First Nations Culture and Mythology
This section is dedicated to help you better understand the peoples behind this exceptional art form.
The Coast Salish did not practice a crest system, nor did they build totem poles. They had an ancient woodworking tradition of carved animal figures. Their animal depictions were stylized, yet, realistic. Their gravesites were adorned with lifelike human figures as grave-markers. Some of the most exceptional Salish artwork can be found on the spindle-whorl, a disc that acted as a flywheel on the spinning device used for making wool yarn. Mountain goat yarn was used to make their beautiful blankets. There was only one ceremonial mask used by the Coast Salish and that was the elaborate, three-dimensional, Sxwaixwe mask. Shaman’s rattles and smaller-scale cooking implements were all beautifully adorned with designs and motifs. The canoes of the Coast Salish were of exceptional craftsmanship; hewn from a single log. Intertribal racing was one of the applications of the canoe so speed was factored into the elegant design. Coast Salish bowls, wall plaques and wool blankets are still being produced in the Fraser Valley with traditional tools and dyes.
WEST COAST (NOOTKA)
The West Coast Nation’s style of design is flowing and flexible with a strong angularity. Form lines are fluid with no tight control. Their obvious difference from the northern style is their tendency to leave blank areas open and not fill them with elements of design. West Coast dance masks have a large mouth and pronounced, aquiline nose. The reason for this is that in West Coast dances the dancer keeps a profile to the audience. Face painting has its influence on the decor of the mask as it is often emulated in the representations of the animals. This signifies the creature’s supernatural ability to transform from animal to human at will. Silver and gold pigments made an appearance in the work of the Coast Salish shortly after the arrival of the Europeans.
The Kwakiutl are known for applying their magnificent mythologies to dramatic masks and extravagant totem poles. The supernatural bird masks, such as the powerful Thunderbird and Kolus are Kwakiutl creations. The Kwakiutl sun mask with its embellished rays is a popular image. The animal and human forms depicted often have a great deal of realism. The masks, totems and other carvings have deeply cut areas, creating a more three-dimensional effect. Attachments, such as fins, beaks and wings are another characteristic of their style, which leans towards as much true representation of the subject as possible. Transformation masks are elaborate inventions of Kwakiutl design; as are the enormous beaks of the Cannibal raven birds, which clap, open and closed during the dance ceremonies. The Kwakiutl were quick to apply the many different colours brought by the Europeans while still adhering to black as the primary colour used on the outlines. They generally stay within the traditional style of their crest art. Ceremonial life continues to be vibrant and alive in communities such as Alert Bay, which is a hotbed for talented Kwakiutl artists.
The Haida Nation is located primarily in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The powerful art of the Haida is, perhaps, the best known Northwest Coast cultural style. The designs are bold and uncluttered with a monumental weight that carries through in even the miniature argillite sculptures. Balance and symmetry are strong characteristics of Haida art. There is a classic, flowing use of line in the ovoids which is shared with the northern work. The body proportions show similarities to northern style as well, with the head of the figure often occupying half of its length and size. Large ovoids are used to construct the body in their painted prints. Blank spaces are never left unadorned. The classic and traditional colours of black and red are predominantly used by Haida print makers.
The Tlingit occupied the areas of Northern British Columbia and Alaska. They had much in common with their Haida neighbours and traded extensively with them. Their painting style was similar to that of the Haida and they are generally both considered the northern style. They still practice silk-screen printing. The Tlingit are credited as being the first to construct community houses in traditional style. These House fronts were painted and adorned with totem poles.
Northwest Coast art is thriving today in K’san Village, near Hazelton, where design styles of the old traditions are being studied and applied by the new generation of artists. Exceptionally skilled silk screen designers are creating fine work that illustrates the ancient legends of their people. Tsimshian is the collective under which the Gitksan and Nisga'a people are termed. Tsimshian art has a look that is crisp and clean. They create in a tradition of precision and linear refinement. The human figures are lifelike and often depicted expressing emotion. Their art is very personal and positive. Animals and inanimate objects are widely depicted. A defining characteristic of Tsimshian art is that the linear elements are often detached from the main body of the design. The resulting effect is action and vigorous movement. The Tsimshian are similar to the Kwakiutl in their ceremonial art. Their dancers and singers are beautifully adorned in lavish masks and costumes.
The Potlatch is a ceremony in which masks are used to interpret a series of songs, dances and rituals. The use of masks in traditional dance ceremonies has long played a vital role in preserving the stories, privileges, status, and responsibilities of their owners. It is in the context of the Potlatch ceremony that the Kwakwaka’wakw give meaning to the purpose of their existence in the universe. It occurs during the Winter Ceremonies. It is when they observe themselves in relation to the Sky World, the Undersea World, the Mortal World, and the Spirit World. This highly sacred event is centered on the establishment of social claims and involves the distribution of hospitality and gifts. Totem poles were often ceremonially erected to mark these occasions. The dances, songs and theatrical performance demonstrate special inherited privileges, and the performances are witnessed by invited guests, often from other tribal areas. The Potlatch is the defining instrument of the great order of things, past and present and yet to come. Singing, dancing and potlatching are the ceremonies, which create the traditional impetus for the making of masks, drums, rattles and other regalia, and by participating in them physically, the artists experience the cultural and spiritual as well as aesthetic value of their work.
The spiritual embodiment of everything in the forest. He is the wild man of the woods and chief of the ghosts. Bak'was lurked at the edge of the forest threatening and beckoning. He ate ghost food and tried to persuade humans to eat it as well to become like him. He was associated with spirits of people who had drowned and they hovered near him. The Bak'was mask has a shadowy, human-like form, accentuating the attributes of a skull. His lips are often drawn back to give prominence to his teeth. His eyes are sunk deeply into their sockets, with a brow that juts forth and cheeks that are hollowed. When the Bak'was mask is danced, the play of light from the flickering fire and wild movement casts ominous shadows across the mask.
Dzunuk'wa is a powerful mythological land based creature of giant proportions. Her black, hairy body is twice the size of a human's. Her eyes, which are almost blind, are a glow of red from deeply sunken eye sockets. She is portrayed with pursed lips, which seem to animate her wild call of, "Uh, huu, uu, uu". The costume worn to accompany this incarnation of Dzunuk'wa is made out of bearskin and the mask itself is quite large at 2 feet in height. Dzunuk'wa carries a basket on her back which she uses to store the children she has captured to eat. The children are always able to outwit the monster, and escape. Dzunuk'wa is the most important crest owned by a chief. He will hold the mask during an oration, using the image as a reference to the captured knowledge of her powerful forest world.
The owl is often associated with death, perhaps because of it's silent flight, eerie call, and nocturnal habits. The Kwakiutl believe that one who heard the owl call their name was soon to die. The Tsimshian believed the owl caused death to a person by flying over their head. The owl mask has large round eye sockets and a short sharp beak.
In Nuu-chah-nulth mythology the Earthquake mask is named Tagit, an ancestor who lives on the mountainside. He caused tremors or major earthquakes when he felt nature had been disturbed or abused by humankind. He did this to remind us how small we are and that we must all have respect for nature.
The most powerful supernatural spirit in Northwest Coast Native mythology and personifies 'chief'. Thunderbird lived high in the mountains and fished for killer whales when he was hungry. He is often depicted with his talons clenched into the back of a killer whale, lifting it from the ocean and soaring through the sky much like an eagle would prey upon salmon. The flapping of his wings caused the roar of thunder and lightning flashed from his eyes when he blinked. The Thunderbird mask has a sharply curved upper beak, similar to that of the hawk. The curled appendages on the top of his head are power symbols.
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