The Coast Salish Spindle Whorl

One of the most frequent motifs in Coast Salish art was also a tool of high cultural importance. The spindle whorl allowed Salish women to weave beautiful textiles of spiritual and social significance.

The spindle whorl was used to spin fleece into a thick yarn. It consisted of a small disk (whorl) with a shaft, inserted through a hole in the middle. The shaft was up to four feet long, or 120 cm, while the whorl was up to eight inches across, or 20 cm. The whorl was intricately carved from wood or stone with geometric, animal, or human designs. As the disk spun, the design would mesmerize the spinner, thereby bestowing special powers on the woven material.

The Coast Salish had a steady supply of materials for the wool. It consisted of down, various plant fibers, and the fur of the Salish Wool Dog, a dog that was bred solely for its hair. The blankets made from wool ensured prosperity and symbolized Salish ingenuity during pre-contact times.

See Swan Dance, New Territory (Sea), or Divine Momentum, for examples of spindle whorls featured in Coast Salish art.

What Is Northwest Coast Art?

From the Tlingit in Alaska to the Coast Salish in Southern British Columbia and Northern Washington; the Pacific Northwest is home to more than a dozen First Nations. It is an area of exceptional linguistic, cultural, and artistic diversity.

The brief discussion of Northwest coast art below outlines some of the major cultural art styles. For simplification, a number of Indigenous cultures have been grouped under one heading, as the artistic work of these cultures exhibits many similarities.

Haida art is often described as monumental and classic. Artists will depict creatures with abnormally large heads with the rest of the body in smaller proportion. Still, the overall look of Haida art is balanced and symmetric. Blank spaces are rarely left unadorned, and the bold form line has finely tapered points, giving it a very structured look. Haida print makers often use red and black exclusively, which are traditional pigments used in Haida art.

Kwakwaka’wakw art is extravagant and striking. Two dimensional graphic art is often composed of many small elements to create the overall design. Variations of typical design elements are generally used in repetition to project an energetic, active state. Most artists prefer traditional colours like black, green, red, white, and yellow. Some popular subject matters for Kwakwaka’wakw art are the Thunderbird and Sisiutl.

Coast Salish art differs from other Northwest coast art in that it is more minimalist in style and to the point. Faces have few distinguishing features, and designs are highly geometric in nature. Traditionally, the most common motifs in Salish art were Thunderbird, otters, and salmon. Coast Salish artists use ovals, trigons, and crescents as major design elements, rather than ovoids and u-forms (form line art). Some of the finest historic Salish carvings are found on the spindle whorl. Spindle whorls are used for making yarn. Many Coast Salish artists pay tribute to the spindle whorl by incorporating its design into their work.

Nuu-chah-nulth art is geometric, featuring straight and rectangular shapes. Even natural elements, such as clouds and water, can have an angular look. The art is flowing and flexible. Form lines, if present, are fluid and have more lenient rules than other Northwest coast styles. In addition, artists tend to leave open spaces blank, instead of filling them with elements of design. The Nuu-chah-nulth were whalers primarily, so much of their traditional and contemporary art depicts whales and images of Thunderbird. Nuu-chah-nulth artists have historically been quick to use new bright colours as they became available.

Tlingit art, especially two dimensional design, is similar to Haida art. In fact, the art of various northern groups displays similarities of style, since the cultures were closely connected through trade. The most notable and dramatic Tlingit art pieces were totem poles. They were rare further north, but a common sight in southern Tlingit territory. Tlingit art features round faces, rather small noses, wide-lipped, open mouths, and strong associations with shamans.

Tsimshian art has a look that is crisp and clean. Human figures are lifelike and often express emotion. Tsimshian art tends to be personal and positive. Some traditional elements of design can be detached from the main body of the motif. This gives the appearance of movement and lends vibrancy to the design. As in much of Northwest coast art, legends are frequently depicted. Tsimshian styles often place figures closely together for contrasting effect and to add variety.

Heiltsuk art adheres closely to the northern form line of the Haida and Tsimshian. It is characterized by narrow, light lines and designs with bilateral symmetry. Particularly characteristic is the use of red and green pigments. Heiltsuk artists are well known for portable, carved pieces such as bentwood boxes, masks, spoons and ladles.

