The Haida Native people are renowned for their beautiful “black slate” or Argillite carvings. They began carving Argillite in response to the early curio trade of the 1820’s. Soon the artistic accomplishments of the Haida in the use of materials such as wood, horn and stone included this new medium. The Argillite used by Haida carvers is black or grey carbonaceous shale found at Slatechuck Creek on the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. Argillite is a relatively soft stone to carve, although it’s difficult to obtain large pieces from the quarries. The supply of Argillite is not in any apparent danger of being exhausted so this Haida tradition of carvings will continue for many years to come. Apart from small Totem Poles, the primary objects carved from Argillite include plates with incised designs, pendants, pipes, small boxes and sculptured figures. Some carvers give their work a high polish with emery cloth or other matierals which enchance the deep black qualities of the stone. Even today, Argillite continues to be carved exclusively by Haida artists both on the Queen Charlotte Islands their homeland) and in the Vancouver and Victoria areas.


Traditionally, baskets were made on the Northwest Coast for purposes such as gathering food, cooking, storage, and for hats and cradles. Later, when baskets began to be made for selling purposes, a variety of new forms were created. They included trays, miniature containers and basketry-covered bottles.

For basket weavers and workers in plant materials, their legacy is in the hands-on approach to teaching the next generation. Elders of each tribe pass on the skills and traditions to their own families and communities. Although, the knowledge of weaving patterns pales in comparison to the importance of the intricacies of harvesting materials; maintaining the eco-system so no harm is done; and the techniques used for processing and storing the materials.

Each tribal group of the Northwest Coast has its own distinctive style of basketry that utilizes different materials and techniques. Common to all styles of basketry is the lengthy process of gathering and preparing the materials to be used in the basket making. There’s bark, roots, and grasses to be harvested, dried, split and perhaps dyed before the weaving process or sewing of the basket can begin.

In British Columbia, the effects of pollution, land development and logging means that basket makers must now go longer distances from their homes to obtain their materials.

Today, Nootkas (West Coast), Haida and Salish artists produce the most readily available basketry. The very best of contemporary baskets, as well as antique ones, are becoming collector’s items.Taking care of basketsTaking care of baskets requires that they are not to be display in direct sunlight or bright artificial light. Too much light and heat will cause the basket to become dry and brittle as well as make the colors fade.

Alternately, baskets should not be kept in humid conditions since mildew and dust will collect on them and fibers might stretch.

Baskets should be handled with care – always use two hands, never lift a basket by its rim and avoid using a basket’s handles or knobs. Too much pressure on the basket may cause the fibers to break so be careful if you decide to use your basket for storage or other purposes.

Do not attempt to wash your basket as this can only cause strain on the already tensely woven fibers and lead to warping or breakage. To clean baskets, use a soft brush to remove any dust.


Beadwork is one of many mediums that have been mastered by the Northwest Coast and Plains Native artists. Traditionally, Dentalium shells, Porcupine quill and Abalone shell is used to accentuate the beadwork. Deerskin is commonly used to link chokers, watch bands, hairpieces and bolo ties, as it is highly elastic and very soft to the skin.


Bear is known as the protector of the animal kingdom. In Haida culture is referred to as “Elder Kinsman” and was treated like a high ranking guest when killed. Eagle down was sprinkled before it was brought in to the tribe to display respect.

In West Coast culture, there are several legends telling of a Chief’s daughter being abducted by a bear. The high ranking woman had been out in the woods picking berries and stepped on some Bear dung and began to curse out loud, insulting their cleanliness. Two Bears nearby heard her and decided they would not tolerate such insolence. They felt the disrepectful woman had to be punished. To do this, one Bear transformed himself into a very handsome man who approached this woman, and seductively lured her to accompnay him to his mountain home. When she did, she fell in love with him and became partially Bear-like herself.

She later married him and had twin cubs. Their children were born as little creatures that resembled bears who could metamorphorse themselves into human form like their father.

The woman’s brothers eventually found her and, in an unequal contest, killed her husband. They returned to the village but the two bear sons did not feel comfortable and eventually left to return to the forest. All Bear Clan members are descended from this woman and her two sons.

Because of this, it is believed that there is a bear within all of us and that we must come to terms with this in our lives.

A Seabear is part Bear part Killer Whale.


Known as the carpenter of the animal kingdom, and is consider the industrious one.

The Beaver is said to have been a woman at one time Tsimshian legends tells of this woman who dammed a stream to swim in it. Because she refused to get out, she was transformed and her leather apron became a Beaver’s tail.

In Haida legend it is the Beaver who is responsible for providing the Salmon that the Raven had stolen to give back to the people.

Beluga Whale

A myth told by traditional people across the Arctic describes a totemic marriage between a woman and a beluga whale. A young maiden left her village one day searching for bird eggs, and returned with a whale skull which she wore like a hat. The spirit in the skull eventually pulled her out to sea where it turned into a beluga whale, named Keiko, who made the woman his wife. The woman’s brother was bound to preserve his family honor so he built a boat and sailed out to rescue her. Keiko became frightened when the boat stopped directly over his home. His wife had grown fond of him, and now she tried to calm Keiko. She swam to the cliffs to gather eggs and birds for a feast to serve their guest. The brother ate little, while beckoning Keiko to eat more than his share. Finally, the brother whispered to his sister, “your husband has eaten too much. Sing to him now, that he may rest.” So she sang a lullaby, and Keiko slept. When the whale awoke, he saw his wife was gone. He followed the boat’s wake, and soon caught up to the pair on the village shore where many people arrived to stab Keiko to death.

The woman eventually gave birth to a tiny whale who was much beloved by everyone in the tribe. She kept him in a little cup. But he grew quickly and soon asked to be put into a pail. Finally he pleaded to be set free into the ocean, where he quickly grew to a full-sized whale. One night strangers arrived who killed the whale for food. In the Yakut Siberian version of the myth, the tribe responds to this murder by attacking the strangers.

This story is told to explain how warfare first came to the human beings. In a version from Hudson Bay, the strangers were the first European whalers.

Bentwood Box

The Bentwood Box is a uniquely fabricated container in which a single plank of wood is grooved where corners are desired. The wood is made pliable with heat and moisture and bent to form a four-sided shape. Wooded pegs or laces secure the two ends. Then the box shape is attached to a bottom piece of wood, which has been grooved on its edges to fit. The top, which is optional, is grooved to fit the sides.

The Native people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including parts of southern Alaska, western British Columbia and southern Washington traditionally produced Bentwood Boxes.

The boxes and chests were used as storage containers, the watertight ones for holding hot rocks and water for cooking, and the highly decorated ones as symbols of wealth. They range in size from small (measured in inches) to massive (large enough to provide seating).


Bukwus, the wild man of the woods, is a supernatural ghost like figure. He is associated with the spirits of people who have drowned. He lives in an invisible house in the forest and attracts the spirits of those who have drowned to his home.

Bukwus also tries to persuade humans to eat ghost food so that they will become like him. The Bukwus was a significant character for the Kwakiutl people.

Button Blankets

Ceremonial robes and their associated regalia have been among the most spectacular creations of the Northwest Coast natives. Traditionally, these robes were worn during dance ceremonies. The dancer would move across the longhouse displaying the intricate patterns of the Abalone shell buttons to the audience in attendance. The community would know the dancer’s family clan and its historial status just by the design on the robe.

In modern times, these robes are still worn at dances and important ceremonies where the dancer or speaker gives forth a sense of spiritual power, prestige and respect.

Caring For Your Drum

Both plain or painted rawhide drums may be cared for in the same way. Allow a drum to be played using only fingers, hands or beaters that are padded at the tip. Striking with an unpadded stick can crack or even puncture some skinheads.

