Link to the Penelakut Art HomepageGallery pageHistory page - you are hereContact us(email link)


SALISHAN FIRST NATIONS are aboriginal peoples speaking languages related within the Salishan family of languages. Although Salishan First Nations originally occupied territories from Idaho (the Coeur d'Alene) to Oregon (the Tillamook) and were the predominant stock in what is now Washington state, 12 of the 23 Salish tongues were spoken in BC. The Salishan First Nations divided at an early date into Coast Salish and Interior Salish, and they are contiguous except for outliers on the north (Nuxalk) and the south (Tillamook). Except for the Nuxalk (Bella Coola), who were influenced culturally by adjacent Wakashan groups, Salishan groups produced art that was more representational than the highly conventionalized Northwest Coast aboriginal art, and while historically they did not produce totem poles they carved elaborate welcoming figures and houseposts for their shed-roofed houses. The xwexwe ritual (with its pectin shell rattles and masks with protruding eyes) developed among the Salish and spread among other groups on the West Coast. Heavy woolen sweaters, scarves and toques, commonly knitted by Salish women, are sometimes referred to as "Salish knitting" and maintain an aboriginal tradition of Salish weaving.
   by Jay Powell from the Encyclopaedia of British Columbia (

Art of the Northwest Coast is an expression of spirituality, social status and ceremony. Iconographic images represent ancestral crest figures – killer whales, grizzly bears, wolves, eagles, thunderbirds, etc – from which a lineage descended. These are represented on totem poles, housefront paintings, talking sticks, ceremonial blankets, heirloom feast dishes and other eating utensils.

The art also serves to make the supernatural world visible and is related to theatre, where powerful spirits are manifest in song and dance through the use of masks and other stage properties. The tendency in non-aboriginal, European society to distinguish between artistic and utilitarian concerns is absent from aboriginal culture, where art and spiritual ceremony pervaded every aspect of life. Even the most utilitarian objects were wonderfully wrought and decorated.

Northwest Coast art reflects the close relationship between the indigenous people and their environment. The great stands of red cedar in the coastal rain forests were used to make masks, rattles, feast dishes and bentwood boxes, as well as houses, totem poles and canoes. Yellow cedar, yew, alder and maple were used for ceremonial items, while hemlock, Douglas Fir and other species were used for a variety of implements and tools. Women made basketry items, capes, skirts, blankets, hats and mats from cedar bark, roots and branches, spruce root, bulrushes and seagrasses. Decorative features also came from nature. Objects were decorated or inlaid with abalone shell, opercula, sea lion whiskers, feathers, ermine skins, antler, teeth, bone and hooves.

The iconography of the art is bound to both this natural environment and the supernatural worlds of the different First Nations groups. Within the natural and supernatural are the distinct worlds of the sea, sky, land and spirit world. Supernatural beings interact with characters of the natural world. The recurring theme of transformation, linking the supernatural and natural planes of existence, is a key concept in the iconography of the art.

The style of Northwest Coast art is highly formalized and subtle, whether it is the two-dimensional flat designs on boxes, chests, bowls and screens or the carved designs on sculptured objects such as masks, poles and headdresses. The style of Northwest Coast art was analyzed by the artist and art historian Bill Holm in his landmark study Northwest Coast Art: An Analysis of Form (1965). Holm identified certain essential design elements: the formline, a continuous flowing line that outlines the creature being represented; the ovoid, a slightly-flattened oval shape; and the u-form, lines drawn in the shape of the letter U. These elements are most strongly associated with the 2-dimensional arts of the northern groups. Southern groups share some characteristics of style with their northern neighbours, but they also employ their own graphic motifs. While these elements are present in most of the art, their use varies from group to group and from artist to artist. Styles in sculpture also differ from group to group, chiefly in the manner in which facial features–human, animal and mythical–are carved. Historically, 2 or more artists often collaborated.

The production of aboriginal art for ceremonial purposes, and for the curio trade, managed to survive the negative impact of contact with Europeans and the repressive government policies epitomized by the ban on the potlatch during 1884 to 1951. During the first half of the 20th century, several important artists were at work, including Charles Edenshaw, a Haida man, and the Kwakwaka'wakw artists Charlie James, Willie Seaweed and Charlie G. Walkus, to name just a few. The legacy of knowledge and skills passed on by these masters enjoyed a resurgence beginning in the 1950s. In 1950 the Kwakwaka'wakw carver Mungo Martin was hired to restore totem poles at UBC's Totem Park. Martin later moved to the Royal BC Museum to carry out a similar project, and he trained apprentices to repair and replicate totem poles. In 1967 the Vancouver Art Gallery staged the "Arts of the Raven" show, a major exhibition that presented Northwest Coast aboriginal art as art instead of artifact.

Whether they are producing for ceremonial or community purposes, or for sale in the wider marketplace, aboriginal artists are now widely recognized as being among the leading contemporary artists in BC.

   From the Encyclopaedia of British Columbia (

Back to the Penelakut Art HomepageTo the top of the page