Argillite Pipes

In Haida Culture

Designed in various styles in the early 1800s, Argillite pipes served a series of functions based on need and demand by both the coastal peoples and the Europeans who landed here.

An “oval” pipe (in profile) was primarily for ceremonial and ritual use.  Ceremonial pipes are shaped like either a cockle or clam shell.  It is believed that the ceremonial pipe is the earliest form of argillite carving and pre-dates all other forms.

The “panel” pipe is another form featuring figures in shape that is long, horizontal with not an overly high profile and are often thin.  They can either be rounded or flat, and this depends primarily on the artist as a personal style rather than a trend towards less functional pipes.  The panel pipe was introduced later than the ceremonial pipe and is considered less functional given its thin panel-like form.

Originally, the Haida sucked tobacco and pulverized the leaves with stones and then  mixed in burnt clamshell pieces and bark.  They rolled this mixture into pea-sized pellets which they placed inside their cheeks and sucked.

They switched from sucking to smoking tobacco following European contact when introduced to a new type of tabacco.  By smoking tabacco, they made the connection between their belief in fire as a medium of transformation so they began using it during ceremonies.  They were struck by the connection between burning tabacco in a fire for the dead and buring tabacco in a pipe for the living.

Haida pipes feature only figures from their world and are often flat with rounded figures.  Usually formed with a single line of figures strung along a horizontal plane. The figures are always inter-connected and they clasp one another or are linked in some manner, typicially through the mouth or tongue which is said to represent inhaling magical powers from each other or sharing of knowledge.

Visually these figures intertwined enhance the overall movement of the carving and suggest a contrast between the individual figures.  Haida style in the sculptural form is illustrated by the hollowed eye sockets, raised eyelid lines and massive brows.

The difference between these early pipes and the late 1800s European trading pipes is that there is a long extended mouth piece.  As well, these longer mouth pieces were created by the Haida for European trade – not so much for smoking but more for decorative use.

The Haida Nation is renowned for its “Black Slate” or “Argillite” carvings. The Haida people began carving argillite in response to the early curio trade of the 1820’s and soon their artistic accomplishments in wood, horn, and stone included works in this medium. Today argillite continues to be carved exclusively by the Haida, both on the Queen Charlotte Islands (their homeland) and in the Vancouver and Victoria areas.

The argillite used by Haida carvers is a black or grey carbonaceous shale found at Slatechuck Creek on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Argillite is a relatively soft stone to carve. Although it is difficult to obtain large pieces from the quarry where it is found, the supply of argillite is not in any apparent danger of being exhausted. Apart from small totem poles, the kinds of objects carved from argillite including plates with carved and incised designs, pendants, pipes, small boxes and sculptured figures. Some carvers give their work a high polish with emery cloth or other materials, which enhances the deep black qualities of the stone.

Argillite

In Haida Culture

In Haida culture, Argillite is known as “Kwawhlahl” (Skidegate dialect) meaning ‘soft rock’.

The Haida Nation is renowned for its “Black Slate” or “Argillite” carvings. The Haida people began carving Argillite in response to the early curio trade of the 1820’s and soon their artistic accomplishments in wood, horn, and stone included works in this medium. Today Argillite continues to be carved exclusively by the Haida, both on the Haida Gwaii Island and in the Vancouver and Victoria areas.

The Argillite used by Haida carvers is a black or grey carbonaceous shale quarried on the northeast slope of Slatechuck Creek (Tllgaduu Gandlaay) on Graham Island between Chaatl (Ts-aa7ahl’llnagaag) and Skidegate on Haida Gwaii.

Argillite is grey colour and a relatively soft stone to carve which hardens over time as it begins to oxidize once removed from the mine. As it is relatively a limited resource, it is difficult to obtain large pieces from the quarry. Apart from small totem poles, the kinds of objects carved from Argillite include plates with carved and incised designs, pendants, pipes, small boxes, and sculptured figures. Some carvers give their work a high polish with emery cloth or other materials, which enhances the deep black qualities of the stone.

Basketry

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Women are traditionally the basket makers, with each cultural group producing a number of distinctive styles and motifs. Basketry techniques were also used to make hats, mats, cradles, bags and some huge baskets which acted as traps for catching salmon. All these served a variety of practical or ceremonial purposes.

Basket-makers use a variety of natural materials, including spruce root, the inner bark of red and yellow cedar, various grasses, and cattails. Many baskets feature woven motifs, which may be representational or abstract. Sometimes, instead of being woven into the body of the piece, artists use paint to add motifs.

Bentwood Box

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Specific and unique to the Northwest Coast People is the bentwood or bent-corner box or container.  A most outstanding item of the First Nations people, it is a made from one single plank of wood through a lengthy steaming process – a method strictly adapted by the coastal peoples.

The center portion of the container was kerfed or steam bent to form four sides where corners are desired.  The wood was made pliable with heat and moisture and then bent to form a four-sided shape.  A separate base and unusually-shaped lid was carved to complete the box.  The box shape was secured to a bottom piece of wood which has been grooved on its edges.

Bentwood boxes were traditionally produced by Native peoples from the western coastal regions of North America, commonly called the Pacific Northwest Coast, including parts of southern Alaska, western British Columbia and Northwestern Washington.

The boxes and chests were used as storage containers, the water-tight ones for holding hot rocks and water for cooking and the canoe boxes to fix into the bottom of a dugout canoe.  The highly decorated ones as were also symbols of wealth. Ranging in size from small to large, these utilitarian objects were often presented to a couple with the intention of forming a union.

Boxes would be either decorated with a carved design or left undecorated. Sizes varied from small to large depending on the use. Some boxes were made specifically for cooking food over heated stones. Other boxes were made for storage of dried fish, fish eggs, dried berry cakes, nuts, seaweed, as well as to keep oil of seal, whale or eulachon.

Bent wood boxes that were elaborately decorated were often made for trade purposes or as gifts. These would be painted and inlayed with shells. Since the value of these chests was high, a wealthy Chief would store valuable ceremonial possessions and on important occasions would seat himself on it.

These containers proved to have multi-utilitarian purposes and were an important item of the Northwest Coast Native tradition and culture.

Canoe Bentwood Box

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Specific and unique to the Northwest Coast People is the bentwood or bent-corner box or container.  A most outstanding item of the First Nations people, it is a made from one single plank of wood through a lengthy steaming process – a method strictly adapted by the coastal peoples.  Canoe bentwood boxes, a type of box generally used by fishermen or sea mammal hunters, are designed specifically to fit in the bow of a canoe.  All canoe travelers would take along a food box and a water box on their journeys.  The lid is carved to resemble a seat, thereby allowing the box to serve a double purpose when placed in a canoe by acting as a storage container and a comfortable place to sit in the canoe.

The center portion of the container was kerfed or steam bent to form four sides where corners are desired.  The wood was made pliable with heat and moisture and then bent to form a four-sided shape.  A separate base and unusually-shaped lid was carved to complete the box.  The box shape was secured to a bottom piece of wood which has been grooved on its edges.

Bentwood boxes were traditionally produced by Native peoples from the western coastal regions of North America, commonly called the Pacific Northwest Coast, including parts of southern Alaska, western British Columbia and southern Washington.

The boxes and chests were used as storage containers, the water-tight ones for holding hot rocks and water for cooking and the highly decorated ones as symbols of wealth. Ranging in size from small to large, these utilitarian objects were often presented to a couple with the intention of forming a union.

Boxes would be either decorated with a carved design or left undecorated. Sizes varied from small to large depending on the use. Some boxes were made specifically for cooking food over heated stones. Other boxes were made for storage of dried fish, fish eggs, dried berry cakes, nuts, seaweed, as well as to keep oil of seal, whale or eulachon.

Bent wood boxes that were elaborately decorated were often made for trade purposes or as gifts. These would be painted and inlayed with shells. Since the value of these chests was high, a wealthy Chief would store valuable ceremonial possessions and on important occasions would seat himself on it.

These containers proved to have multi-utilitarian purposes and were an important item of the Northwest Coast Native tradition and culture.

Catlinite

In Northwest Coast Art

Catlinite, commonly known as “red pipe stone”, has been used for centuries.  It occurs in a matrix of Sioux quartzite and is a soft siltstone, specifically a densely grained metamorphic claystone argillite. Due to its fine-grain, it’s easily-worked and very prized by First Nations artists for use in making sacred peace pipes and various sculptures. Catlanite quarries are preserved in the Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota and in the Pipestone River in Ontario, Canada. It can also be found in Wisconsin and Missouri. The Pipestone quarry was used by many tribes including the Ioway. In the 1830s, artist and explorer George Catlin visited the area and since that time, pipestone from this quarry has been called catlinite.

Catlinite is an important raw material for the Ioway and other communities of the Upper Midwest and Eastern Plains of the United States. They use catlinite extensively, but not exclusively, for carving tobacco pipe bowls. Tobacco and pipes play important roles in the rituals of many indigenous communities, such as when opening negotiations with other groups, including other tribes or Europeans.

Cedar Wood

In Northwest Coast Art

Cedar

Cedar is a well-known symbol of the Northwest Coast. For thousands of years, coastal First Nations in British Columbia have the versatile wood in many aspects of their lives. Not only is Cedar a key natural resource in the production of material goods, the tree also plays an integral role in the spiritual beliefs and ceremonial life of coastal First Nations. This section will explain how Cedar is harvested, used, and perceived by coastal First Nations from an ethnobotany perspective.

 

Biology of Cedar

There are two native species of Cedar trees that grow in the temperate rainforests of coastal British Columbia: Yellow Cedar and Western Red Cedar. Yellow Cedar usually stands between 20 to 40 metres tall, and it is distinguished from Red Cedar by its smaller size and bushier growth. Yellow Cedar typically grows at subalpine elevations in damp coastal forests ranging from Vancouver Island to Alaska, but is rarely found in inland regions. Unlike Yellow Cedar, Red Cedar is common both on the coast and in moist slopes and valleys of the Interior. As a result, some Interior Salish groups also harvested Red Cedar, but not to the extent of the coastal peoples.

Red Cedar can grow up to 70 metres tall and live up to 1,000 years old. With its lightweight and rot-resistant wood, Red Cedar is the most versatile and most widely-used plant among coastal First Nations. Yellow Cedar bark is softer and more pliable than Red Cedar, so the former is frequently used to make clothing and other fibrous materials, while the latter is used more commonly for architecture and transportation, such as house poles and canoes.

Coast Salish peoples have a creation story that explains the origins of Cedar. According to the story, there once lived a good man who always gave away his belongings and food to others. The Creator recognized the man’s kindness, and declared that once the man dies, a Red Cedar tree will grow where he is buried, and the tree will continue to help the people.

The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island have a similar origin story for Yellow Cedar. According to their stories, Yellow Cedar trees were transformed from three young women running up a mountain. Therefore, Yellow Cedar trees are found on the slopes of subalpine mountains, and contain soft inner bark, like that of woman’s hair.

 

Harvesting

Both types of Cedar are harvested by coastal First Nations to create a variety of implements for daily use and ceremonial purposes. Almost every part of a Cedar tree can be used, including the roots, the bark, the wood, and the withes (the smaller, more pliable sub-branches of a tree).

