The Significance of Copper Metal

The Significance of Copper Metal

Above: Copper Raven Pendant by Derek White Jr., Haida

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.

Above: Moon Mask by Kevin Cranmer, Kwakwakwa'wakw

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.

Above: Copper Thunderbird Pendant by Derek White, Haida

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.

Above: Split Eagle Bracelet by Derek White, Haida

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. To view more copper artworks and jewelry click here.