Symbol Definitions

Bentwood Box
Cowichan Knits

Hawk Mask
Hok Hok
Killer Whale

Ojibway Basketry
Red Cedar
Sea Lion
Talking Stick
Totem Poles
Wren Mask



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 1820ís. 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 a 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 itís 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.



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

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 basket making is the lengthy process of gathering and preparing the materials to be used in the basket making. Thereís bark, roots and grasses that must be harvested, dried, split and perhaps dyed before the weaving process or sewing of the basket can begin.

The effects of pollution, land development and logging in some areas mean that basket makers must go longer distances from their homes to obtain their materials.

Today, Nootks (West Coast), Haida and Salish artists produce the most readily available basketry. The best of contemporary baskets as well as antique ones are becoming collectorís items.

Taking care of your baskets requires that they are not in direct sunlight or bright artificial light. Too much light and heat will case the basket to become dry and brittle as well as cause the colours to 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 Ė always use two hands, never lift a basket by its rim and avoid using a basketís 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 Chiefís 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 womanís 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, the Beaver is said to have once been a woman. Tsimshian legends tells of a woman who dammed a stream to swim in it. Then refused to get out so she was transformed and her leather apron became a Beaverís 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.



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).



Bookwus, 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.

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



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 Ė 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 familyís 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.



Genuine Cowichan knits are made from raw sheepís 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.



The Dogfish is a crest that is often applied to utilitarian objects. Itís often portrayed with a labret in its lip as a reminder of a legend of a woman carried off by the Dogfish a long time ago.

The Dogfish Woman Mask is the most prominent Shark in Haida legends. Itís considered a family crest of Haida royalty. All other Sharks are referred to as "Dogfish Motherí. In addition to the Shark-like features, the Dogfish Woman wears a labret in her lower lip which is traditionally worn by artistocratic Haida women. The Dogfish is one of the most powerful crests that is associated with feminine qualities. As well, it enters the realm of supernatural beings.


Traditionally, the dragonfly is the symbol of transformation and life's ever-constant process of change.

Dragonfly, connected with water and Springtime, fertility, renewal; considered a messenger.


The Legend Of the Dream Catcher

The Ojibwa (Chippewa) believe that night is full of both good and bad dreams. When a dream catcher is hung above the place where you sleep it moves freely in the night air and catches the dreams as they drift by. The good dreams, knowing their way, pass through the opening in the center of the webbing while the bad dreams, not knowing the way, are caught in the webbing and destroyed at the first light of the morning sun.

There are many variants to the dream catcher legend, some which say both the good and bad dreams are captured and some which say the good dreams slide down the feather to those sleeping below. Although the Ojibwa are credited as the first people to use Dream Catchers many other Tribes and Native peoples have adopted Dream Catchers into their culture. Even though the designs and legends of Dream Catchers differ slightly, the underlying meaning and symbolism is universal and is carried across cultures and language barriers.

Everybody dreams.




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 drumís lacings may break under such conditions, the head may become brittle and crack or the frame may warp.

To avoid damage under conditions of extreme temperature and low humidity, moisture can be added to the air by using a humidifier or teapot. Moisture may be applied directly to the drum by wiping the head with a lightly dampened cloth. Where such climatic conditionsare the norm, as in areas of Alaska and Arizona, an animal or vegetable oil may be lightly applied to the lacing and/or drumhead (on the inside for a single head) to allow it more flexibility.

Shade any drum displayed in direct sunlight.

Proper care aids in the usefulness and extends the life of all natural materials.



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 jewelry.

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.



A symbol of prosperity and wealth, the Frog was said to have warned humans of impending danger. The Frog is frequently depicted in the art of the Northwest Coast and many legends are attached to this whimsical little animal.

Known as an important family crest figure, the Frog or "Wukus" is the announces who tells the end of the Winter Dance season. Itís said that when the last snowflakes of the winter touch the ground they turn into Frogs. Then the Native people know that there is only six weeks until the Salmon return to the rivers and Summer begins.

In Haida culture, the Frog is often shown on House posts because it is believed that this helps keep the house from falling over.

In Tsimshian culture, the Frog is known as the communicator between mother earth and man. Frog is considered the only child to mother earth.

There is a story about Volcano Woman. Her only child, the Frog, saw evil men hunting her earth creatures for pleasure rather than necessity. When the men notices Frog, they knew they would be found out so they killed him. Volcano Woman erupted and destroyed the earth in her sorrow furry. She cried great tears of lava. The earth was destroyed but in time would be born again even stronger and more fertile.



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.



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 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.



This beautiful tiny bird once abundant on the West Coast is known by the whimsical name "Sah Sen". Contemporary in style, the Hummingbird represents friendship and playfulness.

The Hummingbird is also a symbol of good luck and good fortune. It was considered a positive sign to spot a Hummingbird just prior to some major event such as hunting or travelling to another village. The ability of the Hummingbird to hover and move back and forth at great speeds is seen as skills that guide the people. For example, if the people fall behind, the Hummingbird can easily back up to keep pace. Legend says that the Hummingbird puts the twinkle in the stars, and that catching a Hummingbird guarantees your choice of a mate.

The Hummingbird is a well respected symbol.



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.



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 which enabled 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 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.



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.



The Moon was the exclusive crest of only a few of the highest ranking Chiefs among the Haida. Rights to this crest are still inherited.

The Raven is said to have released the Moon into the sky. The stars are pieces of the Moon that flung off when Raven threw it into the sky. An eclipse was said to be a Codfish trying to swallow the Moon. In order to prevent this, a bonfire was set with green boughs to add smoke. As people danced ceremonially around the fire, thick smoke rose to the sky causing the codfish to cough and spit out the Moon. When the people saw the Moon appear at the edge of the mountain they would drum to bring the Moon higher into the sky.



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 ĎThe Cannibal at the North end of the Worldí but you shall be a Mosquito".



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.



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.



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.



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 Ė a daughter. At this time, it was pitch black everywhere and no one could see anything. So whether she was beautiful or not, there wasnít a way anyone could tell. Thus begins the tale of the Raven and the Sun. Itís 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 manís 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 Ė 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 Ė materially, ceremonially and medicinally.

Great cedar trees with clear true grain are becoming more difficult to find as they succumb to the loggerís 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.



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 Lionís 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 masterís 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. Itís 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 serpentís 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.



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.



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.



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. Itís 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 peopleís 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 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 heís 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.



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.



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.



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.