While the process of harvesting Cedar will inevitably cause some damage to the tree, harvesters use methods that ensure the survival of the tree as a species. It is traditional practice that before a tree is cut down, the woodcutters will say a prayer and express their gratitude to the tree’s spirit. Traditionally, men were responsible for cutting down a tree, which is a time-consuming and laborious process that involves chiseling and heating the tree with red-hot stones to weaken the wood. They would make use of various woodworking tools, which historically included stone adzes and bone drills. The harvesting of Cedar bark was typically performed by women. Harvesting Cedar bark requires careful skill and knowledge, or otherwise, the tree could be killed from infestation or stunted growth. A harvester would choose a straight, young tree and de-bark only portions of the tree to ensure its survival. As a result, thousands of these harvested trees, with distinctive scar marks, can be found in old-growth forests and some commercial clear-cut forests. These trees, referred to as Culturally Modified Trees (CMT), are considered important heritage sites by archaeologists.

Today, First Nations peoples continue to create new CMTs as part of their cultural and economic activities and still utilize environmentally sustainable methods passed down from their ancestors.

 

Uses of Cedar

The astounding variety of objects that can be created from a single tree is a testament to a profound cultural interrelationship between humans and plants. The importance of Cedar is reflected in tools and everyday objects, but also in ceremonial objects and regalia. This section will explain some common uses and well-known objects created from Cedar. However, each culture has developed its own techniques and uses for Cedar, and it is important to keep in mind that we provide only a general overview, and this section does not reflect all the complexities and variations that are found among different First Nations.

Starting with the base of the tree, Cedar roots can be dried and braided to form cordage for hats and baskets. The Coast Salish used Cedar root to create a unique type of coil basketry.  With the right technique, a Cedar basket can be made watertight and heatproof. As a result, Cedar baskets are used as “pots and pans” for cooking and boiling water. Water is heated in baskets using hot rocks, and once it comes to a boil, foodstuffs can be added.

The withes of a Cedar tree are strong, lightweight, and naturally grow in long strands, making them a suitable choice for ropes and lashing. The Kwakwaka’wakw of northern Vancouver Island made three-ply rope for whaling from young Red Cedar. Because of their strength, Cedar withes are also used as lashing to make wood and stone weapons, as well as burden baskets for carrying heavy objects. As coastal First Nations did not traditionally use metal nails and bolts, withes were used to lash together roof planks and setting baseboards, a vital part of house construction.

The most versatile part of Cedar is the bark. Bark could be dyed and processed into different types of thread for mats, clothing, blankets, and hats. Kwakwaka’wakw warriors wore protective armour made from bark rope during battle. Like roots and withes, bark is also made into ropes, baskets, and fishing nets. The inner bark of the Yellow Cedar was valued for its softness and absorbability, so women used them for baby diapers and bedding, sanitary napkins, and towels. Expecting mothers gave birth in a pit lined with Yellow Cedar bark to receive the infant. Furthermore, dried bark burned slowly, providing excellent tinder for matches and torches.

Cedar wood is strong, lightweight, and straight-grained, so it is easy to split and carve, and made into totem poles, masks, and longhouses. Coastal First Nations, who depended on fish as the main staple of their diet, developed a wide array of fishing gear from Cedar, including canoes, paddles, hooks, spears, and fishing floats. Once caught, fish were preserved in Cedar smokehouses or dried on Cedar racks. Food can be stored or served in bentwood boxes, which are made from a single Cedar plank bent using steam to form four sides. Bentwood boxes, especially those decorated with paint or carvings, were once a valuable trade item along the Northwest Coast. Bentwood boxes could be used to hold all sorts of goods, and they also served as burial boxes for the deceased.

Longhouses formed the central dwelling unit of each village, with large extended families living together under the same roof. Cedar poles formed the foundations of the house, followed by a framework of fluted beams overlaid with Cedar roof planks. Carved house frontal poles would occasionally be positioned at the entrance, particularly amongst the Haida and Tlingit. These poles typically depict the crests and lineage of a family, as well as the hereditary rights and ancestors of the owners. Many First Nations decorated house posts, mortuary poles, and memorial poles with intricate carvings of stylized human figures and animals.

In addition to everyday use, Cedar is used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Families often commissioned a carver to create Cedar figures for a potlatch, usually as a welcoming gesture to the guests. Ceremonial dancers’ regalia might include head rings, neck rings, wristlets braided from Cedar, as well as Cedar masks.

 

Cedar and Spirituality

Given the importance of Cedar in everyday life, it is clear that Cedar also plays an integral role in the spiritual beliefs of coastal First Nations. These beliefs recognize that the Cedar tree has its own life and spirit. Coast Salish and Tlingit shamans often had Cedar “spirit assistants” or “guard figures” to protect them.

Cedar was also widely valued for its healing abilities. Yellow Cedar bark, which has anti-inflammatory properties, was frequently applied as a dressing for wounds, as a tourniquet, or to ward off evil. Many beliefs and taboos are also associated with the Cedar tree. For example, a person who killed a tree through improper harvesting would be cursed by other Cedar trees. Similarly, some believe a pregnant woman should not braid baskets, lest the umbilical cord would twist around the baby’s neck. As the Cedar is a long-lived tree, some Coast Salish groups ensured a long life for their infants by placing the afterbirth in the stump of a large Cedar.

As a plant that has ensured the survival of people for thousands of years, Cedar has become a powerful symbol of strength and revitalization. The deep respect for Cedar is a rich tradition that spans thousands of years and continues to be culturally, spiritually, and economically important.

Excerpts from UBC Indigenous Foundation Arts by Alice Huang

Ceremonial Dish

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

A ceremonial dish, or potlatch dish, was a treasured heirloom which families brought out for great feasts as a gesture of hospitality and welcoming.

The use of a ceremonial dish was an inherited privilege belonging to old and aristocratic families.  The carvings on these dishes far exceeded their function as mere containers or implements.  The containers with inlaid abalone and operculum shells would be reserved for high ranking guests or chiefs.

In the course of marriage transactions, the feast dishes would sometimes travel from one village to another as a portion of the dowry to be paid and given back at the next potlatch.

Presently, many ceremonial dishes are carved in miniature form, meant for collectors who appreciate the historic and symbolic value behind each artwork.  This aspect of the art is considered to be a contemporary turn that northwest coast native art has taken throughout the years.

Ceremonial Curtains (Nuu-Chah-Nulth)

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

As the first people to encounter Europeans in British Columbia, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth were situated on west coast of Vancouver Island when Captain James Cook landed at Yuquot in 1778.

Specific to the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nation, Ceremonial Curtains were painted onto cotton material and considered amongst the largest portable two-dimensional paintings in the world (up to 3m high x 18m long).  The pigments used on the curtains were local and primarily derived from charcoal, ochre and other various minerals.

Thliitsapilthim (ceremonial curtains) illustrated ancestral exploits and family histories, conflicts, captures and alliances through narrative painting.  For thousands of years, these curtains would be installed at a Potlatch Winter Ceremony to illustrate the Chief’s family lineage and record property, rights and ceremonial privileges of the family (especially through marriage).

Although many associate the Northwest Coast with totem poles and carvings of the Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw nations, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth created these magnificent curtains by following instructions from family members who needed to tell the “backstory” of its history and spiritual pedigree.

Most importantly, Ceremonial Curtains were considered a backdrop to special events to enhance and validate ceremonies, such as marriage, naming, mourning or reconciling.

Ceremonial Hats

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Basketry is a tremendous skill that has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations among the various First Nations of the Northwest Coast.   The materials most often used for weaving include Cedar bark, Spruce root and grass.  Each group would traditionally use the materials that were available to them in each particular region.

Woven hats are traditionally worn for ceremonial purposes. A hat bearing one or more skils symbolizes wealth and status. A skil, sometimes called a potlatch ring, is a cylindrical object that is added to the top of a chief’s hat. Numerous segments may indicate the number of potlatches or feasts hosted by the wearer of the hat.

Perhaps the most renowned are the Cedar and Spruce root hats made by the Tlingit and Haida.  The Haida women were best known for their cedar bark clothing, ceremonial head coverings and basketry.  The weaving patterns were traditionally geometric in design.  The fineness of the weave exemplified the expertise of the weaver and, therefore, held a greater value for trade or sale purposes.  These skilled female weavers, such as Isabel Rorick, Merle Anderson and Primrose Adams, have continued the tradition of teaching the younger generations the art of weaving, and as a result, there has been a revival of basketry practices since the 1970s.

Chilkat - Tlingit

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Chilkat blankets were woven from mountain goat wool and cedar bark. They were the specialty of the Chilkat tribe of the Tlingit, whose territory was at the mouth of the Chilkat River in southeast Alaska. This group refined the style to its highest level in the late nineteenth century, but it had initially been developed among the Tsimshian-speaking people who lived along the Skeena and Nass Rivers on the mainland and had easy access to mountain goats in their hunting territories.

The art of Chilkat Blanket weaving originated with the Tsimshian people (near Wrangell) but later spread to the Tlingits through trade and marriage.  The Chilkat Tlingits (near Haines) who developed their own design style became the best and most copious weavers. These blankets, requiring a year of hard work to make, were highly sought by northwest coast Indian nobility long before the first explorers came to this region.

Traditionally, only the wealthy could make or own a Chilkat Blanket.  Both men and women played a role in the creation of the blankets and both considered it a great privilege to wear one.  The men designed the pattern and made the pattern board and loom.  The provided goat hides for wool.  The women gathered cedar bark, prepared the yarn and wove the blanket.

The patterns were a highly stylized form of art often representing clan symbols and natural forms in an abstract geometric pattern.  Animals were portrayed as if sliced down the center and laid out flat.  The small circles are ball and socket joints.  Eyes were often used as space fillers.  The men designed the pattern and painted the abstract figures on a wooden “pattern board.”  As the blanket was bilateral, only half the pattern was painted in life-size dimensions.   The blanked pattern could be interpreted in a variety of ways, however only the man who designed the blanket knew the true legend.

The woman would loosen the wool from the goat hide by wetting and rolling the hide then pushing the wool off with her thumb and fingers.  She carded the wool by sitting with outstretched legs and the wool piled to one side.  She drew the wool in the proper amount and fed it to her other hand.  The wool was rolled between her palm and thigh to make a loose thread then rolled again to tighten.  Two strands were rolled together to form the wool.  A strip of cedar bark was rolled with the strands to make the warp yarn.

Traditional dyes for the wool yarn were yellow, derived from a lichen called wolf moss; dark brown, produced by boiling wool in urine and hemlock bark; and a greenish-blue made by boiling wool in copper and urine.  By the 1890’s, commercial dyes and yarns were often used.  The warp was never dyed.

The blanket was woven on a “warp weight” or “single bar” loom, as simple loom consisting of two standing poles and a cross bar.  The warp threads, suspended from a strip of moosehide, were hung from the cross bar.  The long ends of the thread were tied into bundles, sometimes weighted with stones, to give tension to the working portion of the yarn.  The weaver usually sat or kneeled in front of the loom while weaving.  The blankets were woven entirely with the fingers.  No other device was used.  The fingers weaving wall called twining.  Two or more wefts were twisted around a single warp of yarn.  When the blanket was completed, the fringe was filled out by adding extra lengths of warp yarn and braided borders were added.

