Native American Art of the Northwest Coast

Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program

Northwest Coast art and artists are known for a bold style.
Evidence from 5,000 years ago to the present-day shows an ancient artistic tradition.

Stretching from northern California to the Alaskan panhandle, the Northwest Coast is home to more than 18 distinct tribes.

Although they are diverse, the Northwest Coast cultural groups have been connected to one another through coastal trade for thousands of years. This connection is seen in the use of form and color in art.

Traditional art forms include baskets, hats, capes, blankets, carved wooden household items, masks, paddles, canoes, totem poles, screens, bentwood boxes, stone carvings, and copper works.

Northwest Coast art tells stories, teaching history and passing wisdom from generation to generation.

The carved and painted figures represent ancestors and supernatural beings connected to a family.

In the 19th century, pressure from Euroamerican culture began making native ceremonies illegal, and drove much artistic expression underground.

By the mid-20th century, laws had changed, and a new medium became available to Northwest Coast artists. Printmaking created a renaissance of Northwest Coast art in the 1960s and 70s. Limited edition, numbered prints increased the availability of, and public appreciation in, Northwest Coast art. For the first time, some Northwest Coast artists were finding commercial success.

Today, master artists continue to train apprentices in the style and methods of the Northwest Coast traditions, assuring that the legacy continues.

Artists acquire the inheritance rights and privileges to represent their ancestors as crests, symbols of identity, and records of history.

Crests, spiritual beings, legendary creatures like thunderbirds, along with natural forms like bears, ravens, eagles, whales, are common subjects in Northwest Coast art.

Traditional methods like carving and weaving have grown to include sculpture, fine metalsmithing, and printmaking.

Formline is the term used to describe the elements that make up two-dimensional Northwest Coast art. Flowing thick and thin lines look like calligraphy, but are different forms combined with bold color, plus negative and positive space, to create the image. 

Ovoids (oval-like shapes), U-shapes, crescents, circles, and trigons (curved T or Y shapes) are the elements used to make a Northwest Coast image, regardless of subject.

Let's look at this print, Eagle and Wolf, to see how these forms fit together.

Ovoids form the building block of designs that create the main elements of a formline image. They are usually thickest at the top and thinner on the sides. Ovoids can be the eyes, wings, fins, or shoulders, and are used to connect other forms. Ovoids may be solid, and may contain smaller ovoids within a larger one.

Can you see how ovoids, combined with formline elements and negative (unpainted/white) space, are used here to form the eagle’s head?

U-forms direct movement and help form parts of a design. They are thickest on top and taper to a fine point where they join other design elements. Split U-forms use T-shape trigons to add detail. They typically connect to other areas of the design and are used for fins, feathers, or other details.

Here, stacked and split U-form in red and unpainted negative space shape the eagle’s wings.

Crescents, trigons (deeply curved T and Y shapes), and circles are often lacking in color and form negative space. They add detail and edges in a design.

Can you see the unpainted crescents in the wolf’s eye?

Two trigons provide detail to the wolf’s brow.

An unpainted circle creates the end of the wolf’s snout.

Color and its use is very important in Northwest Coast art. Traditionally, colors came from locally available pigments: black, red, blue and green from natural mineral sources like hematite, ochers, copper minerals, graphite and charcoal. These same colors have been carried through to the present day.

How are colors used?

Black is the most important (primary) color and defines the subject. Primary lines are almost always connected.

Can you find three Northwest Coast clan animals here?
Hint: an eagle, otter, and raven.

Red adds details to the primary black design. The secondary red designs always connect with primary designs. Red and black can be interchanged as primary or secondary colors.

The raven is often shown with a sun in its beak. The raven is a very powerful creature which created the world. Stories tell how the raven stole the sun for the world, bringing light and life, and was chased by the eagle.

Though not always used, blue or green is the third (tertiary) color and highlights space around the red/black design. Negative space, in which no color is used, may be used to add detail. The blue detail here helps the three animals stand out in the overall design.

Can you see the otter with its long tail?

In one traditional story, a man was sharpening his spear. The “Transformer” (a raven!) came along and turned the man into an otter, with the spear becoming the otter’s tail.

The eagle has a sharply curved beak, and a U-shape crest on its head. Blue gives detail to the eye, talon, and wing.

In Northwest Coast visual composition, a subject may not always be given a body. Here the eagle’s head, wing, and talons provide clues to the theme of the artwork.

This print, Four Clans United, uses black for the primary lines. Red forms the secondary details. Blue adds the final touch.

