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Snow Owl October, 2003




Stan Bevan


Pacific Northwest Coast Indian Art & Lore
#N786B - Wolf Bracelet


    The following story which comes from the native peoples of the United States is one where a person or an animal pulls off a trick on the folks who are in charge of things--or think they are! Most of the tricksters play innocent pranks that teach a lesson.

     In "Raven Steals the Light", a Tale from the Inuit People of Alaska , Raven is the trickster who gives the sky the sun and moon by playing a prank on the rich, man. In all stories there is a lesson and usually the 'good' win.


(Northwest Inuit of Alaska/Canada)

This happened in the long long ago. Back then, it was always dark. There was no sun in the sky, and people had to creep along the ground so they wouldn't bump into anything. This is boring, Raven said to Squirrel. I can t even see to fly. I mean to do something about this!

There was a wealthy man who lived with his daughter away from everyone else. But a strange story reached Raven s curios ears, it said that the man who owned two ball that glowed brightly in the dark. One of them was big, the other small, both of the were very bright.

I m going to get those shining toys, Raven said. So Raven sneaked into the rich man s well and turned himself into a bit of dirt. He could do that, change his shape without trouble. And Raven said a wishspell; I wish that the rich manss daughter would grow thirsty and drink from this well.

As he said it, the rich man s daughter did indeed, grow thirsty. She pulled up a bucket of water from the well and drank it down--and she drank down the bit of dirt that was Raven, too.

Soon enough, the rich man s daughter grew round with the child. She gave birth to a baby boy--Raven. the only sign that he wasn't a normal human child was that he d make a slight mistake; he d been born with the tail of a raven.

His mother didn't like that. Neither did his uncles, her brothers. But whenever they started to tease the little boy about his tail, Raven outshouted them. I want the balls! she yelled. I want the glittery, glowy, gleaming balls! You ll only break them, he was told. I want the gleaming balls! Raven yelled.

He made so much noise that at last the rich man , his grandfather gave Raven the balls, just to keep him quiet. Raven played with them for a bit, just the way a child would play , rolling the gleaming toys about on the floor and laughing. But each time he rolled them, Raven rolled those gleaming balls a little closer to the door.

Squirrel, who had been patiently waiting all this time, crept up to the door. Raven saw him, and suddenly gave the balls a great kick! Squirrel caught the larger ball and ran. Raven ran after him. The rich man ran after them both. Every time the rich man got too close to Raven, Raven tossed the ball to Squirrel. At last Raven turned back to his bird-shaped and flew up into the air with the ball.

Give it back! the rich man called.


Give it back!


I have the other ball. See how it gleams? the rich man said holding up the smaller ball.

Raven laughed. I d rather have this one

But if you take this ball, the rich man said., the nights will be nice and long, dark as your feathers.

I'd rather have the days long and bright, Raven said, to show off my feathers!

And Raven threw the ball up into the sky, where it became the sun. Some people say the rich man was so angry that he threw the small ball up there, too, where it became the moon, but that s just what people say.

Trisha Mullinnix, educator

Lincoln Elementary

Ashland , OR

First Nations Territories
of the
Pacific Northwest

     The coast of Western North America from the Columbia River northward into southeastern Alaska was the focus of one of the most outstanding developments of art by the American Indian. The height of the attainment seems all the more remarkable when one considers that the native population of this region pursued a fishing, hunting and gathering way of life without the presence of the agricultural base so often considered a prerequisite for great artistic elaboration by a society.

     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 Yakutat Bay in the north to the southern end of Puget Sound , for example, is over 1100 miles.

     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 Northwest Coast may he considered a distinct cultural area of North America . Similarly the art forms, while not the same from north to south, nevertheless share much in their basic styles, media and subject matter.

     Just as the abundance of salmon strongly influenced the pattern of life on the Northwest Coast , the ready availability of cedar was a basic factor affecting the nature of the art and technology of these people. Houses, canoes, domestic utensils, masks, and other equipment for dance and drama were all made of cedar, although other woods and substances were frequently chosen and decorated.

     Unfortunately a culture which relies heavily upon wood does not leave behind much record of its early creations. Hence we are faced on the Northwest Coast with an essentially single-period art style. Archaeologists have determined that peoples probably depending upon salmon were occupying the lower Fraser River around 8000 years ago. Evidence of occupation on the coast proper is not so early but it may be guessed that stone carvings of considerable distinction were produced at least as long as 600 years ago on the Columbia River and in the southern Vancouver Island and lower Fraser River regions as well. Furthermore the excellent workmanship on stone tools and bone tools, charms, pins and pendants from older habitation sites suggests that a high standard of wood carving may have been present from an early date.

     The earliest European explorers landed in Alaska in 1741, but it was not until 1778 that James Cook made collections of articles of Indian manufacture which are yet available for study. From these collections of Cook, Vancouver (1792), and others in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it has been possible to determine that decorated objects such as wooden masks and rattles were not appreciably different in concept and design from some of the characteristic pieces which were subsequently in use and zealously collected for museums even in the 20th century. It seems clear that the art style when first effectively recorded in the 18th century was not in a formative period, but had already a positive, well-defined set of conventions.