The Chilkat dance apron was the earliest product of the loom.  Also made were ceremonial blankets, tunics, leggings and small pouches and purses.  The blankets were used as ceremonial robes worn on special occasions such as a potlatch where they might be presented to honored guests; in dancing; surrounding a body while it lay in state; or occasionally hung on the outside of a grave house as a token of esteem.

 

Except from Sheldon Museum & Cultural Centre

Haines, Alaska

Copper (Shield)

In Northwest Coast Culture

The Copper, in the form of a shield, represents wealth, prestige, and heritage.

The design of a Copper shield is based on the human form – shoulder, waist and legs.

Chiefs would proclaim their rank and lineage by displaying their Copper at a Potlatch.  Each Copper had a name, a history and represented a specific value.

The Copper would be engraved out of the material copper, to display the family crest symbol of the individual who owned it.

A Copper was an important component in a marriage or naming ceremony. The Copper was given between tribal nobility from one family to another, symbolizing a joining of the families. It would be broken several times and repaired, adding to its history and value.

Crest Figures

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 coastalpeoples@telus.net or call 604.685.9298

Bear

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.

Beaver

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.

Butterfly

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.

Dogfish

This small, bottom-feeding ‘Shark’ is an important and high-ranking crest figure amongst the matriarchs with the Haida Nation. It is an image most commonly depicted by Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Nisga’a artisans, especially applied to utilitarian objects.

Eagle

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.

Frog

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.

Hawk

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.

Hummingbird

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.

Killerwhale

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.

Loon

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.

Moon

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.

Octopus

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.

Otter

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.

Owl

As a nocturnal 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.

Raven

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.

Salmon

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.

Seal

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.

Sisuitl

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.

Sun

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.

Thunderbird

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.

Wolf

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.

Crests

In Northwest Coast Culture

Every household and every clan possessed its own history and traditions in the form of myths and legends.  These told of the connections and associations of an ancestor with the spirit world, describing how he or she had met a super-natural being, often in animal form, who had given them the ownership of certain privileges.  These privileges were a highly important part of Indian life, and would be retained by particular family groups through their laws of inheritance.  Privileges were what gave an individual status in the community, and were more highly valued than any other material possession.  In reality, they were rights, such as the right to use a figure such as a wolf on a house post or totem pole, to perform a dance or to wear a certain mask.

Dance Sticks

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Within certain northern nations of British Columbia, there is a ceremonial dance specific to the Dancing Stick.  It is called the “Stick Dance” (hee-yo) being named for the decorated pole or stick that is carried through the village and set up in the center of a longhouse.

While the pole is being danced though the village, those in the hall of the longhouse sing the twelve sacred “Stick Dance Songs.” These must be rendered in the correct order and are forbidden on any other occasion. When the pole is installed, the entire assembly begins to dance around it clockwise, to the rhythmic repetition of the syllables “hee-yo” with musical variations.

Such dancing continues in festive mood throughout the night and well into the next day, when the pole is taken outside and broken. At one point, the gifts to be distributed are brought in, all tied together to form a long garland, and all danced around the pole.

Finally, the exhausted dancers reach a trance—like inner peace. The last evening, after an elaborate and bountiful feast, called a Potlatch, a select group puts on beautiful new furs with which they are dressed from head to toe. They are careful to pull the hoods of their parkas over their faces, so that they will not look at anyone and thereby take that person’s soul into the next world. Others who helped with the ceremony, or have come from a distance, receive special gifts, but everyone attending gets a small present, like a handkerchief, as a souvenir of the Stick Dance, or as a blessing.

The Frontlet

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

The frontlet is a forehead mask attached to a woven headpiece.  It is worn by chiefs and high-ranking individual as a display of crests and status.  Frontlets are often decorated with materials that are symbols of wealth and power: abalone shell, operculum shell, sea lion whiskers, feathers and/or ermine pelts.

For a ceremony, a frontlet may be loosely covered with eagle or other down, which floats away and lands on the people nearest the dancer.   To be touched by the down is sign of luck and honour.

In recent times, artists have been using precious metals either inlaid of carved and etched with designs.  Frontlets were often carved by someone form a different clan and the inlays from materials presented as gifts.  The owner is making a statement of honour and respect, which is often best achieved by those looking from the outside.

 

Excerpt from Mythic Beings

Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast

Ghosts and Ghost Masks

In Northwest Coast Art + Culture

Ghost imagery and stories are prevalent throughout every nation on the Northwest Coast. They are the souls of the dead and have their own social structure and villages in the spirit world.

While First Nations individuals take on the persona of the spirits during Potlatch ceremonies by wearing Ghost Masks and performing dances, Shamans are the only ones equipped with the ability to communicate with spirits. Shamans travel to the spirit world to retrieve knowledge and lost souls.

In Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, Bakwas or the Wild Man of the Woods is associated with the Ghosts of the drowned and is accompanied by Ghosts in his home beneath the sea. Ghost dancers appear in many Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonies. The winter ceremony featuring three large, human-eating Bird monsters is called Hamatsa, and they are associated with the spirits of the dead. As well, the ritual of Winalagalis (War Spirit) features Ghost dancers.

The Nuxalk believe that Ghosts occupy the spirit world, where everything is the exact opposite of what is in the world of the living. There is an extreme scarcity of food in the spirit world, which drives the Ghosts to visit the mortal world. The Ghosts are recognized by their haunting singing and whistling.

Across nations on the Northwest Coast, Ghosts are depicted with emaciated bodies and skull-like faces. Ghost masks often feature drastically pronounced cheek bones, sunken cheeks, and glaring, slanted eyes. Mouths in an “o” shape, as if they are whistling, are also commonly depicted on Ghost masks.

Hamat’sa Ceremonies and Masks

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Amongst the people of Heiltsuk the Tseka ceremony, which includes the Hamat’sa or Cannibal dance, is considered the most prestigious. The Hamatsa is a sacred part of the Tseka Winter Potlatch Ceremony incorporating public dramatization with encounters of supernatural characters.

The Heiltsuk created a group of masks to represent the supernatural avian attendants of Bakbwalanuxsiwe; the Man-Eating Raven, The Hok-Hok and the Crooked Beak of the Sky. The Kwakwaka’wakw obtained the Hamatsa dance from the Heiltsuk, earning the privilege to retell this story and practice this ritual on their own accord. The dance goes as follows:

Legend tells of a group of hunters who, at the invitation of a woman, entered the house of the Bakbwalanuxsiwe – a great man-eating spirit who lived in the north. The woman instructed the hunters to dig a hole in the centre of the house, fill it with hot stones and sit in the corner. The ominous Bakbwalanuxsiwe then entered the house, running around the room four times crying “hap”, while bird-attendants danced around the fire. During the cannibal dance the Bakbwalanuxsiwe glanced upwards, lost his footing, fell into the pit of hot stones and died. The hunters learned the songs of the cannibal spirit from the woman and returned home with masks and other ritual regalia, which they presented to their community. As a result of this encounter, their family developed the right to perform the Hamatsa.

Young men who had inherited the right to the Hamatsa were initiated during elaborate ceremonies. The initiation would begin with taking the young pupil to the house of the Bakbwalanuxsiwe where he would become possessed with cannibalistic cravings; in reality the pupil would be taken outside their community to learn the history, songs and dances of the Hamat’sa.  Returning to the community the pupil would appear possessed with the desire of human flesh, lunging at people and in some cases biting. The pupil would be presented with a corpse which he would consume; however, it is unclear whether Human flesh was ever ingested and it is more likely a skinned bear with a human head carving. Dancers would impersonate the birds which were equally as cannibalistic and monstrous. At the end of the ceremony the pupil would have calmed down and been reintegrated into the community. The acceptance on the part of the audience validated the family’s right to the Hamat’sa.

 The Kwakwaka’wakw inherited the entitlement to perform the Hamat’sa from the Heiltsuk, and it has become one of the most important and dramatic Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonies.

Metals Used & Tools

In Northwest Coast Culture

Prior to European contact on the Northwest Coast, metals were not used with the exception of Copper. Copper was made into objects for personal use and decoration.

Instead of metal tools, rocks were used for hammers, seed grinders, pile-drivers, and weights for nets.

Special stone materials like Chert, Obsidian, and Basalt were fashioned into a great variety of points for arrows and spears, or into cutting tools and scrapers.

Naming Ceremony

In Northwest Coast Tradition

“An ancestral name was one of the most valuable forms of wealth that a person could own, and the person holding an ancestral name commanded respect by his or her peers at ceremonial functions. Family elders determined who would become the recipient of a name formerly held by an esteemed ancestor, and they would go to great expense and effort to produce and secure high-class items to be given away to special witnesses and guests. Families often saved for years to put on a ceremonial naming. The value of the ancestral name determined the amount of material wealth that the host family distributed to guests.

The recipient of the ancestral name was reminded that their actions from that day on would affect the honour not only of themselves but of their families and their tribal community. A person’s improper behaviour could sully a name as surely as the physical act of crawling in the mud would dirty one’s garment. A name that is disrespected loses its value and the respect of the community. Because the name is connected to a family, that family loses respect as well.

The Coast Salish believe that without a name we are destitute and lack resilience. If we have lost the ability to respect ourselves, then we have lost the value of the names that we carry. The need to be recognized is part of the character of being human. When we lose our good name through bad deeds, we lose our self-esteem. When we lose respect for our name, we lose our sense of belonging.”

 

                                    – S’abadeb The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists, page 36

Paddle

In Northwest Coast Culture

The Paddle for many First Nations people was not only crucial as a main instrument for water travel but its formation and position often communicated messages over long distances.

Traditionally, the steering paddles were always larger in size and used by individuals at the back of the canoe to steer the direction of the vessel, while the smaller paddle blade moved the vessel along the water’s surface.   The seating arrangement of travelers in canoes would reflect the living arrangements.

The shape and style of paddles vary by tribe and were usually crafted from Yew or Yellow Cedar wood (today, red cedar wood is used as well).

Additionally, the paddle blade also served as a plate when offering gifts to the supernatural entities of the underworld sea. Thus, the Paddle represents not only physical but also spiritual elements of traditional First Nations lifestyles.

Pictographs

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Historically, pictographs were drawn on surfaces located in places considered by First Nations peoples to be of great power. These sacred representations were painted on rock along a route or trail where evil or enemies might approach. These paintings may also represent significant occurrences or historical events.

Spirits were said to reside in places where we now find the pictographs and, during solitary coming-of-age rituals, guardian spirits were said to reveal themselves to youths who would then paint representations of their guardian spirits on the rock. Interpreting precise meanings in these pictographs is difficult, as they normally reflect an individual’s dreams or experiences.

Archaeologists and First Nations have discovered 13 pictograph sites in the Stein Valley, which was traditionally of great importance, both spiritually and for sustenance, to the Nlaka’pamux Nation. These pictograph sites include one of the largest in Canada, which incorporates almost 200 paintings.

Portrait Masks

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

For centuries along the Northwest coast, masks were used in ceremonies to transport people through time to a place where myths were reality.  These stories passed down through each generation remain as building blocks of social constructs; teaching morals and re-iterating heredity rights among First Nations peoples.

Historically, a portrait mask depicts a personal history, experience or event; or pays tribute to the loss of a loved one of the artist or the First Nations people who commissioned the mask.