Drums may be protected from scratches and damage from the elements when travelling by using a drum bag, wrapping in a blanket or providing other similar type care.

They will change in tone as a result of fluctuating humidity and/or temperature. Drums sound their best within the same humidity and temperature range comfortable to most people.

In the cool Maritine climates, similar to the Pacific Coast, drums and rattles should not be stored or displayed close to the floor or in trunks where they will draw moisture.

A drum that becomes too cool or damp will loosen and the tone dulls. It should not be played until re-tightened through warming. Never attempt to tighten a drumhead by pouring hot water over it or putting it close to an open flame. This will cause the head to become brittle and crack. Avoid putting a drum close to any heat source than what would be comfortable to your own skin.

Drums needing re-tightening should be warmed gently and slowly. A drum that is only slightly dull may be warmed by gently rubbing the head in a circular motion from the center out with an open bare hand for a few minutes. Indoors, turning up the heat works. If travelling, you could use a vehicle heater.

Exposure to extreme conditions, such as hot dry Summer days, very dry Winter conditions or sunlight passing through a window will cause a drumhead to shrink and tighten too quickly, perhaps excessively. This will result in a higher pitched, even tinny, sound. Even worse, a drum’s lacings may break under such conditions, the head may become brittle and crack or the frame may warp.

Ceremonial / Chilkat Blanket

A Kwagiulth blanket, worn as a robe by the Potlatch dancer with the Thunderbird mask, adorned with a Thunderbird pattern of Abalone shells.

Kwagliuth ceremonial “button blankets” – with crests of pearl and shell buttons – are derived from what was a new variation of weaving by Kwakiutl women in the early 19th century: the Chilkat blanket. Rectangular textile woven of mountain goats’ wool woven on a loom and composed of highly abstracted crest designs in blue, yellow, white, and black, with a long heavy white fringe around the hem; this new tradition supplanted the earlier Sea Otter robes and fine furs. Only those blankets of Tlingit (Alaska) ancestry could claim to be Chilkat. Such blankets were highly valued up and down the coast where they were traded in a lively cross-cultural economy revolving around regular potlatch.

Common Sweetgrass

Common Sweetgrass is a reddish-based perennial with slender, creeping rhizomes and leafy stems 30 to 50 mm fall. Sweetgrass is widespread in British Columbia, but seldom abundant.

Aboriginal UseThe sweet, lingering fragrance of Common Sweetgrass is due to the presence of coumarin, a fragrant crystalline compound that was once used commercially in flavouring. First Peoples throughout North America appreciated Sweetgrass for its scent. In coastal British Columbia, such as the Kitloope River valley, it was apparently used by some Haisla women to make baskets. They gathered the grass in May and June when it was about 30 cm tall.


The “Copper” was used by the First Nations people as a form of money and wealth. It was made out of “Native” copper which was found in the land where they lived, and superficially resembled a shield. Considered very rare and hard to obtain, raw copper was traded from the Athabaskan Indians in the Interior Plains, or from the white man in later times.

Coppers were beaten into shape and usually painted or engraved with traditional designs. Most Coppers were fairly large, often 2 to 3 feet tall and a foot across.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Copper is that they were given names so that their worth and heritage could be passed on. A Copper was only worth what it was last traded for, and it could only be traded for a larger amount the next time around. Consequently, some Copper values became highly valuable – worth the total of 1,500 to 2,000 blankets, a couple of war canoes and hundreds of boxes and bowls.

No matter what the original value was the next person who wanted it had to trade more in exchange for it. Only the richest and most powerful could afford the price of an old Copper. Many Coppers were in rather shabby condition as a result of having been used in quarrels between Chiefs.

To the Kwakiutl, the ownership and display of a Copper became an essential for the proper conduct of a marriage or important dance ritual.

A man whose family’s honour had been injured by the actions of remarks of another would publicly have a piece cut from a valuable Copper and give the piece to the offender. That person was obligated to cut or “break” a Copper in return. The broken pieces could be brought up and joined into a new Copper or used to replace pieces missing from a “broken” one.

The most valuable Kwakiutl Coppers tend to be rough and patched since they have the longest history and have been broken the most often. Coppers that have been broken have a certain prestige value that is quite independent from their monetary value.

Cowichan Knits

Genuine Cowichan knits are made from raw sheep’s wood which contains most of its original lanolin. This makes it water-resistant, much longer wearing and superior to industrial processed wool. The wool has natural hues of white, gray and black and is not dyed. Native artists hand-card, spin and knit the wool in a variety of traditional designs.

To wash your Cowichan knits, use lukewarm water, just a little cooler than your hand. Add a small amount of wool soap or a minute amount of mild detergent and mix well. If too much soap is used, you will wash out the lanolin that makes the knit waterproof. Gently squeeze the water through the soiled parts of the garment and rinse in two or three waters of the same temperature. Squeeze out the water and roll in a bath towel to eliminate as much water as possible, stretch into shape and lay flat to dry.


Dogfish is an important crest and mythic being among the Haida of B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands. It is a favorite subject of the world-renowned Haida artists Robert Davidson and Bill Reid. The classical Haida representation of Dogfish may well be the most ingenious exercise in abstraction in the whole Haida bestiary. Though at first it might seem impossible to relate the broad face and long forehead of the traditional Dogfish crest to the narrow-bodied, sleek little shark of the same name, every step in the design is logically and carefully thought out, and all of the important anatomical features of the fish are captured in the symbolic form.

The Dogfish is equipped with a dangerous pair of sharp bony spikes, protruding each just ahead of the Dogfish’s two dorsal fins. Not considered appealing as food, Dogfish were not a valued commodity. In fact, Dogfish are a great nuisance to fishermen seeking Salmon, Halibut, and Cod: they have a voracious appetite for bait and sandpaper rough skin suited for severing fishing lines. It is a testament to the Dogfish’s wild ominous grace and power that such a troublesome and worthless creature could become an honoured family crest. Other sharks sometimes also appear in Northwest Coast art and legend. The Nuu-chah-nulth peoples of Western Vancouver Island feared giant, malicious shark monsters who lived in deep holes under cliffs and liked to eat canoes. Named “Dogfish Mothers”, they were likely inspired by the great white sharks that sometimes hunt Sea Lions in B.C.’s waters.

The motif features a high domed head with a front facing personified face. This “Dogfish-spirit” face is stylized with a down-turned mouth, often with sharp pointed teeth, gill slits on each side of the mouth, and vertical pupils. On the domed “forehead” there are two circles representing nostrils and sometimes a further set of gills. This naturalistic underside view of the fish’s long tapering head and nose makes a double headed design depicting both shark and spirit. The body is finished with the double set of fins behind spines, and asymmetrical tail flukes.

Dogfish Woman

Dogfish Woman is another, very similar design in Haida and Northern crests and art. She has most of the identifying characteristics of the dogfish crest itself, but also has a beak for her nose that curves into her mouth – a symbol of transformation powers. She is also often shown with a disk shaped labret of the type high ranking Haida women wore inserted in their lower lip. The story of Dogfish Woman tells that she was carried off by a Dogfish and became one of its kind, but able to transform back again to a human. She became the ancestor of the families who now claim the Dogfish as their crest.


Sunken, hallow eyes under a heavy brow, bony face with a strong hooked nose and hallow cheeks, lips pushed forward to focus her tremulous cry and long straggling hair – these are some of the distinguishing features of the Dzoonokwa, fearsome giant of Kwaguilth mythology. Dzoonokwa is a terrifying giant forest monster. Usually female, this hairy, dark skinned and sagging breasted ogress was said to have stolen children who strayed too far from home, and who is sometimes described as a flesh eater.

