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Coastal Customs

How has Northwest Coast art survived and changed over the years?

How has Northwest Coast art survived and changed over time?

Attributed to Bob Harris (Xi’xa’niyus), Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl), (c.1870-c.1935), Kumukwamł (Chief of the undersea mask), c.1900. Wood and paint. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Museum.

How does Harris use ovoids and U-shapes in this mask design?

The lands now called the United States and Canada are the ancestral homes of many Indigenous peoples. In southeastern Alaska and coastal British Columbia, these peoples include the Tlingit (KLING-kuht), Haida (HY-duh), Tsimshian (SIM-shee-un), and Kwakwaka’wakw (KWOK-wok-ya-wokw). For thousands of years, artists in these societies embellished homes, garments, and ritual objects in a distinctive style now known as Northwest Coast art. In the late 1700s, European settlers threatened to wipe out Indigenous cultures. But artists from these communities maintained their artistic traditions and continue breathing new life into their work today. 

The land known as the United States and Canada are the ancestral homes of many Indigenous peoples. For thousands of years, artists in these societies decorated homes, clothes, and important objects in their own recognizable styles. Indigenous nations in southeastern Alaska and coastal British Columbia created a style now called Northwest Coast art. The arrival of European settlers in the late 1700s threatened to wipe out Indigenous culture. But artists from these communities preserved their traditions. Today, they breathe new life into their art.

Attributed to Mary Ebbetts Hunt (Anisalaga) (1823-1919), Naaxein, c.1880. Mountain goat wool, yellow cedar bark, and dyes. Photo: Zip Lexing/Alamy.

What does Hunt’s formline pattern in this Chilkat robe have in common with the mask above?

Living Lines

Since at least 1,300 years ago, Tlingit, Haida, and other Indigenous peoples have used an artistic technique now called formline. Formlines are curving lines that change in width as they flow around corners, and artists use them to create the shapes that make up an image. A formline design often begins with a rectangular egg-like shape called an ovoid. An artist then adds additional ovoids, U-shapes, and thin lines to compose the rest of the image. 

The wooden mask, above, is thought to have been carved around 1900 by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Bob Harris. He used formlines to create the two bird-like figures at the top. A thick, black ovoid outlines each, while another ovoid encloses the eye. A U-shape in front of the eye gives the figure structure and fills in the design. 

Since at least 1,300 years ago, Tlingit (KLING-kuht), Haida, and other Indigenous artists have used formline. Formlines are curving lines. The width of the lines change as they turn corners in a design. Artists use them to create the basic shapes that make up an image. They often start with a rounded rectangular shape called an ovoid. Then they add more ovoids, U-shapes, and lines to complete the design. 

The wooden mask, above, is thought to have been carved around 1900 by Bob Harris. He was an artist from the Kwakwaka’wakw (KWOK-wok-ya-wokw) Indigenous culture. He used formline to create the two bird-like figures at the top of the mask. A black ovoid outlines each figure. Another ovoid surrounds the eye. A U-shape in front of the eye fills in the design.

Weaving a Story

Weaving has always been a prized skill among many Northwest Coast peoples. A Tlingit artist named Mary Ebbetts Hunt created the Chilkat (CHIL-kat) robe, or chief’s robe, above, around 1880. 

Like many Northwest Coast cultural belongings, the robe includes formline depictions of human and animal faces. The Tlingit and other peoples used these symbols to convey important information, such as the clan (extended family) that the garment’s wearer was from. Together, the symbols make up a common iconography, or visual language. This means people who spoke different languages could still understand each other’s messages through their art.

Many Northwest Coast peoples have always considered weaving a special skill. A Tlingit artist named Mary Ebbetts Hunt wove the robe above around 1880. It is a Chilkat (CHIL-kat) robe, or chief’s robe.

The robe includes formline images of human and animal faces. The Tlingit and other Northwest Coast peoples used these symbols to share meaningful information. For example, they might represent the clan (extended family) of the person who wears the clothing. The symbols are part of an iconography, or visual language. People who spoke different languages could understand each other’s messages this way.

Alison Bremner (b. 1989), Yáa Kháa Kootéeyaa, 2018. Latex paint on old growth red cedar. Courtesy of Alison Bremner.

How does Bremner connect the past and present with this carving?

Survival and Resilience

The arrival of European settlers in the late 1700s had devastating effects on Indigenous societies. Many cultural traditions were lost as settlers killed or forcibly relocated Indigenous people, or forced them to adopt European practices and beliefs. By the mid-20th century, many Indigenous artists were making objects for tourists, while passing on cultural traditions within their communities. In recent decades, a new generation of Indigenous artists has been revitalizing past traditions. 

In 2018, Tlingit artist Alison Bremner, above left, carved and painted the 10-foot-tall red cedar trunk, above right, in honor of her grandfather. She is believed to be the first woman from the Tlingit Nation to create and raise a totem pole. To master the techniques involved, Bremner studied as an apprentice under the Tsimshian artist David A. Boxley. The finished totem pole was raised in Alaska in a traditional ceremony.

Bremner carves a sitting raven at the top of the pole. This represents her grandfather’s Tlingit clan. Below the raven, Bremner depicts her grandfather holding a distinctly modern object—a thermos of coffee. “I try to incorporate humor in my work to draw the viewer in and hopefully shed some light on . . . aspects of [Tlingit] culture that aren’t immediately apparent,” she explains.

The works on this page come from just two of dozens of Northwest Coast nations with long, rich artistic traditions. Read on to learn how other Indigenous artists are adapting ancient traditions for today’s viewers.

European settlers arrived at the Northwest Coast in the late 1700s. This had devastating effects on Indigenous societies. Settlers killed Native people, forced them to move, and pressured them to practice European customs and beliefs. Many cultural traditions were lost as a result. By the mid-20th century, many Indigenous artists were making objects for tourists along with passing on traditions within Indigenous communities. In recent decades, Indigenous artists have renewed some of these traditions.

Tlingit artist Alison Bremner is shown above left. In 2018, she carved and painted the 10-foot-tall red cedar trunk, above right. The work honors her grandfather. Bremner is believed to be the first woman from the Tlingit Nation to create and raise a totem pole. Bremner learned carving techniques from David A. Boxley, an artist from the Tsimshian (SIM-shee-un) Nation. The pole was raised in Alaska in a traditional ceremony.

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