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
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 baskets
Taking 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.
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.
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
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
Ceremonial / Chilkat Blanket
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 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.
Indian 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
First 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.
Techniques of Basketry
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.
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 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
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."
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
Tule 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
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.
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.
The 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
Of 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
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
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
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.
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.
Virtually 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
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
*Symbol information obtained from:
Understanding Northwest Coast Art: A Guide to Crests, Beings, and Symbols
By Cheryl Shearar
Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast By Hilary Stewart
©all rights reserved, Northwest Tribal Art