A common figure throughout the myths of the pacific coast, Dzoonokwa masks were an important symbol of status which nouveaux riche families could buy the right to carve and wear in dances: a much sought privilege, which for most other masks could only be inherited by birthright. She can also be the benefactor of immense power and wealth.

The Dzoonokwa corresponds to the legendary Bigfoot or Sasquatch of the southern coast.


The noble Eagle is seen as a symbol of power and prestige. Eagle also has a strong connection to peace. This species is still plentiful in the Pacific Northwest. They have long been a source of artistic inspiration for both traditional and contemporary Native artists.

The Eagle is considered an important Clan crest and is frequently depicted on totem poles, masks, prints and jewellry.

Eagle down, considered sacred, was used in ceremonies to welcome someone in friendship. “Down” was sprinkled on the ground before an important visitor came into the tribe. Eagle feathers are used for smudging and praying. The feathers were also given as a symbolic offering to bestow honour for acts of courage and wisdom.

The Cree consider each feather as having special meaning and distinction. They make up the Cree dancers regalia and must be earned one at a time.


Common Eel-grass is a perennial with long, flexible ribbon-like leaves and fleshy rhizomes. It has flat bright-green leaves that are more than 32 mm wide. It occurs in marine bays in mud or sand in the intertidal zone and is common along the British Columbia coast. After a storm, Eel-grass is often seen washed up on the beaches.

Aboriginal UseThe Nuu-chah-nulth used the leaves to imbricate baskets and hats. After bleaching the leaves in the sun to a bright white, they would use them as is or dye them any colour they required for a basket pattern.

The Kwakwaka’wakw wove belts and baskets from Common Eel-grass, but these would have not been very strong.


Frog is a creature of great importance in Northwest Coast art and culture. As a creature that lives in two worlds, water and land, Frog is revered for his adaptability, knowledge and power to traverse worlds and inhabit both natural and supernatural realms. Frogs are primary spirit helpers of shamans. A great communicator, Frog often represents the common ground or voice of the people. Frog’s songs are believed to contain divine power and magic. When shown in art as touching or sharing his tongue with another creature, Frog represents an exchange of knowledge and power. Frog designs are commonly used as decorative elements, so that Frog faces, for example, peek out from another creature’s ears, mouth or hands. In symbolic terms the emergence of frog from these orifices may represent an eruption of magic and unseen interior and other worlds.

Frog is often associated with copper and great wealth. Legendary Haida princes are said to have attended feasts wearing necklace chains made of living Frogs. The Haida carved Frog on house pole to prevent them from falling over. They also included them in many other carvings, from feast bowls to totem poles. Frogs on Haida Gwaii, B.C.’S Queen Charlotte Islands, are actually northern toads. One Haida name for Frog (toad) is “crab of the woods”.

Many legends are attached to this whimsical little animal. The Tlingit of Alaska tell of it’s distribution in a story about a chief’s daughter who made fun of Frog. She was then lured into his lake by Frog in human form, who then married her. Her angry parents drained the lake and scattered Frogs in every direction. Some B.C. First nations told that Frog announces the end of the winter dance season. It is said that when the last snowflakes of winter touch the ground they turn into Frogs. Then the Native people know that there is only six weeks until the Salmon begin returning to the rivers and summer begins.

One story about Frog tells he was volcano woman’s only child. One day Frog saw evil men hunting only for pleasure rather than necessity. When the men noticed Frog they killed him. Volcano woman erupted in her sorrow and furry, crying great tears of lava. She destroyed the earth, but in time it would be born again even stronger and more fertile.

Yet another Frog legend says a village was starving because no one could catch any fish or game, so a warrior went out to try to find some food. No one had been successful for a long time. The warrior met a bird who instructed him to follow, so he could help him. The bird brought him to a Frog, who let the warrior wear his skin. With the Frog skin, the warrior was able to get enough food for the whole village but, as time passed, the warrior was fully transformed into a Frog, and he went to sea. There he could live and catch fish and other seafood. Until his days were no longer he provided these foods to his village.


The Halibut is a flat fish that starts life swimming in a vertical plan and eventually turns over on its side to become a bottom feeder. The underneath eye moves to the upper side, giving the fish its unique appearance.

An abundant food source, the Kwagiulth believed the Halibut threw off its skin and fins to emerge as the first Human after the Great Flood subsided.

Commonly carved in feast dishes and used for oolichan oil. The more detailed and elaborate a dish, the more highly ranked the person was who owned it.

Hawk Mask

The Hawk Mask was used during one of the Kwakiutl Winter ceremonies by an initiated member of one of the secret societies.

The privilege of membership was usually secured by marriage. The right was passed on to a woman and she, in turn, gave them to her children by her father or uncle. Occasionally a man would declare himself half-woman to marry himself and pass the right onto him.

Hok Hok

Hok Hok is a long beaked bird monster who is a part of the great household in the sky which is controlled by the Chief cannibal spirit, Bakbakwasnooksiwae. The Hok Hok is portrayed in dances of the Hamatsa society in the importan Kwakiult winter ceremonies.


Humans are often represented as being partially from the spirit world. If the subject is a woman, occasionally a small disc (a labret) is placed in the lower lip. This may be represented as an ovoid.

Faces of humans, or their spiritual counterparts, frequently appear within the outlines of other creatures.


A literal messenger of joy, this beautiful tiny bird, also called Sah Sen, represents friendship, playfulness, and is a symbol of good luck in Northwest Coastal Native art. It is a positive sign to see Sah Sen prior to a major event such as hunting or travelling to another village. Hummingbird’s ability to hover back and forth at great speeds is believed to be a skill for guiding the people; if they fall behind Hummingbird can easily back up to keep pace.

One story of Hummingbird tells of a warm, spring day. Summer was coming and the wild flowers were in full blossom. A young girl and her mother waded through the green grass, enjoying the bright colours. They stopped as Hummingbird joined them; bussing and darting from flower to flower.

The little creature fascinated the child. She asked, “why does such a tiny bird want to fly so fast? Why doesn’t it just stay at one flower instead of visiting every one?” Her mother sat down on a hill overlooking the field and said, “let me tell you the story of Hummingbird.”

Many years ago there was a fragrant flower that rose every spring to display her beautiful petals and bright colours for all the world’s creatures to enjoy. The people and animals waited anxiously each spring for this special flower to appear. On that day they knew the warm, kind rays of summer had arrived. Raven saw how much joy this flower brought to the world, so the next spring when it appeared, he transformed it into a tiny bird. The bird had the colours of the green spring grass and the flashing red of a setting sun. Raven gave the bird a special gift – to fly like sunlight flickering through tall trees. He also gave it a message to take to all the flowers. That’s why today we see Hummingbird buzzing from flower to flower, whispering a message. Hummingbird is thanking each flower for making our world a more beautiful place.

The mother looked at her child and said, “as you grow up, remember that like each flower, each person has gifts to give the world. In return that person will be thanked by the birds, animals and flowers for helping to make our world a better place for every one.”

The above story is as told by Robert James Challenger in the book Eagle’s Reflections and other Northwest Coast Stories available at Hill’s Native Art.

Indian Hemp

Indian Hemp is an erect, bushy herbaceous perennial that grows up to 1 meter tall, with smooth, often reddish stems. It has many opposite, finely pointed, elliptical to lance-shaped leaves, 5 to 11 cm long; they are yellowish green, turning golden yellow in the fall. Indian Hemp is common in the valleys and lower slopes of the southern interior of British Columbia.

