The Northwest Coast

The societies of the Northwest coast of North America developed in relative isolation between the Coastal Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Living in small communities on islands and in fjords, they utilised the huge cedar forests to construct the elaborate heraldic structures now known collectively as totem poles.

The enthusiasm for carving stretched far beyond the poles, to encompass all areas of life on the coast and their ornate canoes could travel across hundreds of miles of ocean in search of fish, whales, trade or war. Control of the sea allowed chieftains to amass considerable wealth which they distributed to followers at elaborate feasts known as potlatches.

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Model canoe
  • 1

    Cedar model canoe, Northern Northwest Coast, c. 1870 

    Model canoe

    Head canoes, like this model, could carry dozens of warriors and were designed with high prows that would protect the crew from missiles as they stormed a defended beach. Impractical in high seas, these canoes fell out of fashion as trade superseded warfare in the nineteenth century.

  • 2

    Cedar mask, Northwest Coast, Late 19th Century 

    Transformation mask

    Masking, a performance art practised widely on the coast, was an integral part of potlatches, where ancestral tales were performed in long houses before the tribe and their guests. Some, such as this example, were designed to transform mid-dance from one form to another, an essential part of Northwest Coast storytelling.

  • 3

    Etched copper, Northwest Coast, 19th Century 


    Coppers, large shield-shaped sheets of cold-forged meteoric copper, were the most prized possessions of the most powerful chieftains. Etched with heraldic crests, they were the ultimate statement of wealth on the Northwest Coast.

  • 4

    Halibut hook, Northwest Coast, Early 19th Century 

    Halibut hook

    Although totem poles are the most visible art form of the coast, carvers worked in miniature too. This halibut hook bears an intricate transformation scene but is also scarred with numerous halibut tooth marks. Everything produced on the coast had a practical purpose, no matter how artistic in appearance.

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    Argillite dish, Haida, Mid 19th Century 

    Argillite dish

    As European influence spread through the Northwest Coast in the nineteenth century, carvers turned to the souvenir trade. Argillite, a black slate found on Haida Gwaii, was a favourite medium.

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