THE INUIT: WESTERN
| Pacific Northwest
Coast Indian Art & Lore
The following story which comes from
the native peoples of the
In "Raven Steals the Light",
a Tale from the Inuit People of
Trisha Mullinnix, educator
|CONDENSED HISTORY OF THE NORTHWEST COASTAL PEOPLE|
The coast of
A key to this development was undoubtedly the abundance of natural resources making possible a sedentary way of life emphasizing conspicuous consumption. Chief among the subsistence resources were fish, especially the salmon, as well as sea mammals and shellfish. Seasonal changes in subsistence activity also provided a protracted period of leisure the in the winter during which surpluses of stored food were consumed and time was devoted to crafts, arts and ceremonial life. Thus, while the environment might appear superficially as a forbidding maze of fogbound islands, inlets and coast cloaked with dense rain forest and isolated from the rest of the continent by steep mountain ranges, it was in reality an ideal habitat for a people skilled in fishing and hunting.
The easily negotiated
waterways between adjacent tribes and the advanced maritime adaptations of the
people permitted well-developed communication between adjacent groups. The
result was that many cultural elements were shared by peoples throughout the
length of the region. This represents an extremely wide distribution when it is
noted that the air-line distance from
Although several different
linguistic stocks cut across this elongated cultural region and although each
group had certain specialization's, broad regularities of culture developed to
the degree that the
Just as the abundance of salmon strongly influenced the pattern of life on the
Unfortunately a culture which
relies heavily upon wood does not leave behind much record of its early
creations. Hence we are faced on the
The earliest European
explorers landed in
Great impetus was given to the arts by the important Potlatch ceremony, in which the host proclaimed the right to his ancestral inheritance, and made good his claim by displaying and giving away wealth, thus establishing, a higher social standing. Apart from the necessity of producing large quantities of food and goods, plus an impressive dwelling place with proper decorative objects in evidence, it was mandatory to distribute gifts among the many guests invited to these great feasts. Often rival chiefs, for example, would be given valuable canoes, carved wooden chests and other articles upon which a great deal of time and creative skill were expended. Since such gifts had ultimately to be returned in kind, there was a constant stimulus to the decorative arts, and the more well-endowed artists were continually called upon to produce works which would please and impress the witnesses at the potlatch.
Wood was by far
the most-used material in
Pigments for native paints, applied to wood, textiles, or skins (deer, elk, caribou), originally were obtained from bark, fungus, moss, berries, charcoal, cinnabar, lignite, and ochre. These substances were mixed with chewed salmon roe to obtain red, black, purple and yellow paints. Copper allowed to corrode in urine produced a blue-green pigment. Paint brushes were often made from the guard hairs of porcupines. The Indians were not slow to adopt the commercially manufactured paints introduced by the encroaching whites for their traditional art.
Various kinds of stone were used for everyday implements such as mortars and pestles, adze blades or knives. Stone figures evidently have been carved for a long time on the Coast, and this art had not died by historic times. Extremely hard stones, such as greenstone or nephrite, were shaped into blades and often highly polished. Both hard and soft stones were carved into charms. Argillite was used only in historic times.
From whale vertebrae were formed small stools, bowls, and masks. Other bony parts of the whale were fashioned into clubs. Horns from the mountain sheep and goat, obtained by trade from the interior, were used for spoons and bowls. Walrus ivory traded from some Inuit source, as well as teeth of the whale, bear, and beaver, were carved into intricately figured charm pieces.
Copper was the only metal truly known to the Indians in pre-contact times. It was traded down from the north and hammered into thin sheets from which bracelets, nose and car ornaments, and gorgets were made. Sheet copper was introduced by the whites. Silver and gold coins were also used as material for bracelets and other jewelry, but only after the arrival of the whites.
Haliotis shell was employed frequently in inlay decoration. Dentalium and other shells were also used for decorative purposes. Pearl shell buttons introduced by the whites were chiefly employed on the "button blankets" of the historic period.
Textiles were typically
made by women, while sculpture was done by men. Basketry hats, mats, and
blankets of cedar bark and goat's wool were prominent among the contributions of
women. The usual materials for the fine baskets were roots of spruce or cedar.
