Learn More About Northwest Coast Culture
Abalone is a unique type of snail that lives in the ocean. It comes from the family of Haliotidae. It’s common name, abalone, comes from the Spanish term aulon or aulone.
The First Nations peoples of the Northwest Coast consider abalone a valuable and sacred material. It is often used to create objects of prestige and status, such as chief's headdresses, bracelets, and earrings. Abalone shells are also used to create intricate inlay designs, which often have symbolic meaning.
Traditionally abalone was obtained through trade with other coastal groups, or through harvesting by the Indigenous peoples of the region. The shells were harvested from the rocky shores of the Pacific Northwest, and the process of collecting them was considered a sacred activity.
In addition to its ceremonial and spiritual significance, abalone was also used for practical purposes. Abalone shells were used as a source of food and it was also used to create tools such as knives, hooks, and needles.
Today, abalone continues to be an important part of Pacific Northwest Coast culture. Many Indigenous artists continue to work with abalone and use it in contemporary art and cultural revitalization efforts. Abalone art and artifacts are also highly valued by collectors and museums.
Overfishing and poaching have reduced wild populations to such an extent that farmed abalone now supplies most of the abalone used, becoming a more sustainable option.
Jewelry containing abalone should be removed when showering. Avoid contact with soaps and chemicals, including polish, as they can dull the appearance of abalone.
Argillite is a dense, black, carbonaceous shale known as kwawhlahl in the Haida language. It is found exclusively at a creek on Slatechuck Mountain (Tllgaduu randlaay) on Graham Island, the largest island in the Haida Gwaii archipelago.
Once the stone is cut from the hillside, it must be backpacked down the mountain on foot before it is carved. Argillite carvings have been prized around the world since the 1800s when the Haida began selling pieces to sailors. Today, Haida carvers continue the tradition.
For those who wish to know more about this beautiful and unique sculptural tradition, Carol Sheehan's book 'Breathing Stone' is an excellent resource on contemporary Haida argillite carving and is available in the gallery.
Another form of argillite is catlinite. Catlinite is usually brownish-red in colour and is more commonly used by carvers from the Plains, but can also been seen in carvings from the Northwest Coast. Catlinite is commonly used in the carving of ceremonial pipes, hence the stone's other name, pipestone.
Please note, argillite is a fragile stone. Avoid knocking argillite against hard or sharp surfaces as it can scratch or chip. If handled with care, argillite pieces will be enjoyed for many years to come.
A bentwood box is a unique item to the Northwest Coast First Nations peoples of British Columbia and has been used for thousands of years. Created for both practical and symbolic purposes, bentwood boxes were used for storage of clothing, household items or heirlooms, for the transportation of goods, for cooking, and as burial boxes for ancestors. Bentwood boxes that were made for the most prized possessions were often intricately decorated with carvings, paintings and additions of abalone, mother of pearl or copper.
Bentwood boxes get their name from the technique used to create them. Made from a single plank of red or yellow cedar, they are grooved on each corner, steamed, and then folded to form the four sides. The two ends are pegged together at one corner before the addition of the base and the lid. This ingenious method makes these boxes both beautiful and watertight. Should a box be carried by canoe and the box fall into the water, the contents of the box would be secure. It would float to the surface of the water and could be easily recovered.
Precious metals, such as gold and copper, have been used by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast for centuries. These metals have been used to create a variety of objects, including jewelry, clothing, tools, and ceremonial items. The Haida, Tlingit, and Kwakwaka'wakw peoples are particularly known for their skill in working with precious metals, and their art and artifacts are highly prized today. The metals were obtained through trade with Europeans or other coastal groups. They were also mined by certain groups in the region such as the Tlingit in the Yukon region.
Copper is a material of great importance to the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast. This metal has a long history of significance in Northwest Coast art and culture that was retained throughout colonial contact.
Native copper and shipwreck drift copper was collected, traded and used by Indigenous communities to fabricate objects of importance and cultural significance, such as copper shields and personal adornments.
