The Many Traditions of Northwest Coast Art

March 11, 2004 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Maraschi Room, Xavier Hall
University of San Francisco
2130 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA

A Lecture

by Bill Holm

Reviewed by Winfield Coleman

Bill Holm, Curator Emeritus of Northwest Coast Indian Art and Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Washington, Seattle, is considered the pre-eminent authority on Northwest Coast Indian art. His lecture to FEA was one of the most popular, well-attended events of the year.
Holm joked that he originally intended to call his talk “There is No Such Thing as Northwest Coast Indian Art,” but he was afraid people would misunderstand his meaning. He meant that there are identifiable Northwest Coast Indian Cultural elements, there is no single style of Northwest Coast Indian art. The main features of the art and culture have a long history, reaching back at least 4,500 years.
Some authors extend Northwest Coast culture as far south as Northern California. Holm prefers to extend it to the Columbia River. On the east, the Cascades form a natural barrier, while Eskimo cultures are to the north. Within this area, Holm distinguishes nine subdivisions.
The Columbia River area starts at either side of the mouth of the Columbia and goes up the river to the former Priest Rapids. Geographically, the upper reaches of the river are in the Plateau area, but culturally, they relate to coastal groups belonging to the Chinookan language group. The plastic art of this area is characterized by figures with skeletonized ribs, shoulders at an acute angle, and flat faces with round eyes and pointed chins. Chip carving, with triangular areas removed, leaves a continuous zigzag. A horn bowl from the Dalles area (Wishram or Wasco) (Figure 1) exemplifies this style. Even worked in basketry, the basic aspects of this style are recognizable. The definition of a positive space by negative spaces is a characteristic also seen further north. Masks are not a feature of the area.
North of the Columbia is a large region known as the Coast Salish area. It covers much of the Olympic Peninsula, around the Puget Sound, and through southeast Vancouver Island and the coast opposite. Shamans performed Spirit Canoe ceremonies in which they enacted a canoe voyage into the Below World, where the souls of the dead stayed. There they would retrieve the souls of the sick. They would erect small carved images representing personal power figures in a space representing a canoe (Figure 2), to bridge the boundaries between human beings and spirits. These figures relate to those of the Columbia River area in their flat faces with sharply defined brow, small mouths and pointed chins. The nose is straight and prominent, and in this case, the eyes are round, emphasized with mirrors. Decorative patterns are formed of circles and crescents, similar to the decorative art of the Huon Gulf in New Guinea, and a number of objects have consequently been misidentified. The chip carving, like that of the Columbia River area, carves away the negative space. The curvilinear forms, however, start to relate more to art further north. Masking traditions are generally absent. An important exception is the Sxwaixwe mask of the Straits Salish opposite Vancouver Island. The spindlewhorls of this region are the largest in the world–up to 8”-10” in diameter. The artists could also create quite naturalistic objects, such as rattles in the shape of quails.
The northwestern Olympic Peninsula and most of the West Coast of Vancouver Island have related Wakashan-speaking peoples known as the Nootka. The name is a mistake, based on a misunderstanding by Captain Vancouver. There is no historical name for all these peoples. They now call themselves Nuu-cha-nulth, meaning “Along the Coast.” These people were whale hunters, and stylized whaling motifs are woven into the fabric of whalers’ hats (Figure 3). The hats are woven in an unusual technique, with a spruce root warp and a weft of black-dyed cedar bark, overlaid with marine grass to create light-colored backgrounds. The art shows extensive use of the conventions of the formline style. Two-dimensional designs display a tendency toward an elegant simplification of form, while three-dimensional objects tend to flatness and somewhat shallow relief. Although ovoids and U-forms are present, their use is more limited. Regular, unconnected geometric patterns are typical, with an equal emphasis on positive and negative spaces, and colors such as unusual yellows, pinks, and light greens not commonly found in other areas. Characteristic headdresses represent wolves and serpents, whose meaning is based on ancestral encounters with the spirit world. Some of the masks split to reveal other masks inside–the southernmost extension of this device.