These portrait masks often depict animals in their human form, and portray the connection between humans and animals as a reminder to honour nature and their relationship of cohabitation in the world.

Rattles

In Northwest Coast Culture

Rattles were made by the Northwest Coast peoples for the purpose of being used in ceremonies.  First Nations groups throughout the coast would act out traditional family legends and stories through rituals and dances.  These would be carried out at a potlatch—a ceremony, or gathering, where many guests attend.

Rattles were made from an assortment of materials such as pectin shells, puffin beaks, deer hooves, hollowed wood, and pebbles.  Most rattles were used by dancers and Shamans, or Medicine Men & Women.

Reef Netting Salmon

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Reef netting is a fishing technique used by some First Nations peoples. It is mainly used to harvest Sockeye and Pink Salmon. Reef netting is practiced by stringing out a net between two canoes in the path of migrating Salmon. The Salmon swim into net and, when the desired number are in the net, the fishermen raise the net, pulling the sides up into the canoes. After this the anchors are loosened, allowing the two canoes to drift together, and the net is hauled in. The net and the canoes are held in place with anchor stones. These stone weights are only used for one season and then replaced. Reef netting is very labour intensive, taking 8 to 12 fishermen to work the canoes and the net. Despite this, reef netting is an efficient fishing technique because one is able to catch 1000s of Salmon in one day using this method.

Reef-netting is usually done above or beside a reef. One reason for this is that the reef acts like a funnel and pulls the Salmon towards the net. Another reason is that shallow reefs are often lined with kelp. First Nations fishermen used to cut a path through the kelp which would further increase the chances of Salmon swimming into the net. Sometimes reef netting is practiced in deeper waters where the advantages of a kelp sea bottom are not available. In deeper waters reef netting is still an efficient fishing method, however, it does require added fishing gear to carry out.

Commercial reef netting began in 1935 as a modernized version of Salish Indian fishing methods. Square ended boats about forty feet long are used. They work in pairs with lines and nylon nets strung between them. Concrete eight-ton anchors are used to form a funnel to trap the Salmon. Parts of the trap are woven with sea grass to resemble a grassy reef rising from the sea bed.

Individual fishermen decide on the details of fishing depth, line lengths, and number of lines, depending on the location and number of Salmon. Salmon are pushed by strong tidal action directly into the traps. The reef nets are winched aboard once they are filled with Salmon.

Soul Catcher

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Commonly used by a Shaman, these carved bone tubes were used to cleanse human souls and spirits. If a person was sick, or perhaps possessed by a demon spirit, the soul catcher was used to coerce the evil spirit out of the body.  The open ends were caped with cedar bark to hold the soul until it was cleansed and brought back from the spirit world. The healed soul of the recipient was then returned to the body by the Shaman by blowing through the soul catcher and into to the patient’s mouth.

The shape of the soul catcher is typically cut from animal bone in such a way that the ends are flared outward and the surface is carved with figures associated with the Shaman’s spirit guides. Spirit guides accompany the human spirit or soul on its transformative journey between worlds. The ends of the Soul Catcher were sealed to contain these spirits. They also protect the boundaries between the physical and spiritual world, keeping those involved in the healing ceremony safe from evil minded spirits and beings.  The symmetrical arrangement of the figures essentially defines objects of this type and the figures tend to more sculptural in appearance.

Soul catchers are extremely powerful and respected healing instruments; because of this, they were often housed in special bentwood boxes to keep them safe.

Spindle Whorl

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Salish women were considered virtually unrivalled in their ability to produce beautiful textiles that had social and spiritual significance. The ancient art of weaving Salish-style blankets was revived in the 1960s and it continues as a vibrant expression of cultural identity.

Many Salish spindle whorls have sophisticated and powerful carved designs — human, animal and geometric. The whorl was placed on a wooden spindle to add the weight needed to maintain the spinning motion, and to prevent the wool from falling off the rod as it was being spun. As the whorl turned, the designs would blur together, mesmerizing the spinner. This trance state was considered vital: it gave the spinner the ability to create textiles imbued with special powers.

Feast Spoons and Ladles

In Northwest Coast Culture + Art

Feast spoons and ladles are and have always been an integral part of Northwest Coast First Nations cultural traditions- feasting and ceremony. Spoons and ladles were traditionally made from either cedar wood or the horn of a mountain sheep and their handles carved with family crest images which reference First Nation family myths. The highly-prized Mountain sheep horns were steamed and molded to form the bowl part while the remainder being the handle was delicately carved and often elaborately inlaid with abalone shell, opercula or copper.

Historically, these exquisitely sculptured objects were primarily created by Northern Nation people and were highly sought after by other nations. During potlatches [festive gatherings], ladles decorated with the hosting family’s crests were used to serve food and oils for seasoning dried foods, while the elaborately carved mountain sheep spoons were distributed as gifts among the many guests.

Today, spoon and ladle productions are based on these traditional objects and are meant to be both objects of function and display. In addition to traditional mediums such as cedar wood, goat or mountain sheep horn, many modern-day spoons and ladles are constructed of gold, silver and pewter. Spoons and ladles are objects of both functionality and beauty, and will endeavor to preserve First Nations cultural practices and heritage for years to come.

Talking Stick or Speaker’s Staff

In Northwest Coast Culture

Traditionally the talking stick was the property of the Chief, which would be engraved with his family crest symbols and ornamented with inlay as proof of his ownership. During ceremonies, it was a representation of property to be given away.

The Chief allowed a speaker, whom he would appoint, to make announcements with it during a potlatch or ceremony.  The speaker had the right to announce the Chief’s wishes during a Potlatch Ceremony. All attending guests obliged by staying quiet in order to concentrate on the importance of the announcement or speech.

Today at gatherings, the one who holds the stick has the right to speak.

Totem Poles

In Northwest Coast Culture

‘Totem Pole’ is the name given by Europeans to the carved wooden pillars created by First Nations peoples. The word ‘totem’ refers to a symbolic relationship existing between the natural phenomena (typically animals) and humans. Conceptually, differences existing in nature are used to represent differences among various kinship groups. Similarly, as animals differ from one another, so do people.  When a First Nations person says, “I am a Bear”, he’s referencing his kinship group which has a legendary relationship with the Bear.  Although he doesn’t consider himself like a Bear, or that he has Bear characteristics, he is making a statement about his group membership and personal identity.

Visually, the symbols or crest figures represented on a totem pole are statements about group membership and the identity of those who erected them. The beings represented on poles are from mythical times who were encountered by the ancestors of the group that later took them as crests. Families were able to communicate their histories and status.  Thus, some Northwest coast families claim the Thunderbird crest, a mythical figure which descended from the sky to take off its animal clothing and became their human ancestor.

Totem poles function symbolically to communicate a strong oral and visual language that bridges all coastal native cultures; from the southern Coast Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth to the northern Haida and Tsimshian Nations. Historically, totem poles were commissioned by the Chief to mark a special event. Today, these silent messengers remain and command great respect as they continue to proclaim significant community events or gatherings. Modern pole raising ceremonies involve all community members and those who participate in the raising of the pole are regarded with great importance and stature.

Totem poles were usually erected at Winter Potlatches (gift giving ceremonies), at which times the stories pertaining to the crests they displayed were told, and the right of the family to claim the crests was publicly witnessed.

Magnificent and memorable, totem poles have become a distinctive landmark of the Pacific Northwest. When traveling along the coast of British Columbia, the ancient poles tell of past and present communities who inhabit the land. Cultural identity and spirituality runs deep within all coastal nations. The totem pole is an integral member of these First Nations communities, giving life to important family crest figures who reveal the connection and balance between all living things.

Basalt

The dark grey or black stone found in the Keewatin River Basin of the Canadian Arctic is called Basalt (pronounced bæsɔːlt/). It is a common extrusive volcanic rock. It is usually grey to black and fine-grained due to rapid cooling of lava at the surface of a planet. It may be porphyritic containing larger crystals in a fine matrix, or vesicular, or frothy scoria.

Due to the Basalt’s hardness it is more difficult to penetrate the stone and exude a great amount of detail in comparison to the Serpentine stone found along coastal communities. The solidity of this bulky medium allows the forms to be often simple in design, accepting only fine detail. The artists’ talent is affirmed when considering how personality and expression is infused into a figure, which can be derived from a single delicate line or marking.

Inuit Regional Design, Sculpture and Graphics

The following excerpts are from the Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto:

Nunavik Region

“Nunavik is where the modern period of Inuit art production began and so in many ways it set the initial standard. Each of Nunavik’s fourteen communities has a distinct style, but two of the most striking features of sculpture in this region are its strong narrative quality and its tendency towards realistic depictions of subject matter. The local stone is steatite, or soapstone, the material that has become synonymous with Inuit sculpture. Stylistic trends in the region are dominated by artists from Inukjuak and Puvirnituq.”

Kangirsuk
“Sculpture from Kangirsuk tends to be more abstract than works produced in other Nunavik communities. Though it has been described as crude and folk-like, the sculptures are often stripped down of realistic detail and reveal the artists’ unique voices.”

Inukjuak
“Inukjuak carvers tend to focus on naturalistic hunting scenes and images of camp life; depictions of supernatural themes are extremely rare. Sculpture in Inukjuak generally uses rounded forms and was heavily influenced by the work of Johnny Inukpuk, RCA (1911-2007). Many works from this community are relatively staid and often do not use negative space in any substantial way.”

Puvirnituq
“Like artists in Inukjuak, artists in this community have a strong interest in realism, though they often incorporate more detail than works from Inukjuak. Puvirnituq artists also gravitate towards grittier subject matter, including violence and depicting bodily functions. Sculptures from this community often have more tension than those from Inukjuak and seem to threaten to burst forth out of the stone. In 1962, Puvirnituq produced its first partial annual print catalogue after support from Father Andre Steinman and artist Charlie Sivuarapik, which was distributed with Kinngait’s full annual collection. The community was able to produce annual collections from 1964 to 1989 with few exceptions. In 1989, the studio was closed and printmaking ceased until 2005 when a new studio opened. Early Puvirnituq prints were generally monochromatic and blocky, portraying life in a realistic way.”

Akulivik
“Many artists from Puvirnituq have settled in Akulivik, so the styles of these two communities are very similar. The use of ivory inlay, once common, has decreased. Artists in this community are generally concerned with naturalistic depictions of subject matter, often animals and traditional hunting scenes.”

Salluit
“Salluit artists share many stylistic similarities with artists from Ivujivik and also concentrate on displaying people engaged in traditional activities. These figures are often stylized, without realistic movement or tension. Rather, artists here opt to create works that appear much more calm and staid.”

Ivujivik
“Sculpture in Ivujivik primarily depicts the human form, whether hunting or engaged in traditional camp activities. These large forms often have proportionally small heads, hands and feet.”

Qikiqtaaluk Region
“The Qikiqtaaluk or Baffin region of Nunavut is home to some of the most famous artists and art producing communities in the Canadian Arctic. The area has the highest quality stone for sculpting in the Arctic, including rich serpentine, argillite and marble deposits. The stone from this region generally polishes to a high gloss and has a structural integrity that allows for the creation of bold compositions.”

