The cultural mythology of the Northwest Coast is represented by the various crest figures illustrated in First Nations art. During the traditional winter potlatch, they honoured these crest and ancestral beings through retelling of stories, performing song and dance, and proclaiming their status.
Individual nations align themselves with specific crest figures and, today, they are more accustomed to borrowing and adapting them for their own purposes. Some artists continue to depict figures that are rightfully theirs and there are others who work outside of their tribal affiliations.
For more extensive write-ups or stories on specific works of art, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604.685.9298
The powerful, human-like Bear was referred to as 'Elder Kinsmen' and treated as a high-ranking guest when killed. Legend tells of a chief's daughter abducted by a Bear whom she subsequently marries and gives birth to twin cubs. The Bear Mother image is commonly depicted feeding human children.
An important crest of the Haida Nation, the Beaver was once a woman who damned a stream so she could swim in a pool of water and then refused to leave. As she transformed, her long hair became fur and her leather apron became the Beaver's tail.
In Haida legend, the Butterfly appears as a partner to the Raven. It was a scout who could lead the Raven to food or find the hiding place of other creatures. Sometimes it's depicted with a human face, but one can usually recognize it by the double wings and short segmented body.
This small, bottom-feeding 'Shark' is an important and high-ranking crest figure amongst the matriarches with the Haida Nation. It is an image most commonly depicted by Haida, Tlingit, Tshimshian and Nisg'a artisans, especially applied to utilitarian objects.
The intelligent Eagle symbolizes status, power, peace and friendship. The Eagle feather is considered a sacred part of many ceremonies and rituals. It's known to mate with one partner for a lifetime. In Haida legend, the Eagle and Raven are close companions and serve as alter egos.
The Frog symbolizes luck, prosperity, stability and healing. As a communicator, Frogs connect with the world on land and under water. It's carved into totem poles to prevent them from falling over. In Tlingit legend, a chief's daughter laughed at a Frog and was lured into the lake by a Frog in human form. The Frog people refused to let her go, so her family drained the lake, thus scattering Frogs everywhere.
The Hawk takes its place in the supernatural spiritual world, inspiring unique designs for masks, rattles and jewelry. For the Haida Nation, it was used to represent the Thunderbird. Often associated with the Sun, the Hawk can be distinguished by its curled beak which curves to meet the tip of the lower jaw.
This beautiful tiny bird, common to the northwest coast of Canada, is believed to represent not only beauty and love, but it also brings good luck and spiritual healing to anyone who comes into contact with it.
The Killerwhale is a powerful underwater hunter and considered the sea manifestation of the land Wolf. It's commonly known to mate and guard its family for a lifetime. Thus, a whale sighted near the shore, was believed to be a transformed human trying to communicate with his family.
The quiet and tranquil Loon is known for its melancholy-sounding cry. It often takes delight in frightening humans in canoes or on shore when an eerie, shadowy fog rolls across the lake.
Considered an exclusive crest of a few high-ranking chiefs amongst the Haida Nation - rights to this day are still inherited. The Raven is said to have stolen the Moon and Stars, which he flung into the sky to illuminate the darkness. Moon is associated with transformation and is regarded as a protector and guardian.
As a transformation figure and spirit helper, the Octopus is an eight-legged figure represented in Kwakwaka'wakw mythology as a symbol of great wealth. Octopi are depicted as a decorative motif with long tentacles and rows of sucker.
The Sea Otter is intelligent, resourceful and agile, using its forepaws like hands. It's the most playful of all creatures and often symbolizes laughter and lightheartedness. Sea Otters are challenging prey and hunting them was a prestigious activity.
As a noctural hunting bird, the Owl is a strong flyer with acute hearing and vision and a haunting call. Northwest Coast people believe the Owl has great powers of wisdom, foreknowledge and perception. They are identified by large round eyes, a very short hooked beak and pointed ears.
Creation, Heroism, Transformation. The Raven is one of the main crest figures of the Haida Nation. Mythologically, the Raven is the one who released the Sun and created the Moon, Stars and Universe. According to the Haida, the Raven discovered First Man in the Clamshell on the beach.
As a staple food for a variety of coastal Nations, Salmon was brought to the rivers by the Raven. Many legends surround the Salmon denoting a good harvest. A favourable 'Salmon run' dictated the lives of the coastal peoples and determined the quality of their lives.
The Seal represents wealth and plenty. They were traditionally an important resource providing food, oil for fuel, and tough waterproof hides that could be fashioned into useful items, such as whaling floats.
The mythical double-headed Sea Serpent has the ability to transform itself into various forms and the power to bring both good and evil. As a source of magical powers, it can bring great wealth. Often painted on canoes, headdresses, and above doorways, it serves as a guardian and protector.
In Northwest coast folklore, the Sun symbolises life and creative forces as well as warmth and healing. In legends, it acts as a benevolent spirit guide. The Haida believe the Raven stole the Sun and subsequently released it back into the sky to illuminate the world for all mankind.
The powerful and intelligent Thunderbird is a supernatural, mythical creature that lives high in the mountains and feeds on Killerwhale. It's been aptly named for the thunder that rolls off its wings and lightening comes from its eyes when it flies.
The Wolf is a symbol of patience, individuality and protection. The Wolf was revered as a powerful and skillful hunter on land. In order to become a good hunter, one must acquire the spiritual power of the Wolf. The Wolf is considered the land manifestation of the Killerwhale; it mates and guards its family for a lifetime.