This print depicts four Northwest clan animals:

- The raven is on the top right with the sun in its beak.

- Below the raven is a whale with its fin and blow spout.

- The eagle is in the lower left with the sharp curved beak and feathered head.

- The wolf is at the upper left with a long snout and nostrils, and sharp teeth!

A "transformation" figure is the subject of this print, Emerging. Blue is used to identify three animals: the eagle, whale, and bear.

Can you see the human face at the base of the eagle tail?

Some stories tell us that long ago, all animals looked like humans. Transformer came to each human and turned him or her into the animal that best fit the human’s behavior.

Animals are also thought to be able to change into human form at will. This transformation is often portrayed by placing a human face within an animal as a reminder of the power of transformation.

Like the eagle, salmon are clan animals to some Northwest Coast cultural groups.

Salmon are an important food source. Stories tell how salmon are people who give themselves as food every year. The spirit of the salmon returns to the sea to be reborn each year, revisiting the rivers to feed animals and people.

This print, Eagle with Salmons, depicts an eagle with a salmon in its belly and talon.

Human faces are placed inside the salmon, reminding us of this transformation.

Salmon are important for the survival of many animals including the eagle, wolf, bear, raven, otter, and whale.

This print, Survivor’s, [sic] shows an otter and an eagle in flight, grabbing a salmon.

Do you see it?

Northwest Coast art memorializes important events and people.

This print, Thunderbirds and the Haida Masters, honors master artists in a traditional bentwood box design. The thunderbird spirits of the past look over the Haida Masters. The Masters hold in their hands the honor of continuing the art and culture of their people.

The thunderbird is the most powerful spirit. Only very powerful leaders have the thunderbird in their crests.

Can you see the Haida Masters in this print? They are wearing traditional woven hats. The rings on the hat's crown show wealth and rank.

Humans are shown in Northwest Coast art with common features: eyes without ovoids surrounding them, human noses, eyebrows, hands, and arms.

Quinault artist James DeLaCruz says of this print, Tribute to the Legends, “orcas, wolves, a bear, and other crests can be seen within the body of the thunderbird. The legend involves orcas who, running from whale hunters, beaches itself, then transforms into a wolf to get away. Reaching safety, he once again becomes a thunderbird.”

Blue is used to highlight the three animals and thunderbird.

Can you find these animals?
The thunderbird is always shown with outstretched wings, curved beak, and curled crest on its head.

The orcas extend from the shoulders, down the wings of the thunderbird. You can see their fins in black U-shape and negative trigon formline at the top of the thunderbird's shoulders.

Wolves sit below the orcas. They are black and red, with long snouts and sharp teeth!

The eagle is a symbol of power to Northwest Coast cultural groups. Many families own or inherit the right to display the eagle as their crest. The eagle inspires many artists and is a common subject today for carving, painting and printmaking.

The eagle and thunderbird are similar in appearance, but the eagle has U-form feathers on its head, rather than the long curved crest of the thunderbird.

With an understanding of formline basics and the use of color in Northwest Coast art, can you see how all the elements come together here to create this eagle?

Formline allows an artist to change the shape of a subject to fit a space. Here an eagle's head, wings, tail, and talons, but no body, are forms within a round space.

Do you see how ovoids and U-forms, trigons, and a crescent combine with negative space to form an eagle?
What can you draw using formline elements and color?

Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program
Credits: Story

Native American Art of the Northwest Coast was developed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Museum Program, October 2017.

Tracy Murphy, Museum Curator.



Brotherton, Barbara, editor. S’abadeb / The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists. University of Washington Press. 2008.

Fish Creek Company Gallery. Thunderbird and the Haida Masters by Carl Stromquist. Accessed 10/10/2017.

Groven, Kari, Steve Brown, Annie Calkins and Nancy Lehnhart, editors. Northwest Coast Formline Design: Definitions and Student Activities. Sealaska Heritage Institute. Accessed October 11, 2017.

Holm, Bill. Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Thomas Burke Memorial Washington Museum, Monogram No. 1. University of Washington Press. 1965.

Joe, Donna. Salmon Boy: A Legend of the Sechelt People. Nightwood Editions. 1999.

Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northwest Coast. University of Washington Press. 2006.

Reid, Bill and Robert Bringhurst. The Raven Steals the Light. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. 1984.

South Puget Sound Intertribal Planning Agency. Tribute to Legends DeLaCruz. Accessed October 11, 2017.

Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. University of Washington Press. 1979.

Wright, Robin, K. Totem Poles: Heraldic Columns of the Northwest Coast. University of Washington. 1998.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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