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VI Decorative Art

Since the Indians of the Northwest Coast were wood-carvers, the menís style of art was expressed primarily in wood carving and painting although they also used the medium of stone, bone and horn, applying the wood carverís technique. Their art is symbolic yet on occasion realism is employed.

The unusual characteristics of their art are what distinguished it from the art of any other people in the world. One acquainted with this unique style can identify Northwest Coast art work instantly wherever encountered.

A prime prerequisite of all Northwest Coast art is that it serve a useful end. In other words, a useful object such as a spoon, dish, box, paddle or weapon is made, then it is completely decorated. Hence the artist is always restrained by the size and shape of the object to be decorated. This has led to an almost absolute disregard for perspective and has introduced the qualities of dissection, rearrangement of parts and distortion. In carving a totempole he is restrained by the trunk of the tree. If a frog is to appear above or below a bear it will bulk as large as the bear. To carve it in proper perspective would necessitate practically severing the trunk at that place, leaving a large undecorated space (which to him would be sacrilege) or insult the frog since it is a symbol fully as important as the bear. Hence importance of the figures displayed has considerable bearing on the size they will assume.

photo p68

Chief Shakes VII entering his restored community house on Shakes Island, Wrangell Harbor, before erection of false front. The heavy cedar timbers and planks have been finished with the native adze, which gives them a hammered-brass effect. [Photo by Author]

Since articles in daily use are decorated in the totems or clan symbols of the owner, the artist is confronted with the problem of making a given symbol fit a space of any shape. Thus a raven must be made circular to decorate a hat or a round dish, rectangular to decorate a box or chest, lance-shaped to decorate a paddle. This is accomplished by distortion. Certain parts are greatly enlarge, others suppressed, bent or folded until the end is achieved. Balanced designs, especially on boxes, blankets and screens were much in favor, so to achieve this the artist employed dissection. The so-called double-headed eagles and ravens were not double-headedóthey had simply been split down the back and laid open, resulting in a design in perfect balance.

If the parts of the totemic symbol being employed in decoration failed to fit, they were removed, figuratively, and rearranged. A common dogfish (shark) design employed on blankets reveals that the dogfish was first decapitated, the body split along the spine, laid open, the head placed in the center. But that was not all. The eyes were next removed and placed above the mouth, for otherwise they could not be seen since a shark has its eyes on top and mouth beneath the head. Next, a nose was placed between the eyes and mouth and the snout becomes a high forehead above a somewhat human face. The true nostrils become mere decorations on the forehead and may be accompanied by a series of crescents which once were gillslits but are now merely recognition features. (See picture, page 72.)


Since realism was seldom employed, a system of symbols was evolved by which the various figures could be recognized. This was achieved by taking some salient feature of the totem animal and stressing it. In the case of totem birds such as the eagle, raven, crane and hawk, beak differences made distinction easy so the realistic bill became the recognition feature of "symbol" of the bird. The frog (toad?) is carved realistically but may be further identified by its toothless mouth, tailless body and three toes. The beaver is shown with two prominent incisors, a hachured tail and often with a stick in the forepaws. The bear is often quite realistic but its large nostrils, paws and fangs are features. It is often shown with protruding tongue. The wolf is carved similar to the bear but with a longer muzzle and elevated snout. Sometimes a long tail is added to help in identifying it. A pair of sharp horns help to identify the mountain goat although it is shown with two toes instead of a cleft hoof.

The killerwhale may be recognized by its prominent dorsal fin, the sculpin or bullhead by its large head, mouth turned up at the corners and two spines above the eyes. The dogfish or shark has gillslits shown as crescents, a crescent-shaped mouth depressed at the corners and filled with sawtooth-like teeth. Its unusual tail is generally realistic. The halibut differs from other fish in that it has a continuous fin and both eyes on one side. The octopus is shown with a bird-like head and bill (which it really has) but the distinguishing feature is the suction-plate and tentacles.

photo p70

Petroglyphic Gonakadet carrying whale (top) probably earliest representation of monster known to Tlingits as Gonakadet and to Haidas as Wasgo. This is the same supernatural being that appears on the Old Witch totem and on the smaller of the Kadashan totems. Lower pictograph in red ochre is cliff painting, one of records of a mysterious band, but has nothing in common with art style of Northwest Coast. Pictograph is not as old as the "battered" petroglyphs which have an unmistakable affinity with the Coast art. Both pictures from Hetta inlet. Outline of lower traced with clamshell since paintings were too faint to photograph otherwise. [Photos by Author]

Insects are sometimes hard to recognize since they are carved as conventionalized birds, the mosquito often resembling the crane. However, the Haidas depict the mosquito with a coiled proboscis as if it were a butterfly. The dragonfly has a large head, segmented body with paired wings (four). It is quite realistic and would never be mistaken for anything else. The woodworm also has a segmented body but the absence of wings makes it readily distinguishable from the dragonfly.