The fourth area, comprising the northeast section of Vancouver Island and the coast opposite, around Alert Bay, consists of the people formerly known as the Kwakiutl. This is a mispronunciation of one of the group names. They are now known collectively as the Kwakwaka’wakw. This is a very distinctive, powerful art style. Carving is fully three-dimensional, with deep carving around the eyes and mouths. The vibrant painting in a way obscures the sculpture. The houses had carved and painted house posts and associated totem poles. The sisiutl, a bicephalous sea serpent, is unique to this area.
The masks of Willie Seaweed (c. 1873-1967) a distinctive artist of the Kwakwaka’wakw are recognizable even from the back. Although carefully finished, the backs frequently lack an inlet for the wearer’s nose! A true concept of clan crests begins here. The rights to such crests are fiercely guarded. One of the crests portrays Dzunuk’wa, the local equivalent of Sasquatch. The Kwakwaka’wakw are quite capable of naturalistic art, but usually don’t produce it. The most important ceremony of the year is the winter ceremony of Hamatsa, during which Cannibal Bird (Hamsumhl) masks are prominently danced (Figure 4). The Kwakwaka’wakw are the most renowned users of transformational masks. They also use frontlets, often inlaid with shell and adorned with sea lion whiskers and eagle down.
The fifth cultural area consists of the Salish-speaking Bella Coola, another mispronunciation. Nuxalk is sometimes used now. Bella Coola artists are fast carvers, and work very directly. Surfaces are not smoothly finished, but show the marks of adze and chisel. The cheekbones of Bella Coola masks swell out in what is known as the “Bella Coola bulge.” The carvers also make extensive use of a blue color known as “Bella Coola blue.” Sun masks and elegant bird masks are typical of the area.
The sixth cultural area consists of the Bella Bella, and is a problematic area. The Bella Bella are the most innovative of all Northwest Coast carvers. They use formlines, and their art tradition is at least 600 years, probably older. But there is much room for individualism within the rules (Figure 5).
The seventh cultural area includes the Tsimshian-speaking peoples of the lower Nass River, the Skeena River, and the adjacent coast. Their art is distinguished by a notable tautness, as though the skin were stretched tight across the face. The mouth is usually wide, and the cheek area like a three-sided pyramid. Eye sockets typically blend in smoothly, without a defined border. The painting of the masks, in the formline style, is often asymmetrical. A style of raven rattle, used in chiefly dances, is specialized in this area. Even when sculpting, Tsimshian artists follow the rules, but with great refinement.
The Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands constitute the eighth cultural group. On totem poles, Haida artists first conceive of their designs in two dimensions, then mentally wrap it around a three-dimensional object before carving it out in relief. The scale of the carvings remains constant: there is as much detail in a horn spoon as in a large house post. The Haida are also capable of great realism, as in a mask depicting an old woman wearing a labret (Figure 6). The Haida are great traders, and early began making objects specifically for trade to the Whites out of argillite, sedimentary shale for which they had little or no use themselves. Originally made as pipes, the artists continued to bore these carvings even when they were no longer functional as pipes. Perhaps the most famous Haida carver was Charles Edenshaw.
The Tlingit-speaking peoples of the Alaska panhandle constitute the ninth cultural group. At times, their two-dimensional art cannot readily be distinguished from that of the Haida or Tsimshian. The situation is rendered more complex through trade among these groups, and the mobility of well-known artists. Crest hats are among their most prized possessions. Shaman’s maskettes and oil dishes are other characteristic forms. Rattles in the form of oystercatchers were used only by shamans. A beautiful frontlet in the Tlingit manner (Figure 7), which typically is inlaid with rectangles of abalone about the rim, features a dragonfly. The dragonfly has between its large eyes a small mask. While looking at an actual dragonfly one day, Holm was surprised to find a small mask! He has since found that all dragonfly representations have a similar configuration between their eyes.
With this brief but impressive survey, Bill Holm proved that there is, indeed, no such thing as Northwest Coast Indian art. In the process he provided a diverse and delightful visual feast.