Aboriginal UseIndian Hemp was without doubt the most important source of plant fibre for First Peoples of the southern interior. A good, several-ply Indian Hemp rope is said to have the equivalent strength of a modern rope of a few hundred kilograms test weight. Even the thinnest of threads is difficult to break with the hands. When stored properly, Indian Hemp fibre will keep for many years without deteriorating. Its natural colour is a light tan, almost white.

Indian Hemp was used to sew moccasins, clothing, baskets, birch bark canoes and Cattail mats, and to weave garments, baby bedding and bags. They often wove Indian Hemp with other plant fibres, such as Tule stems and the bark of Silverberry, willow and sagebrush; in making garments, they sometimes spun it with deer hair.


In contemporary times, the Inukshuk was thought of as a direction marker on the vast, featureless tundra of the Arctic. However, it was used traditionally by the Inuit to help in hunting Caribou. From a distance these cairns resembled a human form, and were built of large stones and placed in lines on the top of hills on each side of a narrow valley.

The Caribou were often deceived and would be drawn into hunting areas strategically placed at the head of the valley. There, the hunters would have ample opportunity to increase their food stocks tenfold. After a particularly successful hunt, a new Inukshuk was sometimes erected to mark a food cache of excess dried meat to be hoarded for future lean times for the Inuit people.

Killer Whale

The legend of the Killer Whale is a tale of Natcitlaneh who was abandoned on an island by his brothers-in-law who were jealous of his prowess as a hunter. He was rescued by the Sea Lions and taken to their village in a cave where he healed their Chief. In gratitude, the Sea Lions gave him supernatural powers enabling him to carve eight wooden Killer Whales. These Whales came to life when they were placed in the sea and avenged him by killing his brothers-in-law. As a mark of respect, Natcitlaneh built a house and named it Killer Whale House. According to the legend, the ancestors visited the house located at the bottom of the ocean to obtain rights to use the Killer Whale as a crest.

Held in great awe for its power and size, it was believed a Killer Whale could capture a canoe and take it underwater to transform the occupants into Whales. Thus a Whale near the shore was a human transformed and trying to communicate with his family. The Killer Whale’s song is said to be so beautiful that all creation is said to stop and listen to it. It is also said that to be splashed by a killer whale is to ensure great luck and happiness.

The Whale is a popular symbol for romance as they mate for life. The Whale, like the Wolf, stays with its family and travel in large pods. Indeed, the Killer Whale is said to have originated from a single great white wolf that leaped into the sea and transformed itself into a Killer Whale. That is why they have the white markings on their sides, travel in packs and are such skilled hunters. Another explanation for the white markings on the killer whale is the legend of the Killer Whale falling and Osprey, when the killer whale was all black. Killer Whale and Osprey loved each other and Killer Whale would jump into the air to be closer to Osprey who in turn would fly low to the water to be closer to Killer Whale. The love was so great that when their child was born she was black and white, black like Killer Whale and white like Osprey.


The Komokwa is of major importance in Kwaguilth mythology. He was the king of the undersea world, master and protector of the seals who were a symbol of wealth. His name means “wealthy one” and he ruled from a great rich house under the water. The house contained great wealth in blankets, coppers and other treasures.

Many humans of legendary history attempted to reach this kingdom. Those who achieved their goal became wealthy and powerful, returning to their home village with magical boxes full of treasure.


Moon controls the tides and illuminates the dark night. Moon is also associated with transformation and is widely regarded as an important protector and guardian spirit. Because of the powers of Moon, shamans sometimes call upon it as a spirit guide. In Alaska, Moon man is master of animals.

The Nuu-chah-nulth (of Vancouver Island’s west coast), whose year features thirteen Moons, honour Moon, and his wife Sun, as the most powerful of beings, the bestowers of good luck and plentiful food. This is one of the instances in which Moon is male and Sun is female. Among other groups, personifications suggest that Moon is a female entity: she often wears a disk shaped lip labret of the type worn by high-ranking Haida women. Moon’s facial expression is more delicate and serene than Sun.

The son – Wulticixaiya – of Moon in a Haida (Queen Charlotte Islands) story rescues his sister from marriage to pestilence. Nuu-chah-nulth purification ceremonies were customarily undertaken during the waxing of Moon. Moon plays a part in the peace dance of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples (of northeastern Vancouver Island and the adjoining mainland), in which a human leaves the ceremonial bighouse and returns transformed into Moon. Moon also appears frequently in the winter ceremony of the Nuxalk.

Most tribes thank Raven for the gift of Moon, and sometimes stories describe Moon as a chip off of Sun, which Raven clumsily dropped. Moon frequently appears grasped in the long straight beak of Raven, in reference to the famous myths regarding the theft – and eventual release into the sky – of Sun, and sometimes Moon, by Raven.

One story of Raven and Moon, probably Salish, tells of its origin as a matchmaker:

Long ago in different villages by the sea, a young boy and girl grew into adults. Raven and Eagle knew the two would be perfect mates. Unfortunately, the paths taken by the young man and woman seldom crossed. He was an artist who spent his days in the forest searching for images to use in his carvings. She was a storyteller who stayed in her village teaching children. Raven and Eagle devised a plan to bring them together. They enticed each of them to take walks along the beach at night. It was a good plan, and would have worked except that in those days there was no light in the night sky. Every evening the two lovers-to-be passed in the dark; neither knowing the other was there. Undeterred Raven entered a camp and stole a burning log from the fire. It was heavier than he had expected. As he tried to fly away, it dragged along, leaving behind a bright streak of firelight on the surface of the sea. Eagle, seeing raven’s problem, came to his aid using his strong wings helped lift the burning light high up into the night sky. There, it became a round flowing moon called matchmaker. When the man came down to sea, he was drawn towards matchmaker’s light reflecting on the water. The young woman, starting from the other end of the beach, was also lured into the shimmering light. When the two met, they saw each other for the first time and illuminated by matchmaker’s soft light, fell instantly in love. Raven and Eagle were very pleased. Ever since then they have kept the Moon fire burning so that when lovers walk by the sea at night, they can still share matchmaker’s glow sparklin1g on the water.


Kwagiulth legend tells about “The Cannibal at the North end of the World” who was enticing all the humans with a rainbow colored smoke. He would then capture them. A clever Chief dug a huge pit fathoms of fathoms deep and tricked “The Cannibal at the North end of the World” who fell into the pit turning to rainbow colored ash. The Chief cast a spell on him saying; “You will no longer harm my people as ‘The Cannibal at the North end of the World’ but you shall be a Mosquito”.

Ojibway Basketry

This form of basketry is mainly woven from sweet grass, birch bark and Porcupine quills. Traditionally, it was a craft perfected by the Ojibway women but today there are no boundaries. This task requires undivided patience and skill; therefore, only the mature and experienced weavers have mastered this art.

At one time, this art was in serious jeopardy of being lost forever. However, with the resurgence of Native arts and crafts exemplifying the highest quality and intricacy, there are now many basket weavers intent on keeping the tradition alive.


Two Otter species live along the Northwest Coast. The Sea Otter lives in ocean waters, and its thick warm pelt formed the basis of the early fur trade along the coast. The river (or land) Otter lives on land, though it forages for food in quiet bays and river estuaries.

Sea Otters are a challenging prey, and hunting them was a prestigious activity. Sea Otter pelts were highly prized and widely traded, contributing to a dramatic increase in wealth along the coast after European contact.

The Otter is intelligent, resourceful and agile, using its forepaws like hands. It is also among the most playful of all creatures, and Otter images often serve as symbols of laughter and light-heartedness.