Copper is a symbol of wealth, regarded as a powerful material that is part of both the natural and supernatural worlds. It is linked to supernatural beings, origin stories, and ideas of protection, health, wealth and prestige.
In addition to the cultural significance and value of copper, it also plays an important role in the physical health of the body. Copper is an essential trace mineral and is necessary for survival. It is found in all body tissues and plays a role in maintaining the immune system, nervous system, collagen production, energy production and the absorption of iron. While there is not a lot of clinical evidence, some wearers of copper jewelry find it can relieve symptoms of arthritis, inflammation and circulation issues. Wearing copper bracelets for medicinal benefits has a long history, and can be dated all the way back to ancient Egypt.
Copper continues to be a meaningful and valuable material used in the creation of Northwest Coast jewelry and artworks.
The Copper Shield is among the most enigmatic objects created by Northwest Coast peoples. The origin of its shape is unknown, but was traditionally created from a sheet of copper metal that was into a flared shield, with a T-shape beaten into the lower portion, and then carved, painted or adorned with other materials and designs. The design was often relating to the clan in possession of the Copper, in the style of the region. Throughout the coast, Copper Shields could be exchanged at high values between Chiefs, or may be passed down to the next generation, with a Chieftanship for instance. After colonial contact, Coppers may have been made from native copper or from traded copper, but there is not evidence to suggest that being made of trade copper made the Copper Shield of lesser value.
Frontlets, also known as "foreheadbands" or "headbands," are a type of headgear traditionally used by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. They are worn by both men and women and are typically made from wood, abalone shells, or other materials such as copper or bronze. They are decorated with intricate designs, such as animals, human figures, or abstract patterns, which often had symbolic meaning.
In traditional Pacific Northwest Coast culture, frontlets were used for ceremonial and ritual purposes. They were worn by high-ranking individuals, such as chiefs and shamans, and were believed to have spiritual power. They were also used as a symbol of status and prestige, and were often passed down through generations as a valuable family heirloom.
Frontlets also played a role in potlatch ceremonies and other important social events, where they are used to express the wealth and prestige of the wearer and their family. They can also be used to identify the person's clan and the specific event they were participating in.
Today, frontlets are still considered an important part of Pacific Northwest Coast culture and many Indigenous artists continue to make and use them in ceremonial and cultural revitalization practices. They are also exhibited in museums and private collections as a significant art form.
The Hamat'sa Society is an important part of the culture of the Kwakwaka'wakw and other Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. It is a secret society that is known for its complex and powerful ceremonial dances, which are often performed during potlatches and other important socialevents.
The Hamat'sa Society is also known for its initiation ceremonies, which involve elaborate rituals and the use of powerful masks and other objects. The society is made up of men and women who have been initiated into its secrets and are able to perform the ceremonial dances and rituals.
The Hamat'sa is considered to be one of the most important societies of the Kwakwaka'wakw people, and its members are considered to be some of the most powerful and respected individuals in the community. They are believed to have the power to control spirits and to bring good luck and prosperity to the community.
The Hamat'sa society also plays an important role in the cultural revitalization efforts of the Kwakwaka'wakw people and other Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Many Indigenous artists and performers continue to practice and perform the dances and rituals of the society as a way of preserving their culture and heritage.
Paddles are an essential part of the Northwest Coast First Nations culture. Paddles can serve as both functional and decorative objects, and like canoes, paddles are made with pride. Traditionally, carved paddles have been used to paddle and steer large cedar canoes in the coastal waters of the Northwest Pacific. They have also been used during ceremonial dances, as deadly weapons, and symbolically as representations of transportation, the sea, and life’s journey.