Iglulik (Igloolik)
“Iglulik is home to many important contemporary artists. The local stone does not polish to a high gloss and many artists here choose to import stone from other communities. Many artists here portray emotionally intense scenes filled with action, such as hunting, though increasingly supernatural themes are becoming popular in this community.”

Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung)
“Artists from Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung) also create works made primarily from serpentine. These artists tend to focus on supernatural themes of transformations and spirit creatures, which have powerful features and extensive detailing. Printmaking began in Panniqtuuq in 1973 as part of a project sponsored by the Government of the Northwest Territories and annual collections have been produced with few exceptions. Artists here use a variety of printmaking techniques, but their stencil prints tend to be favoured above the rest. Prints here tend to represent traditional life, especially whaling, but recently have taken a different turn by depicting decidedly contemporary life and events.”

Iqaluit
“As the capital of Nunavut and its largest community, Iqaluit is uniquely positioned to be a meeting place for many different artists who have moved to the capital. This has encouraged a blending of many other styles from throughout the Qikiqtaaluk, so that sculpture from Iqaluit has a broad range of stylistic possibilities. Many artists who live in this community sculpt animals, which are often portrayed in unnatural but daring poses.”

Kinngait (Cape Dorset)
“The most famous art producing community in the Qikiqtaaluk is Kinngait (Cape Dorset). With such a wide range of incredibly talented artists, Kinngait is home to a unique range of personal styles. Subject matter in Kinngait is as varied as the artists who produce works, but many focus on animals and supernatural themes. These works are often formally accomplished and stretch the stone to its structural limits.As the first community to make prints, Kinngait set the standard for quality in printmaking. Printmaking experiments began in 1958 under the direction of James Houston, OC, and their annual collections began in 1960. The success of the initial collection paved the way for the expansion of the print program not only in Kinngait but across the Arctic. Their prints are certainly the most famous as a whole and the release of their annual print catalogue is always highly anticipated by museums, galleries and the public. Kinngait prints are chosen from a wide range of drawings that often have very individual styles. The studio was also the first to install a lithography studio and this technique remains one of their most dominant.”

Kimmirut (Lake Harbour)
“Artists from Kimmirut (Lake Harbour) are also particularly skilled and use the same serpentine deposits as artists from Kinngait. Artists here are known for their naturalistic depictions of animals and, to a lesser extent, spirit creatures. The work is generally less exuberant than sculptures in Kinngait but still have individual character.”

Sanikiluaq
“Artists from Sanikiluaq in the Belcher Islands are noted for using argillite when creating characteristically realistic sculptures. This matte stone, which ranges in colour from grey to almost black, gives these works a unique character. These pieces often feature animals which realistically convey the strength and movement of these animals while still giving them fairly stylized features.”

Kivalliq region
“The Kivalliq region of Nunavut has many deposits of coarse steatite and basalt, but finding good quality carving stone has been a consistent problem. Much of the local grey and black stone does not lend itself to high detail or finish, so many artists here choose not to fight against these qualities but instead to embrace them. Younger carvers of this region continue to produce minimalist pieces, though some also add beautiful beaded adornments to their work, incorporating pops of color that add an extra amount of life to their works.”

Arviat
“Arviat artists produce some of the most abstract carvings of the entire Canadian Arctic, creating predominately family scenes with very few details accentuating the local hard steatite. By contrast, local antler carvings are comparatively detailed and depict wildlife and hunting scenes.”

Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
“Kangirqliniq is the second-largest community in Nunavut and has attracted many Inuit from other communities. Like Iqaluit, this has led to a blending of styles in the area. Modern sculptors are known for their incised detail and use of caribou antler as well as stone.Kangirqliniq is probably best known as the centre of ceramics production in the Arctic. While Arctic ceramics production dates back to the ninth century, modern ceramics are not utilitarian objects but rather fine art pieces first and foremost. Many of the works reflect individual artist’s relationships with traditional and modern Inuit culture. Though some works are utilitarian objects, they appear very sculptural even when applied to a vessel shape.”

Qamani’ tuaq (Baker Lake)
“Carvers in Qamani’tuaq are often more figural than carvers in Arviat. Their figures often accentuate the roundness and bulk of forms. Stone here accepts polish much more easily than elsewhere in the Kivalliq. Arctic wildlife, such as muskoxen, and the mother and child are popular subject matter here, often depicted without much detail.Printmaking is another important art form in the community. Prints from Qamani’tuaq are often vibrant and colourful. The community produced its first annual collection in 1970 through the Sanavik Co-operative, encouraged by Jack and Sheila Butler. Their print program continued until the studio closed in 1990, but the community managed to release a collection in 1995. The program was revived in association with Arctic College in 1998 and is now stronger than before. Qamani’tuaq prints often combine stonecut and stencil methods. Notable graphic artists from Qamani’tuaq include Jessie Oonark, OC (1906-1985) and Irene Avalaaqiaq (1941), whose unique styles show the range of production here. Oonark’s works are bold and focused, Avaalaaqiaq’s compositions are filled with movement. Younger artists continue to work in bold colours, though using updated and increasingly abstract styles.

Wall hangings or nivingata were originally created in Qamani’tuaq. Inuit women were traditionally responsible for creating and maintaining clothing, one of the vital adaptations that allowed people to live in the Arctic. This required specialized techniques and a great deal of skill. Women also started to decorate clothing with embroidery and beads once they became available. By the 1950s, women were embroidering clothing for sale. One day, Jessie Oonark, OC (1906-1985) brought a particularly beautifully embroidered piece in and the local crafts officer told her that she could probably get just as much money for the embroidery as for the whole piece. Oonark then left and created the first fabric wall hanging, which hung in the crafts store window for a year and inspired many other women to create them as well. Most wall hangings are made out of duffel or stroud, thick woollen imported materials that are also used to make clothing. Other pieces of fabric are then embroidered or appliquéd onto the piece using embroidery thread.

The vibrancy of these works and the prints from the community contrasts the more abstract forms of the sculptures.”

Naujaat (Repulse Bay)
“Though located in the Kivalliq, Naujaat has a very different sculptural style than its southern neighbours. Better known for its tradition of sculpting ivory miniatures, this community also produces beautiful and detailed sculptures. While ivory carvings generally lack precise detail, these large-scale stone sculptures are intricately carved. Sculpture here is realistic and vibrant, showing a restrained sense of movement. Figures often have individual expressions. The use of mixed media, including caribou antler and whalebone, enhances the realism of the carvings.”

Kitikmeot Region

“The Kitikmeot region of Nunavut has never had an accessible or abundant supply of good quality carving stone. Artists here must travel long distances to where the Precambrian Canadian Shield is exposed in order to collect its unique serpentine that displays white fibrous deposits of tremolite. These deposits are much harder than the surrounding stone and so can complicate the composition of a sculpture. Many artists in this region are noted for working in whalebone.

Sculpture from the Kitikmeot is very distinct – artists here like to play with expressions and proportions and use mixed media to highlight certain elements of the work, creating figures that are at first glance grotesque and severe. This relates directly to the unique character of spirituality in the region, which was the last to have contact with qallunaat, or non-Aboriginal Westerners. Sculpting here is quite tough because the local stone is very hard to work with. Despite this, and the works’ immediate impression of severity, many of the carvings produced in this region display a great deal of humour if you look closely.

Talurjuak (Spence Bay/Taloyoak) artist Karoo Ashevak (1940-1974) transformed the style of the Kitikmeot in his short career. Working primarily in whalebone, Ashevak specialized in surreal supernatural imagery that often had an amusing quality to it. His career was tragically cut short when he and his wife perished in a house fire in 1970 but he has had a profound influence on other artists. Many of the artists associated with this region, including Judas Ullulaq, Charlie Ugjuk and Nelson Takkiruq were profoundly influenced by Ashevak’s work and helped to put sculpture from this region at the artistic forefront. Modern sculpture from this region continues to be influenced by the success of Karoo Ashevak and other older sculptors, exploring supernatural themes and with humor and uniquely exaggerated proportions. However, since the passing of the earlier generation, less sculpture is being made here, making it comparably rare.”

Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven)
“Sculpture in Uqsuqtuuq is very closely related to that from Talurjuak stylistically. Contemporary artists here continue to make art inspired by artists like Karoo Ashevak and Judas Ullulaq. Their work continues to use the region’s tough stone to their advantage, creating abstract and occasionally grotesque forms that reflect the traditional spirituality of the local Netsilingmiut.”Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay)
“Sculpture in the community of Kugaaruk is mainly of two types: ivory miniature carving typified by artists like Emily Illuitok and more abstract sculpture, like those by Nick Sikkuark. The abundance of walrus in the area means that ivory is widely available for carving. While ivory miniatures are often charming and reflect scenes of traditional life, other sculpture from the community reflects the broader stylistic trends of the Kitikmeot region. There is a great deal of wit infused in these works. Sculptures here tend to employ mixed media: stone, ivory, caribou antler and whalebone.”

Talurjuak (Spence Bay/Taloyoak)
“The style developed in Talurjuak set the standard for art produced in the entire Kitikmeot region. The use of locally-available whalebone, carved into haunting supernatural forms, has become internationally-sought after, despite restrictions of the export of the material. Many artists here now choose to create works out of stone, rather than bone, but the use of mixed media is widespread and often serves to enhance the effect of the works’ exaggerated proportions and traditional subject matter.”

Qurluktuk (Kugluktuk)
“Qurluktuk is the westernmost community in Nunavut and as such shares stylistic similarities with communities in the neighbouring Inuvialuit Settlement Region. Artists in Kugluktuk often create small sculptures that take traditional subject matter as its major theme. Because of the area’s natural copper deposits, it is not unusual to see metal incorporated into works of mixed media that may also include whalebone, antler, stone and wood.”

 

The Inuvialuit Settlement Region
“Art production in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region is not as widespread as in other Inuit regions, partly because the federal and territorial governments focused on cultivating natural resources there rather than on fostering art production. However, the art that is produced in the region uniquely reflects the traditions of the Inuvialuit and the environment of the western Arctic.”

Ulukhaktok (Holman)
“Notable sculptures from the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the western Arctic are being produced in Ulukhaktok where artists focus on wildlife and hunting scenes. Like in the Kitikmeot, sculptors here prefer to use whalebone, though lately muskox horn has become a prominent material. When heated, the horn curves and can be made into elegant geese or whales.Printmaking began in Ulukhaktok in 1960 after the encouragement of Father Henri Tardy, a Catholic missionary who helped found the local co-operative. The community has released an annual catalogue with few exceptions since 1965. Early Ulukhaktok prints are recognizable for their graphic black stonecut prints with minimal detail, but more recent prints are colourfully made using stencils and other methods. Helen Kalvak, CM (1901-1984) is arguably Ulukhaktok’s most famous graphic artist. She produced around 2,000 drawings, and her work The Dance was featured on a Canadian postage stamp in 1979. Since 1987, Ulukhaktok printmakers have abandoned the stone cut technique and explored others, including lithography and woodcut. Younger artists like Mary Okheena (1955-) now create prints marked by their colourful vibrancy, attention to detail and lush settings.”