Among Coast Salish people, abstract images that appear to be Otters were traditionally popular on house posts. In the art today, Otters are less frequently depicted than many other animal motifs, despite the very important place the creature traditionally holds in the culture. Perhaps its lack of presence in contemporary art may be attributed to its rarity as a crest animal and the decline of art produced for shamanistic purposes.

Otter representations are identifies by long, streamlined bodies, often in swimming postures, with legs and feet tucked in; a long thick tail; small mouth, often with sharp teeth; and a short, rounded snout. Traditionally, Sea Otter was shown on its back, often grasping a shell or a sea urchin. Otter is an accomplished fisher, and may be depicted with a fish. Many years ago Otter learned that life was too short to fill with nothing but tasks. Instead, she chose to take a playful attitude towards things she had to do.

Now when she is searching for food, she turns it into a game of hide and seek with her children. They dash along the sand, splash in the surf and scramble among the stones in an explosion of energy and curiosity. When it is hot they swim in the cool ponds or lie in the shade, watching clouds drift by. Sometimes otter does things just for fun, nothing more. A grassy bank is turned into a slippery slide or a shallow bay becomes the scene of a frenzied game of tag.

But there is still time to be serious. When it comes to important things, like protecting her family, she focuses all her energy on that. But when she is done, she takes time to enjoy her children and discover the grace and beauty of the world around her.


The Owl is one of the many crest figures depicted in Northwest Coast Native design. Often, they are associated with the souls of deceased ancestors and are viewed with respect.

Owl Masks are used in the Winter ceremonies and appear as members of the sky kingdom. The Owl is commonly depicted in Mask form and also represented in Totem Poles.

Polar Bear (Ursus Maritimus)

The Polar Bear is the largest carnivore on four feet in the entire world. Males can weigh up to 1400 pounds and reach up to 10 feet in length. Their natural habitats are Arctic Sea ice, waters, islands and coasts. Life expectancy is between 20-25 years. Known for their white coat, this double layer of fur is extremely warm, being composed of hollow hairs to trap heat as well as act as a waterproof barrier. The Bear’s compact build and thick layers of blubber helps to conserve heat.

For hunting purposes, the white coat camouflages the Bear as it stalks ringed Seals, its favourite food, or as it waits for the Seals to surface at their breathing holes. Polar Bear’s massive claws combined with their immense strength also aid in hunting as one swing is usually sufficient to fall a Walrus. A Bear’s extremely acute sense of smell most often leads it to its prey. Polar Bears can eat 100 pounds of meat in one meal.

Another special adaptation that the Polar Bear possesses is webbed feet used in swimming. A Bear may swim for hours during its daily travels or while hunting. Polar Bears are usually solitary, although large groups may form close to major food sources or as they wait for the ice to freeze in early winter. Churchill, Manitoba is world famous for its Polar Bear watching during this season.

Female Polar Bears will give birth in December/January to one to three cubs. A mother builds a snow den especially for this purpose. Cubs will stay with their mother for almost three years. Older clubs will play fight games as training for future confrontations during mating season.

In general, Polar Bears are a favourite subject in carving and print making of Canada’s Inuit artists. Their name for the Polar Bear is Nanuq.


The Pugmis, or Merman, is an undersea serpent in Human form. He is a harmless creature who lives in the undersea kingdom and is always represented when this kingdom is portrayed in Potlatch Ceremonies. From overhead the Loon guides this creature through the water and, for this reason, the Pugmis masks are usually carved with a Loon on his head.


Along with drums, rattles are the predominant percussive instrument used in shamanistic and ceremonial contexts. Rattles appear in a variety of shapes and sizes, and are often finely carved or painted. Representations of rattles sometimes appear in the art, particularly in the grasp of shamans, chiefs, and dancers.

A Raven rattle – carved in the shape of a bird – generally indicates a chiefly or high-ranking figure. A shaman’s rattle is often double sided, symbolising life and death, or the veil between the human and spirit worlds. Traditionally, rattles and their noises may contain magic. The sound of rattles is used to calm and tame wild dancers in some ceremonial performances.


The Raven is the transformer, trickster and creator. Known in legends as the one who released the sun, moon, and stars; discovered man in a clamshell; brought the salmon and the water; and taught man how to fish and hunt.

Raven in Kwaguilth culture is known as the sky messenger of the animal kingdom. The Raven is famous for being a somewhat mischievous glutton. He was always out to please himself and have a good time, but his adventures always ended up bettering mankind.

The story of “Raven Steals the Lights” is legendary. An old man lived in a house on the bank of a river with his only child – a daughter. At this time, it was pitch black everywhere and no one could see anything. So whether she was beautiful or not, there wasn’t a way anyone could tell. Thus begins the tale of the Raven and the Sun. It’s said that the old man kept the Sun locked in a box inside a box, which had yet another box containing an infinite number of boxes until finally there was one so small that all it could contain was all the light in the universe.

The Raven was not satisfied with the state of darkness since it led to his blundering and bumping into everything. This slowed him down in his pursuit of the good things in life, which was what he loved more than getting into mischief. One day he crashed into the old man’s house and he heard the man and his daughter talking about the light. He decided he wanted the light for himself so he waited for the daughter to leave the house. He transformed himself into a pine needle to slip into a bucket of water. When the daughter drank the water and swallowed the pine needle, the Raven transformed himself into a tiny human being inside her. When he emerged, he was a very odd looking child, but it was too dark to noticed his long nose and the few feathers still clinging to him.

As the Raven/Child gained the affection of the old man, he devised a plan to get the Sun. He asked for the largest box in the house and upon being refused, he cried and screamed so loudly that the Grandfather gave him the box. After all it was only one and there were so many more. It took many days, but after a few well-executed tantrums the Raven/Child removed all the boxes. When only a few were left, a strange radiance began to suffuse the room. The Raven/Child begged to hold the light for only a few moments, and even though the Grandfather had come to love the Raven/Child with only a glimpse of him, he gave him the light. As the light was passed to him, the Raven/Child transformed into a huge Raven. He snapped up the light and flew up the smoke hole of the house into the darkness of the world.

The Raven now rejoiced with his new possession and was having such a good time that he did not see the Eagle come upon him. In a panic, he swerved and dropped almost half the light he was carrying. It fell to the rocky ground and broke into pieces. They bounced back into the sky and remain there to this day as the Moon and the Stars.

Meanwhile, the Raven was pursued to the edge of the world and, exhausted, he finally let go of his last piece of light. It fell to the East and that is how the Raven gave us the Sun.

Red Cedar

One of the greatest gifts to the Northwest Coast Native people was the red cedar tree – a source of some of the finest materials for making objects of use and beauty. Magnificent in itself, with a beautifully flared base that tapers suddenly to a tall, straight trunk with reddish brown bark, the red cedar gracefully sweeps it boughs of grey-green needles.

The wood is soft with a wonderful firmness that permeates a most incredible odor, so pleasing to the human sense of smell but not to moths. This is why cedar is ideal for chests used to store garments and other valuables.

A good cedar tree will split true and clean into forty-foot planks with scarcely a knot. Across the grain, it cuts cleanly and precise. Red cedar has the widest colour spectrum of any wood – from blonde through to pink and chocolate brown. When steamed, it will bend without breaking. From birth to death, the wood, bark, roots and leaves of this mystical powerful cedar tree provides generously for the needs of the Native people – materially, ceremonially and medicinally.

Great cedar trees with clear true grain are becoming more difficult to find as they succumb to the logger’s saw. Yet there is no other tree that can provide quite like the red cedar.


