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A Spirit Transformed:
Pacific Northwest Coast Artwork

On the Pacific Coast of the North American continent, from the Columbia River in Washington State through British Columbia and into southeast Alaska, there is a narrow strip of coastal land known as the Pacific Northwest Coast. This rugged land contains high mountains that rise directly from the shore and extend inland for over a hundred miles.

People first inhabited this area thousands of years ago. Coming from Asia, small groups traveled across the frozen landmass of the Bering Strait. These first people were hunters and gatherers, and found the Pacific Northwest Coast to be a very suitable environment.

The people settled into small villages and built permanent structures. Because the early villages remained isolated, separate tribal groups formed. These groups or societies are the Coast Salish, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit.

The village people were broken up into clan families. Each clan had its own “big house.” A big house might be as large as 500 feet long and 60 feet wide, and it housed many families. The exterior of the big house was made of vertical cedar planking, which was often painted with animal designs. These painted animals illustrated the dominant crest symbol. Often a totem pole covered the doorway of the big house. The pole was fitted with a round or oval opening that served as a passageway to and from the house.

The Pacific Northwest Coast Indians relied on the surrounding plants and animals for their survival. They took great care to protect and preserve their environment. Their artwork demonstrates their regard for the environment.

The Pacific Northwest Coast Indians believed that when the world began, the first people contained characteristics of human and animal form. They had the ability to transform from animal to human, or human to animal at will. These were the “original people.” Today’s Indians are the descendents of these original people. The clan symbols or crests belonging to each family represent the animal from which they descended.

Transformation masks, produced by the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians, symbolize the magical ability to change from animal to man, or man to animal. The masks contain movable sides that can open or close to effect the transformation.

The animal crest or clan symbol is of great importance to both the Pacific Northwest Coast Indian’s artwork and his or her station in society. Various animals represent their particular traits. For instance, wolves and killer whales are recognized for their fierceness, eagles and ravens for their eyesight, and minks and otters for their cleverness.

Animal crests appear on all types of Pacific Northwest Coast artwork. Carved, painted, or sewn, they appear on boxes, ladles, blankets, masks, and totems. Stylized shapes and forms are used to represent the different animals. These items are well-crafted and finely decorated. Although produced as useful objects, their beautiful decoration and craftsmanship render them artwork.

Totem poles are carved from cedar logs and painted with natural pigments. An ancient tool, known as an “adze,” was used to carve away large areas from the wood.

Within the Pacific Northwest Coast artwork, stylized shapes and forms appear again and again. One basic component is the form line. The form line is a flowing continuous line that defines the shape and features of the crest. Usually painted in black, it continues unbroken throughout the design.

The most prevalent characteristic shape of Pacific Northwest Coast art is the “ovoid.” This rectangular shape is bent or bowed, and the corners are rounded. The top line is usually thicker than the bottom, and it can be stretched or squeezed to fit into a particular area. It can be many sizes, solid or hollow, and a variety of shapes. The ovoid is often used to represent the head, arm and leg joints, or to give shape to a wing or tail. Small ovoids are used for eyes, ears, or noses.

The Pacific Northwest Coast Indians produce magnificent masks, blankets, boxes, and totems incorporating human and animal features. Using stylized forms and shapes, their artwork reveals a rich variety of creative expression as well and communicating their beliefs and customs.


Source: Tribal Design (Pacific Northwest Coast Unit) by Stevie Mack and Deborah Christine (CRIZMAC, 2004)

Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

Is the art of the Pacific Northwest Coast valuable or significant because of what it shows about the artist, the culture, the materials used, or other art?

Do you have a new understanding about the artist? Yourself? Other people?

Does the work of art show you something important or new about materials or processes?

Have you learned something new about other art as a result of viewing and understanding this particular work of art?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.