Nuxalk art has a very unique style that can only be found in Nuxalk territory. Artists often use a very vibrant blue, the Bella Coola blue in their works. The Nuxalk are known for their masks and monumental sculptures, easily recognizable by their rounded, bulging faces with leaf shaped eye orbits. There is a real flowing quality to the exuberant colours applied to their sculptural work.

Irresistible Fields Of Blue Camas

Ours was an abundant land. Our forests, meadows, creek sides, marshes and seashores offered many plants for our use. – Dave Elliott Sr., 1980

This Area Was A Natural Park

Climbing up the summit at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, BC, visitors can see a plaque affixed to a rock that reads: When Victoria was settled in 1843, this area was a natural park (….).

Or so the Europeans who arrived by ship in 1842 thought. They were exploring the South coast of Vancouver Island, looking for the perfect spot for a new British settlement. James Douglas, who would later become the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, was on board the ship. Upon seeing the area around what later became known as Beacon Hill Park, he wrote: “The place itself appears a perfect Eden in the midst of the dreary wilderness of the North.”

Like his cohorts, Douglas was taken with the sheer endless meadows of colourful plants, open grassland and beautiful natural setting with the ocean and hills on the horizon. It reminded him of the perfect English countryside, and it looked very suitable for farming. And with that, a plan was set in motion to return the next year and begin construction of Fort Victoria. When the settlers returned, they brought their cattle, sheep, pigs and ploughs and began to transform the landscape.

The Blue Camas – A Most Important Staple Food

What was perhaps lost initially on Douglas and his crew was that the area they had picked out for their settlement was already farmland. The colourful plants they saw, chief among them the Blue Camas, had been grown and harvested for centuries, perhaps millennia, by the Lekwungen, the Indigenous Coast Salish people who inhabited the land that Fort Victoria was built on.

The two species of Blue Camas, the Common Camas and the Great Camas are in the Lily family. They are usually deep blue, star-shaped flowers with edible bulbs. The Lekwungen harvested them as a plentiful source of carbohydrates and an important supplement to a diet that consisted mainly of fish and meat.

All in all, about 70 different plants were used as sources for food. Another 50 different plants were used to make the things the Lekwungen needed – medicine, tools, fibre, dye, and fire.

Camas Harvesting Was Of Cultural Importance

Camas harvesting was an important social and cultural activity in an economy based on hunting, fishing, and plant harvesting. Entire families would travel great distances to collect the necessary resources. In the case of Camas, work camps would be set up in the area all around today’s Beacon Hill Park, where they would weed, harvest, and burn the fields in preparation for the next harvest, and to increase their yield. It was a time of reunion. It was a way of life.

All those traditions reflected a close relationship with the land and the plants, and it was done on a sustainable scale. The practice of gathering the foods, preparing them, and eating them was all part of the culture and helped to secure a diet that sustained the population.

The End Of Indigenous Control Over The Land

However, with the establishment of Fort Victoria, Indigenous control over the use of the land ceased. The Camas fields were largely lost to the plough and livestock, and the Lekwungen were uprooted several times according to the colonialists’ preferences. Urbanization and pollution did the rest to bring the traditional land management of the Camas fields to an end.

Blue Camas Today

Today the Blue Camas can still be seen on Southern Vancouver Island in wild meadows bordering the Salish Sea, and sporadically in Beacon Hill Park. They are remnants of what was once an important piece of Lekwungen culture and livelihood.

But recently there appears to be a renewed interest among young aboriginal peoples to learn about their culture, heritage and traditional languages. There is a strong desire for cultural restoration and the retention of knowledge of plants and their uses. This growing interest could be the difference in bringing back traditional cultivation of the land and the Blue Camas.

And with that, let’s finally update the plaque on the summit of Beacon Hill Park. What attracted Douglas was not a natural park, but Indigenous farmland, the result of effective land management by the Lekwungen.