The Pacific Northwest Coast people believed that Salmon were actually humans with eternal life how lived in a large house far under the ocean. In the Spring, they put on their Salmon disguises and offered themselves to the villagers as food. The tribes believed that when entire fish skeletons were returned to the sea, the spirits would rise again and change into Salmon people. In this way, the cycle could begin again the following year. Since the villagers feared that the Salmon people would not be treated respectfully by White people who had no knowledge of the taboos and regulations, they did not want to sell Salmon to the first White men.

Salmon is considered the staple food of many coastal communities, brought to the rivers seas by the Raven. The Haida tell of how Raven stole the salmon from the Beaver people by rolling up their stream and landscape like a carpet and flying away. It was so heavy that he could only fly a short distance at a time. He would stop wherever there was a tree to rest. The Beaver people transformed themselves back into Beavers in order to stop him. They would gnaw down the trees that Raven stopped at and each time some Salmon and stream would escape the rolled up landscape forming great streams and rivers of Salmon. Not only was the salmon a favorite food of the Raven, it also became a favorite of the Haida.

In Kwagiulth culture, twins alone have the right to the Salmon dance. To give birth to twins was a sacred gift bestowed on a mother and was believed to have come from the Salmon people.

Sea Lion

The Sea Lion was of great value for the West Coast people. He was hunted for food and its skin used for clothing and fishing floats. The Sea Lion was also important in the legends and myths, especially for the Nootka culture.

In the creation myth, the Sea Lion’s services are enlisted by the Raven to help him land in exchange for a fur coat so he can swim in the coldest of waters and keep warm.


The round harbor seal is an important family crest. It was a favorite theme of northern bowl carvers, probably because it was an important source of oil and its meat and blubber were significant foods at feasts. Perched on its round belly on a reef, the harbor seal is a familiar sight to coast travelers.

The Seal Dish, also named the Potlatch Dish or House Dish, was a treasured heirloom which families brought out for great feasts. The use of the dish was an inherited privilege acquired by ancestral heroes in the course of legendary encounters with supernatural benefactors. The forms of the dish was made to look like Seals or Sea Lions and was linked to their function as vessels for plentiful food and not with crest privileges of any particular family. The carvings associated with the consumption of food far exceeded their function as mere containers for useful implements. The containers with inlaid Abalone and shells would be reserved for high-ranking guests or chiefs.


More often than not Shamans were men and severe illness, hallucinations, visions or frequent dreams were considered the signs of such a calling.

The role of the Shaman was a powerful and respectful one, and was therefore sought after. A Shaman would pass on their powers to a younger family member who was prepared and destined for this role. A lengthy apprenticeship followed where a novice was to acquire their master’s skills and learn how to control the spirit helpers. The success of the Shaman was dependent on the powers of the spirit helpers who would punish the Shaman if they did not perform the rites correctly. These spirit helpers could be birds, insects, reptiles, constellations or other elemental forces.

Generally a Shaman served as a seer, performed and healer. If a patient remained ill or died, the Shaman was required to reimburse the family as well as deal with shame and ridicule from the community.

A Shaman mask will often have a crown of Bear claws or Mountain Goat horns as a part of the ceremonial regalia.


A dramatic supernatural creature, the double headed Sea Serpent is one of the most high ranking crests in Kwagiulth culture. Its power possesses it to shift shape and transform from animal to man at anytime. As well, a Sisiutl can change itself into a self-propeled canoe which the owner must feed with Seals.

Touching the serpent or even looking at it, or a glance from it, can cause death. Legends say Shamans tried to kill the Sisiutl for its healing power and magic. It’s closely assocated with war and strength, death and revival, so warriors try to kill it to rub its blood on themselves to attain its skillful strength and become invulnerable. A warrior would often wear a head band or belt in the image of a Sisiutl to provide protection from harm.

Flakes of shiny mica found on beaches were thought to be the discarded scales from the serpent’s body. Whether carved or painted, the Sisiutl is depicted with a profile head, teeth and a large curled tongue at each end of its serpetine form and in the centre is a human head. Fins run along its back and curled appendages or horns rise from all three heads. The painted body represents scales and it may be carved horizontally, formed into a U-shape or coiled into a circle.

Sisiutl guarded the entrance to the homes of the supernatural. It was painted on the sides of canoes and hung over doorways to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits.

Slough Sedge

Sedges are fibrous-rooted, often rhizomatous herbaceo us plans that resemble grasses in overall aspect. Slough Sedge is a relatively large sedge, growing in dense clumps, with long, creeping rhizomes and coarse, stout stems mostly 60 to 150 cm tall, with conspicuous reddish-brown basal membranes. It grows west of the Coast and Cascade mountains from Haida Gwaii to Vancouver Island and adjacent mainland; it is one of the most common and widely distributed lowland sedges in the western part of British Columbia.

Aboriginal UseFirst Peoples used several kinds of sedges, but Slough Sedge is certainly the most widely used on the coast.

South Sledge was, and still is, a popular basket material for the Nuu-chah-nulth on the west coast of Vancouver Island, as well as the Sechelt and Coast Salish peoples. The Hesquiat people, north of Tofino [on Vancouver Island] are making a concerted effort to revive and preserve the many facets of their cultural heritage, including weaving with “Swamp Grass”.

The Hesquiat, Ahousaht and other Nuu-chah-nulth people use a twining process to create the finest baskets and hats from this “grass”, often with cedar bark foundations. They make intricate patterns and designs by weaving in dyed strands of sedge or by superimposing dyed or naturally coloured materials over the regular weave. They weave many styles and sizes of baskets, the most common being round with a flat bottom and fitted lid. After the coming of Europeans it became a widespread practice to weave around bottles and dishes in less traditional forms; synthetic dyes of the brightest hue have almost entirely replaced the soft tones of natural dyes in the designs.

The Squamish, Sechelt, Haida and other coastal groups also used Slough Sedge for weaving, and employed other sedges as well.


Soapstone has replaced ivory as the most popular carving material in contemporary Inuit art. This has led not only to a greater variety of colours and forms, but to the larger size of many modern Inuit sculptures as well.

Although the generic term “soapstone” is commonly used, this is slightly misleading. Soapstone is a soft talc Steatite and is not used nearly as much as the harder Serpentine, Serpentinite, Siltstone, Argillite, Dolomite, Quartz and other types of materials.

Stone is the most versatile carving material available since it can be worked to almost any size and shape. Its colours range from rather subtle grey to luscious semi-precious green, white, blue-green, blacks, etc.

Often short in supply, artists must travel great distances over land or by boat to quarry good quality stone. Once the materials are obtained, carving proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner with the necessary skills passed down through many generations.

Most sculptures are still carved with hand tools, using saws, axes, adzes, hammers and chisels for the initial roughing out stages. Then files, rasps, steel wool and sandpaper are used for fine work and finishing, while penknives or nails may be used for detailed incising.


Released from a box by Raven, the Sun Chief inhabited the sky and it was believed he could be reached by climbing a chain of arrows. He descended by sliding down its long rays. The Sun is often carved on totem poles and masks, and sits atop the tallest totem in the world (Alert Bay, British Columbia). It represents life abundance and its warmth radiates healing and peace.

Talking Sticks

The Talking Stick is used by the speaker or orator who has the right to make an important announcement.

The stick is carved with crest figures and ornamented. During the Potlatch Ceremony, this was a representation of the property to be given away. By touching the stick, the guests formally indicated their acceptance of amount.

Other staffs, such as Gwispeck, were carried by the heralds who went from house to house to invite people to events.

