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
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
Design (Pacific Northwest Coast Unit) by Stevie Mack and
Deborah Christine (CRIZMAC, 2004)
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
Does the work of art show you something important or new about materials
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