In the north, mats were mostly made of cedar bark, while in the south, among
certain Salish groups, cedar bark and rules or reeds were employed. Of the
Masks were generally the
most dramatic ceremonial objects on the
The masked performances held during the winter ceremonial season reached their greatest elaboration among the Kwakiutl and Nootka Indians, who presented a cycle of dramatic variations on a single theme. This was the re-enactment of the ancestor's encounter with a supernatural being and included a demonstration of the powers with which the spirit had endowed him. Among the Kwakiutl, zoomorphic masks of both mythical and real creatures reached their most elaborate development and largest size, often involving movable parts intended to enhance the dramatic performances.
Apart from their use in ritual, masks were worn to add impressiveness to secular occasions such as feasts and potlatches. The right to use any masks and their associated songs and powers was ordinarily the hereditary privilege of an individual or a family.
Mechanical devices made by the Kwakiutl for their dramatic presentations during the winter ceremonial season included carved openwork wooden screens as well as masks. The designs on the screens were most frequently of the Sisiutl, the mythical double-headed serpent which could transform itself into any animate or inanimate object. The screens, operated by as many as six men, were so contrived that in the flickering firelight they appeared to rise up from or disappear into the ground.
Wooden box drums were suspended from the ceiling beams and beaten either with the hands, covered with shredded cedar bark, or by the heels of drummers sitting above them. Tambourine drums, made of deerskins painted with crest designs, were frequently used by shamans in their curing ceremonies. Whistles were used in the major ceremonials of the Nootka and Kwakiutl to represent the voices of supernatural beings.
"Coppers" were shield-shaped plaques, mostly manufactured from imported sheet copper, highly prized as symbols of wealth. They were exhibited during Potlatches as tokens for great amounts of other goods and at other times were competitively bartered for between chiefs. They were sometimes ostentatiously destroyed or cut up in a traditionally prescribed manner. The competitive use of coppers in the Potlatch reached its highest development among the Kwakiutl after the beginning of the fur trade with Europeans, The designs on the coppers were often of the owners crest. Each copper had a name, and its history and value were well known to everyone.
Staffs and "raven" rattles were carried by shamans, chiefs and other leaders on ceremonial occasions as symbols of their high social rank and to add emphasis during their formal speeches. The staffs and rattles used by shamans were carved with representations of their spirit helpers.
Elaborate attire was worn, particularly by wealthy people, for ceremonial occasions. Twined cedar bark blankets and painted and otherwise decorated robes, skirts, capes and dance aprons of deer, elk, or caribou skins have evidently been in use for a long time on the Northwest Coast, but during the historic period the native "Chilkat blanket" and the "Button blanket," the latter made from material introduced by Europeans, dominated the costume for festive and ritual events.
The weavers of the Chilkat blanket, which was an elaboration of the basic cedar bark blanket with the addition of mountain goat wool, employed a simple twining technique on a "half-loom." The designs were copied by the women from pattern boards painted by the men. The typical colors, black, yellow, blue, and white, were used even after European dyes were readily available.
The finest basketry on the
Baskets, made primarily for utilitarian purposes, were often so closely woven that they could hold water. Many were decorated with the "false embroidery" technique in which strips of dyed grasses, for example, were inserted in the weft elements to produce patterns. These designs were usually angular and geometric, with crest designs rarely appearing in this technique.
Animal and human representations were carved in every size, from the massive images on totem poles to the small figurines used on ceremonial headdresses and robes, Memorial columns, house posts and canoe prows were ornamented with crest figures. Nearly life-size figures of chiefs and their assistants, were made for display at potlatches and other ceremonial occasions. Large representations of spirits were used by the Salish in their shamanistic performances. In addition to these carvings a class of small sculptures usually depicting women and children became common in the middle of the 19th century.
The popular term "totem pole" has been given to several varieties of carved cedar posts formerly erected in many villages of the Northwest Coast Indians. Memorial poles were erected by a deceased chief's heir as part of the process of assuming his predecessor's titles and prerogatives. Mortuary poles, sometimes including a box which contained the remains of the deceased, were set up beside the graves of dead chiefs. House-portal poles built onto the front of houses had a doorway opening at the base. In addition, poles symbolizing special privileges were sometimes placed in front of the houses of chiefs. The conventionalized figures provide clues to the identity of the legendary characters but interpretations can be made only by those familiar with the particular myths and events symbolized in the carvings.
