Northwest Coast Native Art and Culture

"The oldest art of our West, the art of the Indians, is in spirit very modern, full of liveliness and vitality."

-- Emily Carr, An Address, 1930*

Ninstiints Totem, Queen Charlotte Islands -- Photo rights Graytech

Ninstiints, Queen Charlotte Islands --Graytech

Comprising Canada's First Nations Peoples, seven distinct indigenous language and cultural groups have lived on the Northwest Coast between Skagway, Alaska and Seattle, Washington. From north to south, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw (aka Kwakiutl, Kwagiutl, Kwagiuth, and Kwaaqyuulth), Bella Coola, West Coast (aka Nuu'chah'nulth, formerly Nootka), and Coast Salish, which includes the Squamish, have each developed highly distinctive cultures and geographical subdivisions or bands. Nonetheless, since Emily Carr operated more in the personal than in the political realm, she probably didn't distinguish much between them, taking them all to her bosom as creative souls living in the margins of majority society, an identification she shared.

Map of Emily Carr's travels.

Northwest Coast Map --Viking Peguin

Because the rich sea life and forest resources made aboriginal survival relatively easy, and people learned how to preserve and store food, time was available for the development of a complex social and ceremonial life supported by art forms unique to this part of the world and considered by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to be equal in significance to those of Greece and Rome.

The term "totem pole" generally refers to the tall cedar poles with multiple figures carved by Native people of the Northwest Coast beginning in the early nineteenth century. There are primarily three types of monumental poles: house frontal poles placed against the house front, often incorporating doorways of houses; carved interior house posts that support massive roof beams, and free-standing memorial poles placed in front of houses to honor deceased chiefs or mythical beings. Mortuary poles in some locales supported boxy coffins at the top. The figures on totem poles are inherited crests, mostly animistic, which identify the pole owners and tell their family histories. Clearly, they are not worshipped in any religious sense, but they do play a central role in aboriginal culture for thousands of years, as well as today.

Emily Carr: Totem and Forest. Vancouver Art Gallery    -- Photo rights pending.

Emily Carr: Totem and Forest, oil, 1931, 129.3 x 56.2 cm. Location: Vancouver Art Gallery, VAG 42.3.1.© Vancouver Art Gallery

Originally, tall multiple-figure poles were first made only by the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Tlingit in southeastern Alaska, and Tsimshian in northern British Columbia. For Tlingit forms, each figure is separated from the ones above and below it by a groove, while Haida forms are intertwined without a horizontal groove between them. A beaver's stretched tongue could lie on the forehead of a bird beneath it, and a frog's hind legs could be wiggling out of a bear's ear.

A different style grew up among the Kwakwaka'wakw consisting primarily of large free-standing human welcome figures, mythical beings, and interior house posts. The Nuu'chah' nulth on Vancouver Island's West Coast, and the Coast Salish in Southern British Columbia and western Washington also carved large human figures representing ancestors and spirit helpers on interior house posts and as grave monuments.

Carvers of multiple-figure poles divided space in proportion to the tapering width of the pole, not according to the relative size of the real animal as found in nature. Animal figures could be stretched or compressed to suit the carver's expressive intent. A beaver could be as large as a whale, a bear smaller than a raven. A beak could be larger than the bird's body, or the angle of a wolf's eyes could be slanted to look wicked. The expressiveness of the animals portrayed is apparently without limit. They could be fierce, threatening, sleepy, playful, sad, worried, proud.

Carr was attracted to the mixture of human figures with animals for the multiplicity of subtle interactions depicted. To a Gitksan's man's question of why she wanted to paint totem poles, I have the fictional Emily respond, "Because I love even what I don't understand. Because they show a connection. Trees and animals and people. I want white people and your grandchildren's children to see this greatness."

On a more spiritual level, Carr wrote in her journal, "Our BC Indians lived in their totems and not in themselves, becoming the creature that was their ideal and guiding spirit. They loved it and were in awe of it and they experienced something." **

Poles were raised at elaborate potlatches involving strict protocol and ceremony. At such gatherings of several bands, the host, usually a chief, gave hundreds of gifts to the invited guests, in return for the guests serving as witnesses of ceremonies honoring the dead, bestowing names, joining in marriage, and inaugurating new communal houses.


Photo of Kwakwaka'wakw Eagle Mask courtesy of --U'mista Cultural Society.