(Image: ‘Blue Camas’ by Stuart Pagaduan)

Kelsey (KC) Hall – Where Graffiti Meets Tradition

Introducing KC Hall

Heiltsuk artist KC Hall represents a new generation of Native artists. He is combining graffiti with traditional form line. In the process he is reaching a whole new group of art enthusiasts. The thought that he might be ruffling the feathers of traditionalists along the way is of no concern to him. KC says, “Native art is nothing like it was 10 years ago. At one point everything was changing except for the form itself (….) and now people are adding to it and making it a newer version of itself, while sticking true to the foundation that it was built upon.”

A Dynamic Artist

KC Hall wholeheartedly embraces change and recognizes that it is happening every day all around us. Always creating, his art changes and evolves as he goes. He doesn’t stick with one contemporary style either. Instead, he constantly wants to switch things up and do something different. In that sense, he is very much a product of our dynamic and rapidly changing world.

Fusing Street Art With The Traditional Style

When asked about his preferred medium, KC explains that it “is a mix of spray paint and acrylic on canvas or wood panels. The mix of using spray paint to create the background to lay colour and form line is what I most enjoy. I also enjoy painting bentwood boxes and skateboard decks. Basically, a mixture of my street art background with the traditional style I am still studying.”

In addition to canvases, wood panels, bentwood boxes and skateboard decks, KC has completed many wall murals around Vancouver. He has even used basketballs and guitars as mediums for his designs.

Outside The Mainstream

Earlier this year, KC has released a serigraph of an original painting. It is his first limited edition screen print and has helped to introduce his art to a global audience. The title of the print is Outside Looking In. It is a reference to being on the outside with the non-traditional aspects of his art, and not quite belonging to the mainstream. It’s a piece that has very modern, urban elements which literally “spill” into the traditional style elements in the design.

Clearly, convention will not slow KC down.

Click here to view Tree of Life, KC’s 2nd limited edition print.

(Image: ‘Outside Looking In‘ by KC Hall)

The Salish Wool Dog – A Coast Salish Original

The area from Vancouver Island to the lower BC mainland and the coastline down to Oregon has been home to the Coast Salish for millennia. This is also where a unique breed of dog, which came to be known as the Salish Wool dog, had its origin.

The Locals Wear Woven Fur

When Spanish explorer Juan Jose Perez Hernandez and his crew first made contact with the Coast Salish in 1774, they did not expect to find a civilization dressed in woven clothing. Up to this point, every Indigenous person they had encountered along the Pacific coast had been wearing leather and furs. They wondered what animal could have supplied the wool for the yarn? There were no sheep around, but they noticed many dogs, which were reminiscent of a Spitz in stature, and appeared to be shorn. They would soon learn that the dogs were an integral part of Salish trade and prosperity.

A Most Important Commodity

Salish Wool Dogs were kept so that they could be sheared once a year (usually in May) to harvest their thick, long fur. The fur was mixed with down and various plant fibers and then spun into yarn for ceremonial blankets, which were valued items in pre-colonial Salish economy and culture. The wool was also traded with neighbouring communities for other valuable goods.

A Pre-Historic Breed

There is some archaeological evidence that the Salish Wool Dog has a history going back at least 1,400 years, and to this day they are the only known prehistoric North American dog which was intentionally bred for its traits. Great care was taken to separate them from other dogs in the community to prevent interbreeding. In some cases, the packs of 10 to 20 animals were kept completely isolated on smaller islands.

The End Of The Salish Wool Dog

The Wool Dog’s diet consisted mostly of raw or cooked salmon, a precious food source which they had to share with the human population of the area. This made the whole breeding process very resource-intensive and costly. So, when early settlers introduced inexpensive machine-spun yarns, there was no more need for the Salish Wool Dog. They soon mixed with other kinds of dogs and lost their traits.

The Salish Wool Dog became extinct as a separate breed in the 1850s. However, it has left behind a legacy of Coast Salish ingenuity, prosperity and culture, which should be celebrated and remembered.

(Image: ‘Weavers and Wool’ by Dylan Thomas)

Kwakwaka’wakw Art: A Northwest Coast Tradition

Kwakwaka’wakw art has a long history of tradition and innovation, of legacy and inventiveness. Since the beginning, it’s been an evolving exploration of expression, design and form.

Who are the Kwakwaka’wakw?

The Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced Kwak-wak-ya-wak), or Kwagiulth, are the original inhabitants of northern Vancouver Island, the adjacent mainland and the islands in between. Kwakwaka’wakw literally translates as “Those who speak Kwak’wala”, describing the collective nations within the area that speak the language.

Until the 1980s, the term Kwakiutl was used to describe all First Nations peoples in the area, regardless of the language they spoke. Today, the name Kwakiutl only refers to those from the village of Fort Rupert. Other Kwagiulth also have their own names and villages, as each of the 13 nations are considered separate, independent entities.

Kwakwaka’wakw Art

Kwakwaka’wakw art is perhaps one of the most distinctive forms of northwest coast art. Kwakwaka’wakw artists have always been among the most innovative artists on the coast, using an individualized approach to expression and form and colours that go beyond the traditional. Haida artist Bill Reid was quoted as saying that the Kwakiutl were explosive. If there was a colour, they used it.

The resurgence of Kwagiulth Northwest Coast art in the 1950s is largely credited to Mungo Martin, one of the most distinguished Kwakwaka’wakw carvers. In 1951, he was hired by the Royal BC Museum for a program of restoration and replication—a program that played a major role in the survival and transmission of northwest coast art traditions. Martin brought traditional Kwagiulth culture and knowledge out of the banned potlatch era and into the open, inspiring a whole new generation of northwest coast artists.

The Art of Francis Dick (Kwakwaka’wakw)

Kwakwaka’wakw native artist Francis Dick was born in 1959 into the Musqamakw Dzawadaenutw Band of Kingcome Inlet. She is a descendant of the supernatural Wolf, Kawadelekala, who shed his animal form to become the first of the Kingcome people.

Francis Dick spent the majority of her childhood in Alert Bay, off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, and later moved to Victoria to attend the University of Victoria and pursue a career in social work. She quickly realized, however, that her true calling in life was to honor her artistic talents.

Since the creation of her first aboriginal painting in 1985, much of Francis’s work has contained images of her family’s Kawadelekala legend, acknowledging her contemporary ties to her cultural heritage. It wasn’t until the publication of Long Beach that she focused on a subject outside of her culture. Long Beach was also the first print she’s done which was not titled in Kwakwala, her native tongue.

Although Francis Dick expresses herself primarily through native paintings and prints, she also drums and sings—she became the first woman to join her tribe’s bastion of all male singers—and even wrote and produced a ceremonial performance at Victoria’s Newcombe Theatre. The performance, entitled “Wi’woma: Honouring the Spirit of Women,” was staged several years in a row due to ongoing praise and request.

Francis Dick is an integral member of the native art community and is frequently asked to speak for various community organizations, women’s groups, and university classes. She’s guest lectured as far away as the University of Berlin and has held art exhibitions around the globe, including a permanent exhibit at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Numerous articles and interviews featuring Francis Dick have appeared in both local and international publications, and her paintings have been featured in books and calendars worldwide.

Contemporary Coast Salish Artist lessLIE

Leslie Robert Sam was born in Duncan, BC in 1973. He adopted the artist name lessLIE in reference to the deception and betrayal that First Nations peoples suffered as a result of colonization.

When lessLIE was six months old, he and his mother moved to Seattle to be closer to other family members, in particular, his grandfather, Gary Rice. lessLIE credits his grandfather, a Coast Salish native artist himself, with instilling in him and encouraging the passion to be an artist. He believes that having spent those formative years in a large urban centre has influenced the direction of his art, as it relates to issues of environment, dispossession, and race.

lessLIE holds a B.A. in First Nations Studies from Malaspina University-College and is currently working on his Masters of Arts within the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at the University of Victoria. As a component of this graduate degree, he has also worked at the Thunderbird Park Carving Studio at the Royal British Columbia Museum.

While working on his degree, in 1995, he began studying Coast Salish art, in particular, the works of contemporary artist Susan Point. He was also encouraged and inspired by his cousin Joseph Wilson, who is one of the most prolific Coast Salish artists today. Other influences include Manuel Salazar, Maynard Johnny Jr., Shaun Peterson, and Luke Marston.

lessLIE has participated in numerous solo and group exhibits, including the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s first-ever exhibit, focused entirely on contemporary Coast Salish art, and designed the logo for NEARBC, an Aboriginal health research networking program and Aboriginal health resource site of the Centre for Aboriginal Health Research (CAHR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. His works can be found in collections around the world and form part of the University of Victoria Art Collections, the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the collections of the Westfälisches Museum für Naturkunde in Münster, Germany.