Tea Dolls

Prior to the 1950’s, the Labrador Innu bands were migratory. When the Innu people of Sheshatshui, Labrador travelled to the hunting grounds, everyone was expected to carry his or her share of the load. The children carried their share by bringing along a doll that held a reserve of tea.

Tea dolls bodies are sewn of plain broadcloth and faces and hands are usually of smoked-tanned caribou skin with embroidered features. The body is filled with approximately two pounds of loose tea.

The appearance of tea dolls is quite impressive, as they display jet black yarn hair under traditional style mats made from contrasting colours of stroud with beaded trim. The underclothing is made of flannelette. Moccasins are sewn from soft home-smoked caribou skin.

When the lady of the camp needed to remove the tea, the doll could be re-stuffed with grass or leaves.

Today people are interested in buying the doll so they can proudly display a treasured item to remind them of an era past.

Techniques of Basketry

Coiling:Coiling is the technique of stitching over a foundation and attaching rows of work together as the stitching progresses to form the basketry structure. The two elements used are the foundation, or core, and the sewing material. The foundation forms the base over which the stitching is one, and the stability of this element holds the shape of the work. Successive wraps over the foundation are made with the sewing material, which fastens back into or around one or more of the foundations or catches into the stitches of the former row to hold the work together.Twining:Weft twining in its simplest form is weaving two weft strands horizontally across a series of vertical warps. Each of the warp strands is enclosed by the wefts, which cross over each other or twist together between the warps. Many variations of this interlacement are possible.

It is difficult to draw the line between twining that is cloth and twining that is basketry. Certainly, a Chilkat blanket would be considered a fabric. It is supple and fabric-like in hand. Twining that is stiff enough to hold its own shape usually falls in the basket category.Wickerwork and Splintwork:Basket categories are not consistent. Coiled and twined baskets are groups according to technique, but wickerwork and splintwork are classed by material of which the baskets are made.

Wickerwork refers to baskets made of any of the various reeds; splintwork, to baskets woven of splints. Plain weave and twill weave are common to both categories, but twining is used only in wickerwork, because splints are too rigid to make the twists required for twining.Plaiting:Plaiting is a general term that is used in basketry for the interlacements of plain weave, twill weave, and some pattered weaves that are usually woven with flat strands of equal width.

The Legend Of Dreamcatcher

A spider was quietly spinning his web in his own space. It was beside the sleeping place of Nokomis, the grandmother. Each day Nokomis watched the spider at work, quietly spinning away.

One day, as she was watching him, her grandson came in. “Nokomis-ilya!” he shouted, glancing at the spider. He stomped over to the spider, picked up a shoe and went to hit it.

No-Keegwa, the old lady whispered, “Don’t hurt him.”

Nokomis, why do you protect the spider? asked the little boy.

The old lady smiled, but did not answer.

When the boy left, the spider went to the old woman and thanked her for saving his life. He said to her, “For many days you have watched me spin and weave my web. You have admired my work. In return for saving my life, I will give you a gift.” He smiled his special spider smile and moved away, spinning as he went.

Soon the moon glistened on a magical silvery web moving gently in the window. “See how I spin?” he said. “See and learn, for each web will snare bad dreams. Only good dreams will go through the small hole. This is my gift to you. Use it so that only good dreams will be remembered. The bad dreams will be come hopelessly caught, entangled in the web.”


The Thunderbird is a mythical creature and a high-ranking prestige crest. Only the most powerful and prestigious Chiefs have the Thunderbird as a crest especially among the Kwagiulth, Nuu-Chah-Nulth and Coast Salish people.

It possesses supernatural power and is credited with creating the storms. It’s believed to live high in the mountains and carry lightening bolts under its enormous wings. When he blinked lightning came out of his eyes, and when he flapped his wings thunder roared.

He hunted and ate Killer Whales by using the two lightning snakes kept under his wings. They have the heads of wolves and are revered for their great hunting capability. These lightning snakes were often painted on the sides of canoes and then covered up by another coat of paint. The power emitted from these snakes would help the native whalers in their hunt.

Frequently depicted in Native art, the Thunderbird is often shown clutching the Killer Whale in its talons and on top of totem poles with its wings outspread. The representation of a Thunderbird bears a striking resemblance to the Eagle except that it has curly horns on top of its head.

Many legends are associated with the Thunderbird. One prominent Coast Salish legend tells of the Salish people’s great dependence on the Salmon. One day, the Killer Whale swam into the bay and the Salmon were frightened away. Soon the people began to starve and called out to the Thunderbird for help. The Thunderbird swooped down, grabbed the Killer Whale and carried him out to the sea. The Salmon returned and the people were no longer hungry. Thus the Thunderbird was known as a protector of the people and deeply revered.

Totem Poles

Totem Pole is the name given by Europeans to the carved wooden pillars made by Native peoples of the Northwest Coast.

The word “totem” refers to a symbolic relationship existing between natural phenomena (usually animals) and humans. The idea is that differences existing in nature are used to represent for differences among various groups of kin. Just as Bears differ from Eagles and Wolves, so do people of different kin groups from one another. When the Northwest Coast person says, “I am Bear”, he means that he belongs to a kinship group that has a legendary relationship with the Bear. However, this does not mean that he considers himself like a Bear, or that he has Bear characteristics, rather he’s making a statement about his group membership.

The figures on a Totem Pole are visual statements about group membership and identity of those who erected them. These symbols are called “crests”. The begins represented on the Poles are those figures from mythical times who were encountered by the ancestors of that group who later took them as their “crests”. Thus, some Northwest Coast families claim the Thunderbird as a crest who descended from the sky to take off his animal clothing and became their human ancestor.

Totem Poles are usually erected at Potlatches (gift giving ceremonies) at which time they told stories pertaining to the crests displayed on the Pole, and the right of the family to claim the crests were publicly witnessed.

Tule (Bulrush)

Tule is a stout, rhizomatous perennial, usually 1 to 3 metres tall, that often grows in wetlands in dense colonies. Widespread in British Columbia in appropriate habitats [marshes and swampy ground], especially in the central and southern interior, where it often forms extensive colonies around alkali lakes.Aboriginal UseTule was, and still is, an important mat-making material for many of British Columbia’s aboriginal peoples, especially the Coast and Interior Salish. The Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, Carrier and Ktunaxa also used it.

The Okanagan made large bags from Tule twined with various other fibres, including Silverberry bark, willow bark or Indian Hemp, using them to store dried roots, berries and fish. They also made Tule headdresses for aboriginal doctors.

The Nuu-chah-nulth made baskets, basket lids, and recently, handles for shopping bags from Tule. They also used Tule [American Bulrush], which some people called “Sweetgrass”, as the foundation for their tightly twined trinket baskets. The weaving strands for these are Slough Sedge, Bear-grass and, recently, Raphia leaves.


It is common to find one of four Watchmen atop a house frontal Totem Pole. Mainly representative of the Northern Tribes, there are generally three Watchmen depicted on a Pole carved in a crouching position. These figures each wear high crowned hats that usually have two or more rings carved into them representing the status of the Chief whose house they guard.

The Watchmen are known to have supernatural powers, and from their position they look out in several directions to keep watch over the village and out to sea. They protect those within the dwelling by warning the Chief of any approaching danger.

Western Paper Birch

A small to medium deciduous tree, Paper Birch can grow up to 20 metres tall. The bark, when mature, is reddish-brown to chalky white, usually peeling readily in horizontal strips and separating into thin layers. Usually found in moist open woods along streams and lake edges from valley bottoms to moderate elevations in the mountains.Aboriginal UseThe bark of Paper Birch, which can be peeled off the tree in large, flexible sheets, was as important to the First Peoples of the interior as the bark of Western Red Cedar was to coastal peoples. It could be stripped off at any time of the year, but was said to peel most easily in late spring and early summer when the sap was running.

