November is Native American Heritage Month, so this month, I will be dedicating the whole month of posts to Native American artworks!
I’m going to start the series with some of my favorite art objects from the native cultures from the Northwest Coast of North America.
More than 16 nations make up this grouping including Tlingit, Haida, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Tsimshian, and Kwakwaka’wakw. Although each group has it’s own unique culture and art, they do share some commonalities, and I am highlighting some of the art forms that cross between many of the groups.
The Northwest coast has rich forests, rivers, and rocky coastlines. Their art reflected this environment. Much of their art was created with the abundant trees from the area and featured animals found in the forests, rivers, and oceans such as eagles, beavers, whales, wolves, ravens, frogs, and bears.
These animals had special meanings and symbols and individual clans had animals associated with their clan. For example, whales symbolize ancient wisdom and awareness, beavers stand for creative and artistic ability, and frogs symbolize spring and new life.
Some of the Northwest Coast groups incorporated these animals onto totem poles, which are super tall sculptures made from the trunk of a tree, usually cedar. The designs usually include stacks of stylized animals done in an abstract and bold way.
The totem poles were often in front of long, narrow houses where up to 50 people from the same clan lived all together. These houses were also decorated in bold abstract animal designs as well. Totems represent the history of the clan/family. In addition to the special symbolism of the animals, the colors have special meanings as well.
On my trip to NYC in the summer of 2014, I discovered Kwakiutl transformation masks at the American Museum of Natural History. I found them to be so intriguing and like nothing I had seen before. The masks are interactive: beaks would be attached to strings to make it open and close making a loud clacking noise, masks could open up to then display a different character, or mouths could be removed and replaced with mouths with additional expressions. So. Very. Cool.
These masks were used in different types of ceremonies, and each Native American group might use them in a different way.
Another interesting art form from this area is a Haida button blanket. The Haida artists sewed stylized animal designs and pieces of shell to simple wool blankets brought by European traders. These were worn during ceremonies and other special events. Often, the wearer would have a blanket design that represented his or her clan’s signature animal.
Of course, that is not all of the art from the Northwest coast! I have chosen a few art forms to highlight, but there is also basketry, pottery, boats, carved objects, and more.
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Want to learn more? Check out the below links for books, websites, and lesson plans about Northwest Coast Indian art. Please note, this post includes Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Northwest Coast Indian Art Books
- Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form
- How the Raven Stole the Sun
- Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest
- The Frog Princess: A Tlingit Legend from Alaska
- Learn the Alphabet with Northwest Coast Native Art
- Learn to Count with Northwest Coast Native Art
Northwest Coast Indian Art Websites
- American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collection of the University of Washington Library — lots of great information and images
- More Artworks from Northwest Coast people