 

Nunatsiavut
Art production in Nunatsiavut has a very different history than in other Inuit regions. Unlike the rest of the Arctic, Inuit in Nunatsiavut were not given the same kind of governmental support for art production. As a result, art from Nunatsiavut is often described as folk art or craft-like because it lacks the sophisticated techniques used elsewhere in the Arctic. However, contemporary artists like John Terriak and Henry Semigak are being recognized for their prodigious skill and enormous talent. Increasingly, Inuit artists in the area are receiving formal training, from workshops from established artists sponsored by organizations like the Inuit Art Foundation or at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Nunatsiavut is establishing itself as a rapidly growing area for sophisticated art production.

Inuit Regional Styles

Arctic Bay

Arctic Bay is one of the communities that make up the Baffin Region, situated on the northern edge of the island. In 1872 European whaler, Captain Willie Adams, sailed The Arctic through this bay, giving it its English name. However, the Inuktitut name is Ikpiarjuk, which means “the pocket.” This refers to the hills surrounding the bay, making it nearly landlocked.

This small town of slightly over eight hundred people is a very active community, with youth councils and recreational programs. It wasn’t until the 1950s that this area really began producing sculptures; however, there is now a thriving art community.

Arctic Bay artists are best known for their use of simple lines to portray modest scenes of everyday life and natural sea mammals. Fossilized whalebone, argillite, antler are all media which Arctic Bay artists have been known to carve.

Arctic Birds

In the spring, large flocks of birds migrate to the Canadian Arctic to nest and raise their young on the coastal tundra.

While many of the bird species found in the Arctic come from around the world, there are few locations that these birds are present in such massive numbers. During migration, flocks of Sandhill Cranes, Canadian Geese and Tundra Swans can be so large that they block out the sun. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds in a single location. Large colonies of these birds nest in the areas that the Inuit traditionally use in spring for camping and egg-picking.

These species arrive in early May when bare ground first appears. Their observed migration route is from the South. Local residents indicate that these species cross to Victoria Island from the Mainland near Dolphin and Union Strait and fly past Holman en route to their nesting areas.

In late August and early September, after eating continuously during the long daylight hours of the Arctic summer, these birds flock to the coastal plains of Alaska to feed on cotton grass. Here, they fatten up for their long migration further south for the winter.

Arviat

Arviat (formerly Eskimo Point) is one of the communities that make up the Keewatin Region, situated on the Northwest shore of Hudson Bay. Arviat means “place of the bowhead whale” in Inuktitut. This coastal area is made up mostly of people, traditionally from interior Iharmiut and Pallirmiut bands, who were relocated due to starvation in the late 1950s. While the two bands are culturally different, the severity of their situation overshadowed their differences and the two communities have cohabited easily. It was shortly after this time that they began producing carvings.

The sculptures in this region are very distinctive as having a raw and rugged appeal. Using simple details and less highly defined surfaces, the sculptures in this area can be described as the least realistic in the Arctic. The prevailing theme for Arviat carvers portrays the family.

Baker Lake

Baker Lake (known as Qamani’tuaq in the Inuktitut language, meaning ‘where the river widens’) is one of the communities that makes up the Keewatin Region. Positioned at the mouth of the Thelon River, the town of Baker Lake lies on the northwest corner of its namesake body of water.  Baker Lake is the Canadian Arctic’s only inland community, 320 km from the west coast of the Hudson Bay.

While a trading post was established by the Hudson Bay Company in Baker Lake in 1916, the area was not inhabited year-round until the late 1950s. At that time, Caribou were scarce. When starvation became a threat with disease increasing, the government relocated many Inuit people to the Baker Lake region. Within ten years there were approximately 200 – 500 residents; today there are over 1,000.

Baker Lake’s economy is supported by the region’s abundant natural resources. In particular, the Meadowbank gold deposit has created many jobs. Baker Lake’s next largest industry is, in fact, art. The Jesse Oonark Arts and Crafts Centre has created a space for artists to learn and create carvings, graphics, tapestries, jewelry, and sewing since its opening in 1992.

Family, hunting, spirituality and mythology are the predominate themes that Baker Lake artists choose as a focus for their artwork.  These are the pinnacles around which life in Baker Lake revolves. The harsh climate, remote location, and long history of subsistence and nomadic living have instilled in the Inuit of Baker Lake an appreciation for these core values. Their lifestyle reveals that family and survival are paramount, a belief which is reflected throughout their art.

Cape Dorset

Cape Dorset is one of the communities that make up the Baffin Region. Cape Dorset is probably the most famous art producing community in Canada’s north. With so many talented sculptors, there is bound to be a wide range of styles: however, a few generalizations can be made. The Cape Dorset sculptural style is rooted in both wildlife and the spirit world, but has incorporated a love of the flamboyant, the dramatic and the decorative. Sculptures exhibit a strongly stylized or elegant naturalism, and are generally highly finished. One senses a particular self-consciousness on the part of the artists, as well as a desire to manipulate the material to a high degree. The stones, which may range from many beautiful shades of green, almost semiprecious varieties, to white dolomite and other types as well, are often fashioned into almost impossibly thin shapes or delicately balanced works. Favorite subjects include animals and mythological creatures.

Animals play a vital role in the everyday lives of Inuit, and only in the recent past has the peoples’ dependence on them lessoned. Based on years of observing, stalking and hunting prey, Inuit wildlife art shows a keen awareness of the physical characteristics, habitats and seasonal changes of animals. Some artists display a high degree of naturalistic detail but others prefer to convey the animal’s personality, capturing the essence of an animal’s spirit.

Iqaluit

Iqaluit is located on the south coast of Baffin Island, at the end of Frobisher Bay. Iqaluit is the capital of the Nunavut territory, with a population of about 6000 residents. Initionally, Iqaluit was the site of a refueling base for American short range fighter aircraft that were being ferried across the Atlantic Ocean during the war in 1942. The site was selected for its flat geographically landscape, making an easy transition as a landing strip. In 1949, the Hudson’s Bay Company took advantage of the airstrip by relocating its south Baffin business closer to the site. In the 1950s, Canada and the United States formed the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), an organization that constructed a series of radar stations in an effort to identify Soviet attack over the Arctic. One of these early warning line bases was developed in Frobisher Bay, bringing with it hundreds of construction workers, military personnel, and administrative staff. Following the influx in population, many Inuit took advantage of the access to doctors, schools and social services and also relocated to the area.

Like other Inuit communities, many residents in Iqaluit also rely on their art to make a living. Iqaluit fits into the geographic and artistic area called The Baffin Region, which is known for its serpentine stone, thin shapes and high polish. Common themes are naturalism and high finish.

Kimmirut

Kimmirut (formerly Lake Harbour) is one of the communities that make up the Baffin Island Region. During the nineteenth century, Kimmirut prospered as a major whaling station, and therefore a base for carvers to trade ivory. The community developed a renowned identity as being an ivory-carving centre. The posting of the American Military in the nearby community of Iqaluit in the 1940s, prolonged the steady marketplace of ivory carving.

Since the 1960s Kimmirut’s reputation has shifted as artists began placing more emphasis on naturalistic subjects, such as animals and spirit beings, and began mixing media by using bone more for embellishments.

Kangiqliniq(Rankin Inlet)

Kangirqliniq is the second-largest community in Nunavut and has attracted many Inuit from other communities. Like Iqaluit, this has led to a blending of styles in the area. Modern sculptors are known for their incised detail and use of caribou antler as well as stone.

Kangirqliniq is probably best known as the centre of ceramics production in the Arctic. While Arctic ceramics production dates back to the ninth century, modern ceramics are not utilitarian objects but rather fine art pieces first and foremost. Many of the works reflect individual artist’s relationships with traditional and modern Inuit culture. Though some works are utilitarian objects, they appear very sculptural even when applied to a vessel shape.

Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay)

This arctic town in the Kitikmeok region of Nunavut was officially renamed its traditional Inuit name, Kugaaruk, in December of 1999. Kugaaruk means “little stream,” and is the name of the brook that flows through the area. Inuktitut is the traditional language, but now English is predominantly spoken.

Kugaaruk boasts the coldest recorded annual wind chill in Canada at -78 degrees Celsius (-135 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Arviligjuaqmiut people of Kugaaruk lived a fully traditional, nomadic lifestyle until 1935 when Catholic missionaries, Father Pierre Henri and Father Franz Van de Velde, built a church. The Fathers soon learned that their stone chapel/house was a poor insulator against the harsh climate. They happily adopted Inuit lifestyle by wearing fur and skin clothing and living in an iglu. In turn, the Arviligjuaqmiut embraced some Catholic traditions by gathering for Christmas celebrations at the mouth of the Kugaarjuk River; however, afterwards they would separate and continue their nomadic lifestyle.

In 1968 the Canadian government brought thirty-two prefabricated homes to the region, transitioning the Arviligjuaqmiut into a more settled lifestyle.

Linocut Printmaking

There are several methods of printmaking, including stonecut, woodcut, and linocut. Originally invented in Baker Lake, the linocut printmaking is used less often in this region as opposed to stonecut or woodcut.

Although uncomplicated in terms of technology, linocut printmaking requires the artist to be apt in both drawing and carving. The artist’s drawing is transferred using carbon paper onto a block of linoleum that has been cut, filed, sanded, and painted. Any negative space that should not be transferred is carved and filed away. The linoleum is then inked with a roller. The paper laid on top is rubbed with a tool named a baren, transferring the ink to the paper and creating a print. As ink needs to be reapplied to the linoleum each time a print is made, no two prints are alike. In this way, linocut prints have a higher degree of individuality than prints made using more technologically advanced methods.

Baker Lake printmakers differentiate themselves from others across the Arctic in their artistic style. While well-known for matte gray Basalt carvings, Baker Lake prints are intensely colourful. Highly saturated primary colours in unusual combinations are common features. As Baker Lake is an inland community, Caribou and Muskox are more often depicted than the coastal animals usually present in Inuit work. The spatial organization and subject matter of this style reveal that it is distinctly non-Western.

Since the Nunavut Arctic College began an experimental print collection in 1996, printmaking has become a strong feature in the Baker Lake art canon – particularly for women. Young artists are focusing more on printmaking, expanding the art form stylistically to include narrative scenes, rather than individual images.

 Mother and Child

Inuit themes are generated from personal experiences. Today, as in the past, the family is at the centre of Inuit culture. As such, the family—particularly the mother and child—is one of the most important themes in Inuit art.

It is necessary for the traditional Inuit family unit to work closely together in order to survive harsh environmental conditions; men and women rely heavily on one another, performing complimentary roles. Traditionally, men provide the food and raw material for clothing and tools, by hunting, while women maintain the home and process the animals brought by their husbands.  Women also typically take over the majority of childcare. However, as with most societies today, this is becoming more and more of a shared responsibility.

One obvious reason for closeness is the freezing climate which draws people close together. It is this basic necessity of day-to-day life that led to the invention of the amaut (back pouch). This oversized hood holds the child and allows the infant and mother to share body warmth.

Inuit parents demonstrate great warmth and affection to their children, and depictions of the mother and child are often highly communicative. Expressive content is often concentrated in the mother’s face and in her tender, sheltering gestures.  Imagery often focuses on the quiet strength of a mother and her child, rather than common sentimentality. In addition to human mother and child scenes, the theme of the family is also illustrated using animal figures.  Frequently Arctic animals such as Bears, Loons, or Owls are shown in a family setting. They are often represented in a tender and playful manner.