Certain peoples, such as the Secwepemc, Gitxsan and Wet-suwet’en, are famous for their skill in working with birch bark. Their baskets were widely traded among the peoples of the interior and, today, are commonly sold in gift shops.

Women constructed baskets by making four diagonal cuts, two from each edge, towards the middle of a rectangular sheet of bark. They folded the sheet into a box like shape, with the cuts directed towards the bottom corners and the edges coming together to form sides seams. In accordance with the natural tendency of the bark to curl outward when peeled off the tree, the whitish outer surface of the bark formed the inside of the basket and the reddish-brown inner surface formed the basket’s exterior. The women sewed the side seams, usually with split-cedar roots, spruce roots or willow bark, and then bound or stitched to the top a circular hoop of the same material or of Saskatoon Berry, willow, cedar, Red-osier Dogwood or some other flexible wood. Finally, they caulked the seams with pitch, and sometimes etched designs – some of them very intricate – on the outer surface. Some basket makers used strips of Bitter Cherry or Pin Cherry bark to make decorative patterns around the rims of the baskets. The women made birch bark containers in a variety of sizes and used them in berry picking, for storing food, for boiling food with hot rocks and even for packing water.

Western Red Cedar

Western red cedar is a large tree, up to 70 metres tall and 4.3 metres in trunk diametre. A dominant tree in moist forest habitats along the coast from Vancouver Island to Alaska. The bark is thin, greyish outside and reddish-brown inside, and longitudinally ridged and fissured; it is easy to pull off in long fibrous strips. The wood is light, aromatic, straight-grained and rot-resistant.Aboriginal UseOf all the plants used as materials by British Columbia’s First Peoples, Western red cedar is without doubt the most widely employed and the most versatile. The light-grained wood is rot-resistant, and easy to split and work. All coastal groups use it, and to a lesser extent, so did the interior groups who lived within the range of the tree. On the coast, red cedar was used to the exclusion of almost all other trees. Before European contact, aboriginal people rarely felled cedar trees. Instead, they harvested fallen logs or split boards from standing trees. Felling a tree was a labourious task, usually undertaken by men. They cut around the base with adzes and chisels, or sometimes burned the trunk at the bottom until the tree toppled.

Cedar roots were used by coastal groups, such as the Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw, for lashings and for making nets, baskets, hats and mats; however, the Salish people, especially those of the interior, were by far the greatest users of the roots. The coiled split-cedar-root baskets of these peoples are world famous. The foundation coils of these baskets were made of inner cedar bark, cedar-root bark, bundles of split cedar root or thin cedar sapwood, and were completely covered and, at the same time, stitched tightly together by stands of split cedar-root. So closely were they sewn together that the baskets were watertight, serving equally well as berry containers, water carriers or cooking vessels.

Basket makers decorated their baskets by a process known as imbrication, in which strips of material such as Bitter Cherry bark (naturally red or dyed black) and Reed Canary Grass stalks are superimposed over the basic cedar to produce beautiful geometric designs and patterns of plant and animal motifs.

The most valuable part of red cedar bark was the fibrous inner portion. It was used virtually by every group that had access to the tree, but especially the coastal peoples. They split the inner bark into strips for weaving open- and closed-work baskets, bags, hats, mats (for walls, floors, and mattresses), capes, and blankets (although yellow cedar bark was usually preferred for the last two items). They carefully pounded the twisted it into strong to make shaman’s and dancer’s ceremonial head rings, neck rings, armbands and belts, to make fishing lines, ropes, harpoon lines, animal snares, and nets, and for threading clams and fish for drying. They used finely shredded inner bark to decorate masks, to make brooms, paint brushes, work aprons, skirts, capes and dance costumes, to use as tinder, napkins, towelling, bandaging, diapers and infant bedding, and to cover the hands of drummers during winter dances. In some areas people used larger pieces of inner bark to make canoe bailers, spoons and storage bags.

Western White Pine

White Pine is a slender, attractive, medium-sized tree, growing 30 to 60 metres tall. The needles grow in bundles of five; they are bluish-green, slender and 5 to10 cm long. These trees can be found on Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland.Aboriginal UseWhite Pine wood is light, moderately strong and durable, but was seldom used in carving or construction. But the Manhousaht Nuu-chah-nulth used it to make long needles for mat making. The Secwepemc, Ktunaxa and Arrow Lakes Okanagan peeled off the bark in large sheets and used it to make storage baskets and small canoes. People made pine-bark baskets in the same fashion as those of birch bark, stitching them with roots and strengthening the tops with a twisted with rim. The Sechelt sometimes used White Pine pitch for waterproofing.

Today, the long pine needles are being used to create new styles of baskets and vases.


The Wolf crest is a result of an ancestor who visited the houses of the wolves where he was taught certain songs and dances. Upon returning home, he discovered that he had been away for four years, although he throught it had only been four days. He found that he was possessed by the spirits of the Wolves.

In ceremonies, the Wolf dance portrayed the kidnapping for the original visit, and the remainder was a vivid dramatisation of his rescue from the Wolf spirit influence. Of all the animals, Wolves have the strongest supernatural powers. They are the most proficient hunters of land animals and were greatly respected for their cleverness.

A whale hunter would paint a Lightning Snake on his canoe and then paint over it. The Lightning Snake has the head of a Wolf because it is revered for its cunning hunting prowess. Although it was unseen by the whale, the power of its presence on the canoe would aid the hunter to make a strike.

Since Wolves might bestow this hunting prowess on people, they were often called upon as spirit helpers. The Coast Salish believed that Wolves were the spirits of deceased hunters. The Kwagiulth considered them to be ancestors, and frequently impersonated them in religious ceremonies.

As Wolves mate for life and live in close family units usually trvelling in packs, they are regarded as a family-oriented symbol in West Coast Native culture.

Wolf is the land manifestation of the Killer Whale as they both mate for life, protect their young and do not separate from their families. The Wasgo is a combination Wolf and Killer Whale.

Wren Mask

The Wren mask is representative of a population that existed in the beginning of the world along with Raven, Otter, Mink, etc. They were known to build their homes beneath grave boxes when they were hung from trees.

The Wren was associated with eliminating many of the creatures on earth, due to their magical and spiritual qualities. The Wren is a mythological creature with the features of both human and bird.

Yellow Cedar

Yellow cedar is a large tree, usually 20 to 40 metres tall and 90 cm or more in diametre. The bark is think and greyish-brown, tending to shed in long narrow shaggy strips. The wood is yellowish and pungent smelling. Commonly found in coastal subalpine forests from Vancouver Island to Alaska, mostly west of the Cascade and Coastal mountains.Aboriginal UseVirtually all coastal First Peoples carved implements from the yellow cedar’s tough, straight-grained wood. The inner bark of yellow cedar has the same fibrous qualities as that of red cedar, but it is considered even more valuable because it is finer, softer and lighter in colour when dry. It was pulled off the trees in long strands and split and dried much like red cedar bark.

People along the coast used the prepared bark for cordage and for weaving blankets, capes and other items of clothing; they preferred it to red cedar bark because of its softness. They often interwove or trimmed yellow cedar bark with duck down, Mountain Goat wool or Black Bear fur. The Chilkat Tlingit people of Alaska wove their famous Chilkat blankets with Mountain Goat wool over strands of yellow cedar bark. People all along the coast also used yellow cedar bark to weave mats and hats, and for decorating masks. They also shredded the bark to make bandages and “wash cloths” for babies, and to use as tinder.
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