Enduring Heritage: The Art of the Northwest Coast
More than twenty tribes—referred to as First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the United States—live along the coast of lower Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington, in an area known as the Northwest Coast region. Although these tribes have distinct cultures, they are linked by similar environments, religious beliefs, and strong traditions based on chiefdoms, rank, and inheritance of family identity. For at least six thousand years—from prehistoric times to the present—Northwest Coast artists have carved, painted, and woven objects, creating a rich artistic heritage. Each artwork embodies a family or spiritual history that is "owned" and passed down from one generation to the next.
Perhaps towering cedar totem poles, carved crests, and representations of ancestral stories serve as a tribe's most recognized symbols, but simple spoons, feast dishes, and baskets also fulfill important roles. Elaborate masks—some representing founding First Ancestors—are believed to transform their wearers, usually men, into supernatural entities. Ancestral stories may be told through dances performed during Winter Ceremonies or potlatches, gift-giving ceremonies held inside large ceremonial houses. Masks and costumes, stored in treasure boxes, are brought out and "danced" by the families or individuals who own them. Other rituals, such as the Hamat'sa Initiation, are sacred in nature.
Stewart Culin served as the Museum's first curator of ethnology from 1903 to 1929. He created the Museum's collection during expeditions to the Northwest Coast in 1905, 1908, and 1911. Culin relied greatly on the expertise of local collectors such as Dr. Charles Newcombe (1851–1924) and Lieutenant George Thorton Emmons (1852–1945), and on exchanges made with the Field Museum in Chicago. Culin believed, as did numerous museum curators at the time, that the Northwest Coast societies were dying out. But Northwest Coast cultures have survived and evolved, adapting to change while maintaining their own traditions.
In the past, it was customary for Northwest Coast carvers to be men and weavers to be women, but today such separate artistic roles have been eliminated. Contemporary artists may use power tools, acrylic paints, and modern fabrics such as imported linen, but designs are still seen as inherited. Through the enduring practice of ceremonies and innovative artistic creation, the Northwest Coast peoples acknowledge their heritage, affirm their present identities, and ensure the future of their cultures.
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