At length he hit on a plan. He noticed that the daughter went to the well every day for a supply of water, so he transformed himself into a pine needle, dropped into her drinking water and was swallowed. She became pregnant and in due time he was reborn as the chief’s grandson. Thus he gained access to the house.
Raven became a great favorite with the old chief who let him have anything he asked for. One day he asked to play with the sun box, but this the old man refused to grant. Raven gave him no peace, and finally, weary of his whining, his grandfather let him play with it. The Raven quickly took the box and rolled it about until he had it outside. Then dashing the box to pieces, he took the sun in his beak and placed it in the sky, where it has been giving light to the world ever since.
Whales, a common motif in the art of the Northwest Coast peoples, were the subject of countless stories and legends. One story held that a whale could capture a canoe and drag it and the people aboard down to an underwater Village of the Whales. These people were then transformed into whales themselves. The Haida believed that whales seen near villages were these drowned people trying to communicate with the villagers. Our collection of Northwest Coast Indian Jewelry and NW Jewelry includes several portrayals of whales, including Tsimshian Orca Earrings and an Orca (killer whale) pendant. The Orca pendant combines three major figures common to the art of the Pacific Northwest — Whale, Raven and Eagle.
The sea monster, Sisiutl, roamed the land and sea of the Kwakiutl and Nootka peoples. It had two heads, and could transform itself into different sizes and shapes. It was believed that anyone viewing a Sisiutl would be turned to stone, but if a warrior could obtain Sisiutl blood and rub it on his skin, it would render his skin impenetrable to enemy weapons.
After the great flood, Raven was gorging himself on edibles on the beach. Hearing some strange sounds, he found a giant clamshell with little beings wiggling inside. He crooned and coaxed them out, and they were the first humans.
The wolf features strongly in both Indian and Inuit lore as a successful hunter. Once the object of fear among the white settlers and shot by bounty hunters, the wolf is becoming better understood and more appreciated, both in Canada and Alaska, and is depicted in art throughout the north. In Indian designs, the wolf is identified by an elongated snout with flaring nostrils, large teeth and ears, and a curled tail.
The Beaver was a common motif in Haida carvings, often found on totem poles, boxes and bowls. The Beaver can be recognized by his large prominent incisors and cross-hatched tail.
According to Tsimshian legend, salmon were originally salmon people living in 5 villages. These five species of salmon represented the 5 villages — Iyai (spring salmon), Mesaw (sockeye), Werh (coho), Stemawn (pink), and Qanees (dog salmon). In early spring, they changed into their fish form and started on their journey, but each group at different times. Salmon was a major food source for all the Northwest Coast peoples, and therefore a major part of their cultures.
Bears were held in great respect by the Coastal Indians because of their humanlike qualities. Bears that had been killed were taken to the chief’s house and treated like guests. Prayers and dances were made to the soul of the bear so that harm would not later befall the hunters. The bear motif is often found carved and painted on totem poles and used in many other art works.
The Hummingbird is one of the less common motifs used by the Northwest Coast peoples, but one of the more delicate. It is marked by its long down-curving bill. We offer a number of pieces of jewelry depicting the hummingbird, designed by Danny Dennis, a Tsimshian from Kitwanga in British Columbia.
Halibut, once common to the Northwest coastal waters, were an important food source for the Northwest Coast peoples. A Tlingit legend tells that a fisherman presented his wife with a very small halibut. Disgusted, she threw it onto the beach, where it thrashed about and grew so large that it smashed the island to pieces, creating the Queen Charlotte Islands.
The Frog, although not found in the territory of the northern Indians, plays a significant part in their mythology. It has been suggested that the lore of the frog came with their ancestors from Asia. The Frog is usually portrayed by a wide toothless mouth and flat nose, and showing feet and toes.
The owl is defined by wide eye sockets and a short sharp beak. The Owl is often associated with death, and those leaving this world may hear the owl calling their name.
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