Narwhal “qilalugaq tugaalik”

The Narwhal (Unicorn of the sea) is an ivory-tusked whale that lives in the northern waters of the Canadian Arctic. The vitamin-rich skin, thick blubber, and valuable ivory tusks of the males make the Narwhal a highly prized staple among Inuit people.

The Narwhal displays a single long tusk on the left side of its upper jaw; however, there have been a few recordings of Narwhals with two tusks. The tusk is long-believed to be the marking of a male and is used in dominance disputes. Tusk length and the power of the male determine his social standing. At least one-third of narwhal tusks are broken – most near the tip and some near the mid-section.

Inuit mythology tells the story of how Narwhal came into existence. It begins with a blind, wicked woman who lived with her daughter and son.

“As the boy grew older his sight improved but his mother would convince him of his helplessness. One day the boy was hunting with his mother guiding him, came upon a bear which he shot with an arrow and killed. His mother began to laugh proclaiming he had missed the bear. That night the mother and daughter feasted on the bear while the son was fed dog. The daughter came to visit the boy brining him meat from the bear and admitting what the mother had done. One day the boy came across an old man who told of a way in which he could regain his sight. The boy was told to grab a red throated loon and let it take you to the bottom of the lake; once you emerge you will have your sight back. The old man advised not to tell his mother until later in the summer when he could send a pod of belugas to their campsite. When the summer came the boy took a harpoon to go hunting with his sister, the mother worried and followed them. The son asked his mother to tie the rope around her waist to hold the harpooned animal. The concerned mother asked to not harpoon an animal too large with her attached to one end. The son then harpooned a beluga which took the mother. As she sank to the depths she spiraled around the line, with her long hair twisting into a lance. This is how the Narwhal came to be.”

Pangnirtung

Pangnirtung is one of the communities that make up the Baffin Region, located south of the Arctic Circle on Cumberland Sound. The name means “the place of many bull caribou.” This region has historic roots as a thriving whaling station; in 1921 the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post, beginning Pangnirtung’s economic system based off crafts.

Now, the town is known internationally for producing high-quality traditional art. Pangnirtung artists are recognized for carving gallant realism, as well as depictions of emotionally charged and dynamic spirits.

Spirits, Transformation, Shamanism

The traditional spiritual beliefs of the Inuit reflected the importance of a thorough and nuanced understanding of the animals and land. This understanding of nature was essential both to their way of life, and to basic survival, and as such, the spiritual beliefs of the Inuit constituted a form of nature worship.

The Inuit believe very living being has a spirit, or soul, which existed independent of its physical form. When an animal or human passes away, the spirit will pass out of the physical world and into a spiritual realm. Both animal and human spirits were believed to possess the ability to move about and inhabit other bodies. This belief is often portrayed by Inuit artists in sculptures depicting transformations from animal-to-animal, or animal-to-human. In the oral literature, many legends and stories tell of the exploits of animals transforming to human form, and vice versa.

Important hunting rites and proper treatment of animals after death helped the people to avoid the potentially devastating results of an angered soul or spirit. It was believed that animals gave themselves to hunters; the wife’s hospitable treatment of an animal’s spirit—in properly preparing the spoils of a hunt, sharing the meat, and turning the hide into clothing—was essential to guaranteeing successful hunts in the future. The role of the angakok (or Shaman) was to act as an intermediary between the physical world inhabited by humans, and the supernatural world. Powerful supernatural forces and beings were believed to govern the natural world, controlling the weather, the migration of animals, and the abundance or scarcity of food. If angered, these supernatural beings could cause calamities such as foul weather or scarcity of resources.

Violations of cultural taboos were thought to cause souls to become angry, stolen, or lost, and could cause illness, accident, sterility, starvation, or other misfortune. In these cases, the Shaman would be called upon to make a mystical journey into the spirit world. A ceremony, sometimes incorporating singing and drumming or special songs, would help the shaman achieve an ecstatic state in which his soul was able to leave his body and communicate with spirits of the earth, the air, and the sea.

Each person was granted at least one helping spirit, often taking animal form. The Shaman was able to take possession of the spirit, and transform into the animal, gaining tremendous strength, the power to fly, and the ability to endure great pain. In a séance, the shaman would wear tusks, teeth or claws, and the spirit and voice of the animal helping spirit would speak through him.

During the past two hundred years, Anglican missionaries visited Arctic communities, practicing their faith and preaching their convictions. Upon first acquaintances, an understanding was established that the Christians viewed Shamanism as the devil. The missionaries’ attempts can be regarded as successful, as many of the Inuit people have since converted to Christianity, abandoning supernatural beliefs.

Although Shamanism is no longer practiced by modern-day Inuit, the subject remains prevalent in the art, which serves to preserve traditional culture and myth, creating a permanent record of what has for thousands of years been an oral history. It is many of the new generation artists who are reigniting interest in the Shaman by examining their peoples’ traditional religious roots. For some older artists, carving sculpture has become an outlet to explore supernatural subject matter which in other circumstances they have difficulty speaking about.

Stonecut Printmaking

While there are several methods of printmaking, the stonecut technique has emerged as the most popular amongst the Inuit today. Originally invented in Baker Lake, the stonecut printmaking is used more often in this region as opposed to other techniques such as woodcut.

Although uncomplicated in terms of technology, stonecut printmaking requires the artist to be apt in both drawing and carving. The artist’s drawing is transferred using carbon paper onto a block of stone that has been cut, filed, sanded, and painted. Any negative space that should not be transferred is carved and filed away. The stone is then inked with a roller. The paper laid on top is rubbed with a tool named a baren, transferring the ink to the paper and creating a print. As ink needs to be reapplied to the stone each time a print is made, no two prints are alike. In this way, stonecut prints have a higher degree of individuality than prints made using more technologically advanced methods.

Aside from using mostly the stonecut method, Baker Lake printmakers differentiate themselves from others across the Arctic in their artistic style. While well-known for matte gray Basalt carvings, Baker Lake prints are intensely colourful. Highly saturated primary colours in unusual combinations are common features. As Baker Lake is an inland community, Caribou and Muskox are more often depicted than the coastal animals usually present in Inuit work. The spatial organization and subject matter of this style reveal that it is distinctly non-Western.

Since the Nunavut Arctic College began an experimental print collection in 1996, stonecut printing has become a strong feature in the Baker Lake art canon – particularly for women. Young artists are focusing more on stonecut printmaking, expanding the art form stylistically to include narrative scenes, rather than individual images.

The Human Figure

The human figure in Inuit art is usually shown in a cultural context, depicting activities such as hunting and other aspects of daily life, both traditional and contemporary. Often, the art explores stories illustrating intimate family or village life in the Arctic.

Unlike depictions of animals (which often feature detailed musculature and carefully rendered fur), anatomical detailing is often largely obscured with bulky clothing on the human figure, leaving only the face visible; hints of an articulated body within are generally more gestural.

Although largely obscured or abstracted, Inuit depictions of the human figure are highly expressive. The spirit or psychological aspect of the depiction is paramount, and expressive content is often concentrated in the face.

Some Inuit artists have chosen to break from the norm within their communities and focus on the beauty of the human body. Contrastingly sensuous or matter-of-fact representations depict the female nude either in cultural contexts, or in isolation. The smooth, flowing lines and seemingly effortlessly curving shapes found in much Inuit work makes this a natural and seamless evolution of the Inuit art form.

Ulukhaktok

Ulukhaktok, formerly Holman Island, is located on the west shore of Victoria Island in the Inuvit region of the Northwest Territories. People did not permanently live in this area until the late 1930s when both the Hudson’s Bay Company and a Catholic mission was opened here. The name Ulukhaktok means “the place where ulu parts are found”. An ulu, a traditional Inuit knife, is made of slate and copper. The bluff in the region has an abundant supply of material sufficient in producing this multi-purpose device.

The community is the base for the Holman Eskimo Co-op that was developed as a way for its residences to secure a source of income. The region has become best known for its printmaking, although some artists also work in whalebone, ivory, and musk ox horn.

Woodcut Printmaking

Stenciled printmaking has emerged as a distinctly Inuit style since the middle of the twentieth century. Over the course of several decades, Inuit artists have used different printmaking techniques including woodcut, linocut, and stonecut. Today, stonecut is used most often as stone is an easier resource for the Inuit to get; however, all three techniques are capable of creating incredible prints at the hands of a talented artist.

The practice of making a woodcut print is essentially the same as that of linocut or stonecut. All of them require the artist to be apt in both drawing and carving. The artist’s drawing is transferred using carbon paper onto a block of wood that has been cut, sanded smooth, and painted. Any negative space that should not be transferred is carved and filed away. The wood is then inked with a roller. The paper laid on top is rubbed with a tool named a baren, transferring the ink to the paper and creating a print. As ink needs to be reapplied to the wood each time a print is made, no two prints are alike. In this way, woodcut prints have a higher degree of individuality than prints made using more technologically advanced methods.

Oftentimes additional colour will be added to the print through stenciling. A stencil is cut and then placed over the print. Ink or paint is then applied over it with a brush.

Woodcut printmaking amongst the Inuit has been compared to Japanese printmaking, which is thought to have preceded that of the Inuit. While the techniques may be similar, Inuit woodcut printmaking is incredibly unique stylistically with visible differences between Inuit regions. Prints from Baker Lake are intensely colourful with animal and human head figures often positioned chaotically. This creates a vibrant and whimsical scene that is clearly non-Western. Baker Lake also distinguishes itself from other regions in subject matter. Most prints are images of the mind rather than the landscape, adding to the imaginative quality of the work

The Inukshuk

In Inuit Art + Culture

Inukshuk (singular), meaning “likeness of a person” in the Inuktitut language, is a stone figure made by the Inuit. The plural is Inuksuit. The Inuit make Inuksuit in different forms and for different purposes: to show directions to travelers, to warn of impending danger, to mark a place of respect, or to act as helpers in the hunting of caribou and fishing.

A distinctive feature of the region, the Inukshuk is simply a pile of stones arranged in the shape of a human being – symbolizing the fortitude & determination of the Inuit people. Though made of inanimate rock, the Inuksuk embodies the spirit and persistence of the Inuit who live and flourish in one of the world’s harshest environments. Representing strength and motivation, they endure as eternal symbols of leadership while encouraging the importance of friendship and reminding us of our dependence upon one another.

Musk Ox Horn

In Inuit Art + Culture

Muskox horn carvings are specific to artisans in Holman, Inuvialuit region.

The outer surface of the natural horn is shaved down layer by layer. Delicate designs are etched into the horn to illustrate the bird’s feathers and eyes, and the darker area of the bird’s head is derived from the horn itself.

To extend the neck or bend the shape, the artist applies heat to soften the horn. Beeswax is applied to the outside to create a beautiful translucent sheen.

Once finished, the Muskox horn carvings are a golden almost translucent colour which highlights the fine detail of the carver.

The base of the carving is either Caribou antler or a local polished Serpentine stone. Each piece of artwork is unique as the artist follow the natural grain of the Muskox horn.

Serpentine

Serpentine is a major rock-forming mineral found in various regions of the Canadian Arctic, and is sometimes difficult to distinguish from jade as it has similar properties and colouring.