Supernatural birds and animals generally are adaptations of known species. Thus the Kwakiutl thunderbird resembles the golden eagle while the Haida thunderbird is similar to the hawk. The sea grizzly is carved like a bear with the addition of fins at the elbows and heels. In general, sea animals have round eyes, all others have eyes consisting of two outer curves, the upper one longer than the lower, inclosing a circle which represents the eyeball. Around this is carved a kidney-shaped area that is depressed and generally painted blue-green.

Women are distinguished from men by the presence of a labret in the lower lip of the women, otherwise they are similar. Sex parts are seldom, if ever, encountered in totempoles or any other art work of the Northwest Coast Indians.

The native artist seems at all times to be conscious of the skeletal form of his subject. Thus, he symbolizes each joint with an "eye" form. If it is a large joint, the eye becomes a "face."

He abhors vacant spaces as well as straight lines and sharp angles so in drawing a whale he will indicate the backbone as well as the ribs using artistic symbols (reverse curve for ribs) and thus fill otherwise vacant spaces. Sometimes he will fill these spaces by carving the tail of a beaver or a whale on the abdomen and at other times will use the "eye" or the "flicker-feather" design as a filler.

One of the most mysterious practices of the Northwest Coast artist is his use of ears, placed prominently above the heads of both animal and bird, alike. Human beings are depicted with a realistic ear at the side of the head, yet supernatural people are shown with the conventional ear above the head as in animals. This "ear" is in the form of a "flicker feather," the most prominent feature in all Northwest Coast art. It is used as a feather or scale design, as an ear or a fin or simply as a space filler. It is most versatile, for it may be short and thick, long and slender, distorted, embellished in a hundred different ways.

photo p72

Dissected shark design. To make a balanced design, the fish has been decapitated, split asunder, the head replaced at the center. Eyes have been moved to underside, new nostrils added. Snout has now become a vaulted forehead with original nostrils merely a decorative feature. The gillslits, which are a recognition feature, have been moved to the forehead where they appear as a row of crescents. [Photo by Author]

It is possible that originally the "ear" was simply a "plume," doubled for balance. In at least one old story, a salmon was known to be supernatural because it had a red feather in its head. It may have been the practice of early carvers to place the "plume" on the head to distinguish supernatural animals from the common variety. If this were the case it would account for the fact that ordinary people are shown with realistic ears while supernatural people or mythological characters have the flicker feather ear. Whales are not shown with ears but in their case the pectoral fins occupy the position of ears and double for them since they carry the flicker feather design.

photo p73

Haida painting of Wasgo or Gonakadet, referring to same myth as that of the Hetta Inlet petroglyph picture on page 70. The young man who dressed in the Gonakadetís hide is here shown crouching in its mouth and is in the act of bringing in the two whales that caused his death. (See Gonakadet story, page 129.) [Photo by Author]

Since birds, insects, fish and animals are regarded as people capable of taking human form at will they are often depicted as human beings. However, there will always be something to designate what was intended. Raven may be shown in human form but with a ravenís wings, or with a human body and a ravenís head. A whale might have a human face but will have in addition, a blow-hole in the forehead. Dogfish sometimes are shown with human faces but with gillslit symbols in the cheeks. A squid or devil-fish might appear as a human being but with tentacle suckers as eyebrows.

photo p74

Haida circular design depicting a sculpin (bullhead) suitable for hat or bowl. Spines adjoining nostrils are the recognition features. [Photo by Author]

With the advent of white men on the Northwest Coast, things began to appear on totempoles for which there were no symbols or conventionalized forms, hence realism was employed. Russians are generally recognized by their full black beards and European dress; Lincoln was undoubtedly copied from a photograph, steamboats appear with funnel and sidewheels. This was no tax on the abilities of the artist, however, for portraiture had long been practiced in the making of realistic masks, headdresses, and heads used in ceremonies wherein decapitation was feigned.

Photo page 75
Gonakadet pillar (left) and Duk-toohl pillar (right) are two of the four interior house pillars of the Whale House at Klukwan where they may still be seen in their original Indian paint. [Photo from Emmonsí "The Whale House of Chilkat"]

Like the totempoles, the art of the Northwest Coast itself is recent. Many museum pieces in stone and wood reveal that the artist of this region has not always favored the curvilinear figures he now executes to the exclusion of all others. Food and storage boxes in particular were formerly decorated with plain geometric figures, and red was the only color employed on them. The womenís art as seen in mats and baskets was also formal and meaningless, except that the various designs employed had names. In recent times, however, the native women have been prevailed upon by whites to imitate the menís totemic figures on their baskets.

The Chilkat blanket was, of course, symbolic and according to the Northwest Coast art style. But this was not an example of the womenís art since they merely copied designs painted on the pattern boards by the men.

Totempoles were painted with a type of fishegg tempera, consisting of a mineral pigment mixed with a mordant of fresh salmon eggs and saliva. The colors originally were red, black and apple green. The red was obtained from hematite, the black from graphite and carbon, and the apple green from various copper ores common in the region. For many years commercial paints have been used but none achieve the soft, flat tones of the native paint seen today only in a few well-preserved interior house pillars.

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