"When one's heart is glad, he gives away gifts. It was given to us by our Creator, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are Indian. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy."       -- Agnes Alfred, Alert Bay, 1980

From 1884 to 1951, the Canadian government made potlatches illegal, a transparent attempt to suppress Native culture, ceremony, dance, and even the carving of the poles themselves. However, a practice so central to Native culture could not be easily quelled. Artists began to carve small model poles for sale as souvenirs to tourists, and other art forms continued to flourish. When the anti-potlatch law was rescinded, potlatches resumed, and in fact, continue today.

Emily Carr: Guyasdoms D'Sonoqua; Art Gallery of Ontario -- Photo rights pending.

Emily Carr: Zunoqua, watercolor,44.3 x 31.8 cm. Location: Vancouver Art Gallery, VAG 42.31.1.© Vancouver Art Gallery

Painting, textiles, masks, bent wood boxes, carvings in wood, bone, ivory, horn, argillite and fine metals from the size of a child's ring to totem poles as monumental as those erected in the nineteenth century--all are produced today. Considering the vitality of contemporary Native totemic art in galleries all along the Northwest Coast, it's hard to believe that for a time, Emily Carr was concerned that its fate might be eventual disappearance.

Of particular interest to Carr was the ogress Dzunukwa (also spelled D'Sonoqua and Zunoqua), wild woman of the woods representing the dark and dangerous side of Canadian wilderness, stealer of children yet bringer of wealth to the Kwakwaka'wakw. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss indicates an ambiguity in gender as well as in attitude--sometimes hostile, sometimes not.


Stanley Park D'Sonoqua totem --Maurice Jassek

Emily encountered Dzunukwa several times in different villages. Of one, she wrote, "The great wooden image towering above me was indeed terrifying." Of another, "The whole figure expressed power, weight, domination rather than ferocity... The fingers were thrust into the carven mouths of two human heads, held crowns down. From behind, the sun made unfathomable shadows in eye, cheek and mouth. Horror tumbled out of them." Yet of a third, she wrote, "She appeared to be neither wooden nor stationary, but a singing spirit, young and fresh, passing through the jungle. No violence coarsened her; no power domineered to wither her. She was graciously feminine."***

Emily Carr: Indian Raven; Art Gallery of Ontario -- Photo rights pending.

Emily Carr: Indian Raven, 1912, oil, 79.8 x 40.6 cm. Location: Vancouver Art Gallery, VAG 42.3.41 © Vancouver Art Gallery.

Some may argue that Carr appropriated the aboriginal art of her highly romanticized vision of a homogenized "Indian" culture, or that her paintings of abandoned villages and poles which she calls "relics of [the] primitive greatness" of the West, intimate that the "authentic" Indians who made them existed only in the past, prior to the adulteration by white colonialism. Nevertheless, the genuineness of her love for whatever her version of Native cultures may have been cannot be argued. She stated in an interview in 1929, "I used to wish I was born an Indian." And in a letter in 1941, no longer able to visit Native villages, she wrote that she was "homesick for Indian," as though it were a longed-for state of being.

Current practice demands different terms than what I've used in The Forest Lover: First Nations people for Indians, Kwakwaka'wakw for Kwakiutl, Nuu'chah'nulth for Nootka. With apologies to those who may object, in the novel I have used the terms reflective of Emily's language, time, and perspective as one of the settler society. Emily was painfully conscious of the thin line between appreciation and appropriation. At times, she must have felt overwhelmed by mysteries beyond her grasp. Like her, I hope, as an outsider, that my appreciation for Native culture shines through my shortcomings in understanding something that can rightly be the work of a lifetime.

This information was provided, in part, from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, at the University of Washington, Seattle.
and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia,

The University of Washington Libraries' site, "American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Digital Collection," gives a history of Northwest Coast Native populations, a map of the tribes, hundreds of period photographs, and a thorough discussion of mission and residential schools.

The British Columbia Archives site on First Nations gives a good introduction of early coastal cultures and their way of life, with many period photographs.

For more on the potlatch, the appropriation of potlatch ceremonial gear by governmental agencies, and the eventual move toward repatriation of these items, see the U'mista Cultural Society Potlatch Collection, which also offers a fine display of masks including Dzunukwa, Eagle, Raven, Wolf, Swan, Owl, Bear, Cannibal Bird, even Mosquito (page 2 of thumbnails). The Eagle mask on this page is shown courtesy of the U'mista Cultural Centre.

*       Carr, Emily, An Address (presented March 1930 to the Victoria Women's Canadian Club in the Crystal Garden). Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1955.

**     Carr, Emily. Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Toronto/Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin and Company, 1966, p. 97.

***   Carr, Emily. Klee Wyck. Toronto/Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin and Company, 1941.