Richard Hunt: One of the Northwest Coast’s Most Celebrated Artists

Richard Hunt is one of Canada’s most celebrated northwest coast artists. Born in 1951 in Alert Bay, British Columbia, he comes from a long line of internationally respected artists and carvers that have been instrumental in the survival of the Kwakwaka’wakw native art form.

Richard Hunt began carving with his father, the late Henry Hunt, at the age of 13, and in 1973 began a carving apprenticeship under his guidance at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. The next year, he assumed the duties of chief carver in the Thunderbird Park carving program—a position once held by his grandfather, master Kwakwaka’wakw carver Mungo Martin. Over the next 12 years, Richard established himself as a sort of “working exhibit,” demonstrating traditional methods of carving (no chainsaws allowed) and answering questions from the public about his culture.

In 1986, he left Thunderbird Park to launch a career as a freelance aboriginal artist—a move that quickly placed him further into the spotlight. In 1991, Richard became the first native artist to receive the Order of British Columbia, and in 1994, he received the Order of Canada, the most prestigious award of his career.

Richard Hunt’s career has spanned the globe, from carving a 30-foot totem pole for a private collector in Los Angeles, CA to lecturing at the Smithsonian Institution in New York. Back at home, he not only designed the bronze medal for the 1994 Commonwealth Games, held in Victoria, but also participated in the design and carving of the Queen’s Baton. Working alongside fellow native artists, Art Thompson (Nuu-chah-nulth) and Charles Elliott (Coast Salish), the hard-carved, sterling silver Baton brought together the three First Nations on Vancouver Island in a powerful display of tradition and unity.

And in 2012, the Royal Canadian Mint used his Kwaguilth design, Two Loons, on their new $1 silver coin honouring the 25th anniversary of the loonie. It was the second of his designs to be produced by the Mint, the first being of a welcome figure in 2005.

Richard Hunt’s native name, Gwe-la-yo-gwe-la-gya-lis, is highly appropriate considering his many accomplishments. It means “a man that travels and wherever he goes, he potlatchs.” Through his art, his speaking and his dancing, Mr. Hunt has indeed given much to the world.

Please see Richard’s Northern Frog limited edition print.

What is Woodland Art?

Woodland Art, also known as Legend Painting or Medicine Painting, is a distinct style of Native art that blends traditional legends and myths with contemporary mediums. It explores the relationships between people, animals, and plants and is rich with spiritual imagery and symbolism.

What does Woodland Art look like?

With its bright colours, bold lines and 2-dimensional design, Woodland Art is one of the most recognizable forms of native art. The visionary style emphasizes heavy black form lines and x-ray views of colourful, figurative images. The perspective is strictly frontal, profile or aerial, lacking ground lines and indications of horizons. But don’t be deceived by its visual simplicity—the subjects and themes explored in Woodland paintings carry powerful meanings.

Native symbolism is at the heart of Woodland Art, yet the mediums are anything but traditional. Woodland paintings are typically acrylic or watercolor paints on paper, canvas or wood panels.

Where does Woodland Art come from?

Norval Morrisseau, an Ojibway artist from Northern Ontario, is considered to be the founder of the Woodland School of Art. He was the first Ojibway to break the tribal rules of setting down Native legends in picture form and was originally criticized for disclosing traditional spiritual knowledge. However, his unique style gained traction in the late 1960s, revitalizing traditional Anishinaabe icons and inspiring many generations of artists from Northwestern Ontario and Manitoba, including Mark Anthony Jacobson, Mike Alexander, Roy Thomas, and John Laford.

Dubbed the “Picasso of the North,” Norval Morrisseau was awarded the Order of Canada for his contribution to Canadian art. He laid the groundwork for Canadian Native artists to be authentic to their own culture and experiences while still being considered part of the broader artistic scene.