Today's West Coast Native Paddles are often magnificently carved and painted with depictions of traditional stories, symbols, and designs varying by nation. They may be adorned with inlays of abalone, mother of pearl, or other significant materials. While often still functional, paddles today are mostly created as fine works of art. The paddle may vary in shape and size, depending on who is using it. This is predominantly because men and women tend to stroke the water differently; a woman’s stroke is quicker and with more splashing, a man’s stroke is deeper and stronger. The shape of the paddle also varies depending on whether it’s used for paddling or steering, for ocean or river. A very broad paddle is used in the stern of the boat for steering. A sharply pointed paddle may be used for hunting, spearing fish, to enter the water more quietly, to secure the canoe to a bank, or as a weapon during warfare.
For those who are not familiar, a potlatch is a centuries-old ceremonial practice that is integral to the culture and spiritual traditions of the Northwest Coast First Nations. It is a formal gathering that serves a variety of social, economic, and political purposes. A potlatch may be held for many reasons: to establish claims to names, powers, rights, and privileges, to confer rank upon an individual, to celebrate a marriage, birth, or another social event, and to mourn the dead. It was also a way to assert the continuity
and strength of the community's culture, traditions, and social organization.
Some potlatches last several days and involve feasting, singing, storytelling, dancing, and wearing regalia and masks. Part of these ceremonies includes the redistribution of wealth and the giving of gifts including clothing, hides, food, blankets, bentwood boxes, artwork, jewelry, canoes, and prestigious items.
In the late 1800’s the Canadian government implemented a ban on potlatches that lasted for over 60 years. But some potlatches were still held in secret to keep the practice alive and to preserve culture and knowledge. The ban was officially lifted in the 1950’s, and since then First Nations communities have worked hard to revive this tradition. This rich and integral ceremony is practiced by Northwest Coast Peoples to this day.
Rattles plays an important role in the culture of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Rattles were traditionally used in ceremonies, rituals, and dances, as a way to create rhythm and enhance the spiritual power of the event. They were also used in healing ceremonies and were believed to have spiritual power.
Rattles were typically made of wood and decorated with intricate designs, such as animals, human figures, or abstract patterns, which often had symbolic meaning. They were also made of other materials such as animal skins, shells and copper. They were passed down through generations as valuable family heirlooms, and they were considered to be powerful objects imbued with spiritual energy.
During ceremonies and rituals, the rattle was shaken by a person and often accompanied by other objects such as masks and headdresses. They were used in dances and other performances, and were considered to be an important part of the regalia worn by the dancers. They were also used in healing ceremonies, where they were used to create a rhythm that helped to guide the healing energy.
Today, rattles continue to be an important part of Pacific Northwest Coast culture and many Indigenous artists continue to make and use them in ceremonial and cultural revitalization practices. They are also exhibited in museums and private collections as a significant art form.
Speaker / Talking Staff
A Speakers Staff, or Talking Stick, plays an important role in the culture of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. It is a ceremonial object that is traditionally used by high-ranking individuals, such as chiefs and shamans, during formal speeches, ceremonies, and potlatches.
A Speakers Staff is typically made of wood and decorated with intricate carvings and designs, such as animals, human figures, or abstract patterns, which often have symbolic meaning. The staff is often topped with a figure, such as a bird or animal, which is considered to have spiritual significance. It was believed to be imbued with spiritual power, and it was considered an important symbol of authority, prestige and status.
During ceremonies or speeches, the speaker would hold the staff in their hand and use it as a visual aid to emphasize their words. The staff was also used to make gestures and to point towards certain objects or people.
Today, Speakers Staffs are still considered an important part of Pacific Northwest Coast culture and many Indigenous artists continue to make and use them in ceremonial and cultural revitalization practices. They are also exhibited in museums and private collections as a significant art form.
Totem Poles often display a family's origins, supernatural experiences, achievements, wealth, status, exploits, acquisitions, and territories. There are seven principal types of totem poles: memorial poles, erected when a house changes hands to commemorate the past owner and to identify the present one, house posts, which support the roof, portal poles, which have a hole through which a person enters the house, welcoming poles, often placed at the edge of a territory or a body of water to identify the owner, mortuary poles, grave markers, and ridicule or shaming poles, on which an important individual who had failed in some way had his likeness carved and depicted in a belittling way.
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