    Northwest Coast artistic activity was highly functional in social life, with intimate ties to the inheritance, wealth, and status systems. Especially in the northern part of the area among the Tlingit, Haida and Tsirnshian, there was a constant demand for graphic symbols, such as heraldic devices, associated with clan-type division and inheritance of social privilege. These symbolic motifs were applied most strikingly to house decorations and totem poles, ceremonial costumes and regalia, and to feast dishes. The richness of these elaboration's was inextricably involved with a high degree of social stratification and accumulation of wealth. In the south among the Salish, on the other hand, the art showed a stark, although dramatic, simplicity and neither family crests nor totem poles were developed, nor was social stratification based on wealth highly emphasized. The Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth), Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka-wakw), and Bella Coola (Heiltsuk) probably should be placed as intermediate groups in this scheme, but in art as well as other aspects of culture, they achieved distinctive local developments unsurpassed by the other groups.

     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 Northwest Coast art, and wood carvers showed a tendency to treat other materials; even stone, similarly to wood. As already noted, cedar, especially red cedar, was most commonly used for masks, houses, planks, boxes, and canoes. Other woods were alder, for food dishes; maple, for spoons and some rattles; and yew, for bows and clubs to kill fish and seals. Iron blades for the adze, the chief implement of the woodworkers, were long used on the Northwest Coast , having been observed by Captain Cook in 1778. Blades made from stone, shell, or bone, however, must have been used in the original development of the woodcarver's art.

     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 Northwest Coast peoples only the Coast Salish wove on the "full," or two-bar loom.

     Throughout the Northwest Coast , there existed a fundamental belief in powerful spirits who lived in the sea, the forests and the air. These spirits could bestow upon human beings, if they chose, some of their power, thereby assuring success in the activities of life. Such powers were granted to the individual through a lonely spirit quest or inherited through a family line from an ancestor who had acquired them from an encounter with a spirit. The graphic symbols of these attained or inherited powers were applied to many of the objects of daily and ceremonial use.

      Masks were generally the most dramatic ceremonial objects on the Northwest Coast . Supernatural beings, in animal, human, or highly imaginary form, are depicted in most of the masks. These beings, according to the clan legends, once appeared before an ancestor, or taking human form, became an ancestor. The descendants of the legendary ancestor inherited the right to display the masks and other symbols associated with a specific supernatural being. Among the northern groups, the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, great emphasis was placed on the public display of these outward. symbols of noble lineage. Realistic "portrait" masks of important persons living and dead were used in the dramatization of clan legends or in dances in which the performers were supposedly killed and revived. Among the Tlingit Indians especially, shamans also possessed a great variety of masks, each representing a supernatural helper upon whom they could call during their curing ceremonies.

     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 Northwest Coast was twined almost exclusively with spruce or cedar root elements. The elaborate ring hats of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, as well as Nootka chiefs' hats, decorated with whaling scenes, are among the best representatives of this highly developed art. In the northern region, hats were usually painted, both, for waterproofing and decoration. The hats of wealthy people were commonly painted with crest designs. Hats with basketry rings on top were worn by wealthy people on ceremonial occasions. The rings were status symbols indicating the number of potlatches the wearer had given.

    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 Northwest Coast . These were reserved for use by important people only, while other people sat on the ground or on cedar bark mats.

    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.

    Spoons of mountain goat horn, also elaborately carved with crests, were distributed among the guests. A special type of flat wooden spoon ornamented with crest carvings was used to cat a popular confection made of "soapberries" (so palalli) whipped to a froth with water.

     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 Northwest Coast arts. At the beginning of the 19th century, near the Haida village of Skidegate in the Queen Charlotte Islands , mining prospectors discovered a deposit of Argillite, a fine-grained carbonaccous shale sometimes referred to as slate. This stone is soft enough to be easily carved when freshly exposed but thereafter hardens markedly and may be sanded, stained and buffed. The Haida soon discovered that decorative carvings of Argillite were popular curios with the visiting whalers, explorers and fur traders. The subject matter and designs on carvings made from 1820 to 1870 were frequently European in origin. After this period, although the execution often showed European influences, the motifs became primarily traditional. Throughout the entire period of their production such carvings were made exclusively for sale or barter and were never used in any ceremonial or functional way in the traditional Haida culture.

    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 Sitka in the Tlingit region, most smiths after 1865 were Haida. The bracelets were highly valued by the Haida women, bartered to other Indian groups and formed a standard item in the curio trade with Europeans.

     "Button blankets," robes, and shirts were commonly made of Hudson 's Bay Company trade blankets ornamented with red flannel appliqu and traditional crest designs outlined in pearl shell buttons. They gradually replaced most of the indigenous skin and textile garments for all important formal occasions and for Potlatch gifts.

    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 of the Northwest Coast belong to the past, as do the cultures of which they were an integral part.

    We hope this gives a better understanding of the history of the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest


(Information for Educators, Students and Just Interested Folks)


     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 post-European contact.  As well, it is important to have a clear understanding of the contributions that First People continue to offer to the rich cultural diversity that is Canada .

    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 Canadas 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 Turtle Island , and a renewed appreciation of the unique place of Canada s First People in the grand scheme of things.  

All My Relations. Ms Thunderbird


     The Pacific Northwest coast had a strong belief in the Supernatural (the Unseen World) and believed that both Humans, Animals, Elements, Plant world were the same; each had a voice. Animals were able to transform from one realm to another. Numerous stories speak of the interrelationship powers between humans and animals

     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 Chiefs 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.

     The elaborate dance dramas that were an integral part of the Potlatch ceremonies were not just good theatre, but re-enacted ancestral encounters with supernatural beings, particularly when important rights were transferred to the human world, thereby further cementing a families claims to certain crests, rights and privileges. Beautiful masks, and other regalia were made by skilled artists to enhance the images of supernatural presences.

    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.

    Like most Indigenous cultures, all animals and plant life were thanked with rituals for giving themselves so that humans could live.



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