Crest designs were often
painted on the front of the plank houses, on interior partition screens,
and on the planks used for the walled sleeping compartments. Elaborately
carved and painted backrests were made in the northern region of the
Boxes, most commonly of cedar, served a variety of purposes including use as storage and cooking vessels or as coffins. A single plank was steamed and bent to form the sides, and the first and fourth sides were fitted and sewn together tightly with spruce root cordage. The bottom of the box was secured in a similar manner. Cooking boxes were often undecorated, though boxes used for storage and coffins were frequently both carved and painted and often inlaid with shell. Many of the boxes in museum collections have a greasy appearance due to their use as oil storage containers. The designs are family crests or motifs from family myths.
Ladles for serving food and oil at feasts were carved with the crests of the host's family. They were of wood or mountain sheep horn, steamed and molded into the desired shape and often inlaid with Haliotis shell.
Bowls, made from wood or mountain sheep horn, were intended to hold and serve food and the oil for seasoning dried foods. The wooden bowls, most commonly made of alder, were shaped from a single piece of wood and were frequently ornamented with shell inlays as well as carvings of family crests. Large wooden containers, used only for important feasts, were sometimes made in the shape of a figure, with the largest bowl in die abdomen and smaller dishes at the knees, feet, and head. Some dishes were made from single pieces of mountain sheep horn steamed and molded, in the manner of horn ladles, and also carved with crest designs.
Shamans' charms and combs were carved with representations of spirits seen by the sharnan in his power-seeking dreams and visions. Although all these carvings bad power both to secure good and to avert evil, the charms thought to be most potent were worn as neck pendants. A Tlingit shaman usually had a special carving believed to contain extraordinary spirit power. Some charms, when applied to the patient's affected part, were expected to aid strongly in drawing out the evil spirit causing the illness. Haida shamans used a carved hollow bone tube or "soul-catcher" for blowing away the sickness and for temporarily containing a patient's "lost soul."
Throughout the region there existed local specialization's in art. Some of these, such as the exploiting of Argillite for carving by the Haida, were based upon geographical accident, while others, as in the case of silversmithing among the Tlingit or Tsimshian, probably happened to be chosen, in full historic times, partly because individuals in these groups were already adept at working a similar native substance.”
“The contacts with the Yankee
sailors and Europeans stimulated new developments in the
Bracelets hammered from gold
and silver coins were engraved, with designs based on the owner's crest
or upon traditional animal and bird models. European designs, like
floral scrolls and those resembling conventional Russian or American
eagle motifs, were also frequently used. Although this kind of
metalcraft originally centered about the Russian fort at
"Button blankets," robes, and
shirts were commonly made of
From the 1880's onward there was a rapid decline in the arts under the impact of Christian missionization, anti-potlatch laws and other acculturative influences.
Today limited revivals and
reinterpretations of the arts have begun to occur with the encouragement of
museums and commercial interests, particularly in Victoria and Vancouver.
However, it is clear that the outstanding achievements in the traditional arts
We hope this gives a better
understanding of the history of the First Peoples of the
|ABOUT FIRST NATIONS CULTURE|
(Information for Educators, Students and Just Interested Folks)
“MS THUNDERBIRD'S INDIGENOUS STUDIES VISION STATEMENT:
The importance of learning
about Native history and culture is not only to dispel myths, stereotypes and
biases about Native people, but to also offer AN ACCURATE (the web is full of
inaccuracies!) look at Turtle Island's Indigenous history both pre- and
As well, it is important to have a clear understanding of the
contributions that First People continue to offer to the rich cultural diversity
This website has not been designed to make anyone feel they must function as apologists for the mistakes of their Ancestors, but merely to cast a bright light on a people who have been neglected in Canada’s overall appreciation and understanding of its citizens.
People should leave this site with a
more informed view of the rich and vibrant Indigenous cultures that continue to
exist all across
All My Relations.” – Ms Thunderbird
Salmon People, Killer Whale People, Wolf People, etc, were viewed as having their own houses where they took off their animal cloaks and lived parallel lives as humans. Because Salmon People, for example, ‘voluntarily’ left their homes to feed the humans they were honoured and respected. All tribes practiced the Spring Rite of welcoming the first salmon by placing it in the Chief’s house and sprinkling it with Eagle down. After flesh consumed, the bones were carefully returned to the water so the salmon would come again the following year.
Many of the Northwest coast peoples, particularly the Tsimshian, believed in reincarnation. Reincarnation is a direct reflection of the belief that all living beings were able to cross back and forth between the seen and unseen worlds.
Below are Links to Native American People/Tribes Pages