This versatile stone has a silky feel to the touch and a lustrous sheen when polished.  It forms in various shades of olive green, yellow or gold, brown or black with tiny translucent, crystals.  The veins throughout of fibrous serpentine are found inside the serpentine stone.

Stone is the most versatile carving material available since it can be worked to almost any size and shape. Often short in supply, artists must travel great distances over land or by boat to quarry good quality stone. Once the materials are obtained, carving proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner with the necessary skills passed down through many generations.

Most sculptures are still carved with hand tools, using saws, axes, adzes, hammers, and chisels for the initial roughing-out stages. Then files, rasps, steel wool, and sandpaper are used for fine work and finishing; while penknives or nails may be used for detailed incising.

Soapstone

Soapstone has replaced ivory as the most popular carving material in contemporary Inuit art. This has led not only to a greater variety of colours and forms, but to the larger size of many modern Inuit sculptures as well.

Although the generic term “soapstone” is commonly used, this is slightly misleading. Soapstone is a soft talc Steatite and is not used nearly as much as the harder Serpentine, Serpentinite, Siltstone, Argillite, Dolomite, Quartz and other types of materials.

Stone is the most versatile carving material available since it can be worked to almost any size and shape. Its colours range from rather subtle grey to luscious semi-precious green, white, blue-green, blacks, etc.

Often short in supply, artists must travel great distances over land or by boat to quarry good quality stone. Once the materials are obtained, carving proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner with the necessary skills passed down through many generations.

Most sculptures are still carved with hand tools, using saws, axes, adzes, hammers and chisels for the initial roughing out stages. Then files, rasps, steel wool and sandpaper are used for fine work and finishing, while penknives or nails may be used for detailed incising.

Crossed Twist

The twist with its crisscross form represents the many paths of life and love and, as such, is regarded as the original eternity symbol. The single twist in particular shows the joining together of two people for eternity. Even though they sometimes move away from each other on their own journeys, they will always come together again sharing their lives and blending to become one. It tells how the strength of bond of friendship, loyalty and love will last forever.

The carving is formed from two separate sides crossed over, representing both the interaction of differing lives, loves and cultures and yet showing them as unified into a single entity, working in harmony and balance in the ways of nature.

Double/Triple Pikorua (Twist)

Much of Maori theology was based around a great respect for nature and in particular, the sea, as the Maori people had crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa) in sailing canoes. They based much of their lifestyle around the resources gained from fishing and agriculture.  Legend has it that New Zealand was once a huge fish that was caught by the great mariner, Maui, using a line of woven plant fibre and a bone hook.

The twist, with its crisscross form, represents the many paths of life and shows the joining together of two peoples and two cultures for eternity.  Even though they sometimes move away from each other on their own journeys, they will always come together again, sharing their lives and blending to become one.  It shows the strength of the bond of friendship, loyalty and love, and the intertwining of these elements represents oneness within the natural world where power, beauty, old and new life all blend into one unifying force.

Hei-Matau

Much of the Maori theology was based around the sea, as the Maori people crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa) in sailing canoes and based much of their lifestyle around the resources gained from fishing and other water based activities.  They had great respect for the sea and its creatures, as according to legend, New Zealand was once a huge fish that was caught by the great mariner, Maui, using a line of woven plant fibre and a bone hook.  The Hei–Matau is therefore one of the most powerful symbols used in Maori culture as it represents prosperity, abundance and fertility.  It also is said to provide good luck and safety when travelling over water.  The wearer of a Hei-Matau is seen as a provider and protector who is strong willed and determined to succeed in life.  They are also symbols of power and authority which are held in great reverence by the Maori people.  They were used as a practical tool for fishing and were often decorated as a sign of respect for the creatures of the sea.

There are many styles of Hei-Matau from the true hook designs to the more ornamental styles which became treasured heirlooms for generations following.  This design is a very stylized Mei-Matau but retains much of the practical lines of those used for fishing.  It is simple and clean in form, illustrating the Maori style of flowing lines and soft curves.

Hei-Matau with Koru

Much of the Maori theology was based around the sea, as the Maori people crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa) in sailing canoes and based much of their lifestyle around the resources gained from fishing and other water based activities.  They had great respect for the sea and its creatures, as according to legend, New Zealand was once a huge fish that was caught by the great mariner, Maui, using a line of woven plant fibre and a bone hook.  The Hei–Matau is therefore one of the most powerful symbols used in Maori culture as it represents prosperity, abundance and fertility.  It also is said to provide good luck and safety when travelling over water.  The wearer of a Hei-Matau is seen as a provider and protector who is strong willed and determined to succeed in life.  They are also symbols of power and authority which are held in great reverence by the Maori people.  They were used as a practical tool for fishing and were often decorated as a sign of respect for the creatures of the sea.

There are many styles of Hei-Matau from the true hook designs to the more ornamental styles which became treasured heirlooms for generations following.  This design is a very stylized Hei-Matau but retains much of the practical lines of those used for fishing.  It is simple and clean in form, illustrating the Maori style of flowing lines and soft curves.  Incorporated in the Hei-Matau are elements of the Koru which represents new life, growth and purity.  Together, these two design elements talk about a wise leader and provider with a focus on family, love and spirituality.

Hei-Toki (Adze)

Much of Maori theology was based around a great respect for nature and in particular, the sea, as the Maori people had crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa) in sailing canoes. They based much of their lifestyle around the resources gained from fishing and agriculture.  Legend has it that New Zealand was once a huge fish that was caught by the great mariner, Maui, using a line of woven plant fibre and a bone hook.

This Hei-Toki design represents the Adze which was used to carve the great canoes and also to cut and work timber for the fortresses or Pa’s in which the Maori lived.  It was such an important tool in Maori life that it became regarded as a symbol of power, authority and good character.  It is also the mark of the craftsman and artist.

Koru (Spiral)

Much of Maori theology was based around a great respect for nature and in particular, the sea, as the Maori people had crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa) in sailing canoes. They based much of their lifestyle around the resources gained from fishing and agriculture.  Legend has it that New Zealand was once a huge fish that was caught by the great mariner, Maui, using a line of woven plant fibre and a bone hook.

The closed outer circle of the Koru is said to represent the circle of life which has no beginning or end, is seamless and of which we are all a part.  It also tells of the stars and planets which are part of the circle of life and contain the knowledge of our origins.  For an artist, the circle represents the relationship or oneness between the artist and his craft, bringing together head, hand and heart.

The spiral is a Koru, which is the fern frond as it opens, bringing new life and purity to the world.  It also represents peace, tranquility and spirituality along with a strong sense of re-growth or new beginnings.  The Koru is also often associated with nurturing so is frequently used to represent the strength and purity of a loving relationship within a family.

The intertwining of these elements represents oneness within the natural world where spirituality, strength, beauty, old and new life all blend into one unifying force.

New Zealand Jade

Nephrite Jade

Nephrite jade is found in only a few countries in the world besides New Zealand – Australia, China, Russia and Canada. New Zealand has some of the finest nephrite jade in the world. In New Zealand, nephrite jade is named Pounamu by Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and is also referred to as greenstone, a name given to it by the early explorers and settlers to New Zealand who first came in the eighteenth century.

Nephrite jade is very rich in colour. It is often marked with occlusions or darker colours running through it. The most prized nephrite jade in New Zealand is flower jade, jade with pale green or ochre clouds of colour. This distinctive patterning and colouring comes from the outside rim or ‘rind’ of the jade boulders or stones where the surface has oxidized. Maori appreciation of jade centres on these features: patterns that seem to evoke images of forests, rivers and clouds.

New Zealand Pounamu

Pounamu has special significance for the Maori. The Maori believe that Pounamu absorbs the ‘mana’ or spiritual power of its wearer. The Maori also believe that a piece of Pounamu will always yearn to return to its source in the rivers and mountains of New Zealand.

The Hardness and Toughness of Nephrite

Nephrite is more common than its harder counterpart, jadeite. Though it is softer (measuring a 6 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale, compared to the 6.5-7 of jadeite), it is actually a much tougher stone. Hardness is an attribute measured by how easily it can be scratched. A diamond measures the hardest on this scale at a 10, it can scratch anything while it can’t be scratched by anything other than another diamond. Both nephrite and jadeite are harder than steel, if you can scratch a stone with a knife it is not jade.

Is one kind of Jade more valuable than the other?

No, the preference is personal. Some people like dark stone and some prefer light coloured stone. The preferences generally depend on where you come from – your ethnicity. There are two schools of thought to be aware of: the Maori school and the Asian school of Jade appreciation. The Maori school prefers their stone to be rich in colour, either dark or light, with interesting inclusions, rivers and other variations. The Asian school has developed over the last 5,000 years and prefers lighter brighter colours with clarity and purity.

Single Pikorua (Twist)

Much of Maori theology was based around a great respect for nature and in particular, the sea, as the Maori people had crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa) in sailing canoes. They based much of their lifestyle around the resources gained from fishing and agriculture.  Legend has it that New Zealand was once a huge fish that was caught by the great mariner, Maui, using a line of woven plant fibre and a bone hook.

The Twist, with its crisscross form, represents the many paths of life and love and, as such, is regarded as the original eternity symbol.  The singe twist in particular shows the joining together of two people for eternity, in love or friendship.  It shows the strength of the bond of friendship, loyalty and love, and how even though they sometimes move away from each other on their own journeys, they will always come together again sharing their lives and blending to become one.

Tane

Much of Maori theology was based around a great respect for nature and in particular, the sea, as the Maori people had crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa) in sailing canoes. They based much of their lifestyle around the resources gained from fishing and agriculture,

When Maori ancestors arrived in New Zealand from their Polynesian homeland, they found it very different.  Primarily seafaring people, they discovered the need to know more about the bush on these larger, colder islands.

Understanding the forest was vital to life and, as the Maori people learned more about the forests they were exploring, the god of the forest “Tane” found an important place in their tribal consciousness and traditions.

Tane separated the sky from the earth and brought the world into being.  He fashioned the first human; adorned the heavens and brought baskets of knowledge, wisdom and understanding down from the sky to mankind.

He was a model of masculinity and action, and his various names suggest youth, freshness, someone who can overcome other’s actions, and who is true, loyal and authentic.  He is regarded as upright and able to bear the weight of an enterprise; he has his roots in the earth and his head in the heavens.

Pikorua (Twist) with Koru

Much of Maori theology was based around a great respect for nature and in particular, the sea, as the Maori people had crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa) in sailing canoes. They based much of their lifestyle around the resources gained from fishing and agriculture.  Legend has it that New Zealand was once a huge fish that was caught by the great mariner, Maui, using a line of woven plant fibre and a bone hook.

This design blends the symbol for eternity and love with the form of the curled fern frond or Koru as it opens, bringing new life and purity to the world.

The Koru also represents peace, tranquility and spirituality along with a strong sense of re-growth or new beginnings.  The Koru is also often associated with nurturing so is frequently used to represent the strength and purity of a loving relationship within a family.

The Twist, with its crisscross form, represents the paths of life and shows the joining together of two people and two cultures for eternity.  Even though they sometimes move away from each other on their own journeys, they will always come together again sharing their lives and blending to become one.  It shows the strength of the bond of friendship, loyalty and love, and the intertwining of these elements represents oneness within the natural world where power, beauty, old and new life all blend into one unifying force.

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