The Hummingbird Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

To the Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Coast, the hummingbird is a messenger of joy. It stands for intelligence, beauty, devotion and love. These little birds are also respected as fierce fighters and defenders of their territory.

Hummingbirds are a symbol of good luck. Seeing a hummingbird before a major event, such as a hunting trip, or travelling to another village, was considered a good sign.

There are stories among the Haida where high ranking women would arrive at feasts with live hummingbirds tied to their hair, underlining and signifying their beauty, prestige, and close relationship with the spirit of the bird.

According to one Northwest coast legend, Raven transformed a flower into a hummingbird. He gave the hummingbird a message to take to all the flowers, which is why we see hummingbirds darting quickly from flower to flower and whispering the message; thanking each flower for its beauty and making our world a better place.

Nowadays, hummingbirds are frequently represented in Northwest coast art (Hummingbird by Art Thompson, Migration by Dylan Thomas), though they have not traditionally been a major motif. They are portrayed in profile view with a long narrow beak and a large head with prominent eyes. Hummingbirds are usually shown in mid flight with flowers nearby.

The Moon Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

The moon appears in the mythology of all Northwest Coast nations. It is a guide, a protector, a guardian spirit, a timekeeper, and is associated with transformation.

The Nuu-chah-nulth honour the moon and his wife, the sun, as the most powerful beings of all. They afford good luck and abundant food. This personification of Moon as a male entity is rare. Among other Indigenous groups the moon is often female, and more delicate and serene than the sun.

The moon is frequently shown in association with Wolf, due to their nocturnal habits. Sometimes it is seen in the beak of Raven, a reference to the creation story of Raven releasing the sun, moon and stars into the sky.

In another legend, a giant supernatural codfish swallows the moon during a lunar eclipse. To counteract this, the Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chach-nulth would light a large bonfire and add branches from pine trees to create smoke, causing the codfish to cough up the moon.

Moon plays a part in the Peace Dance of the Kwakwaka’wawk, and in the Winter Ceremonies of the Huxalk. Among the Haida, Moon has been the exclusive crest of only a few of the highest ranking chiefs.

The moon usually has a rounded face and relatively flat features. The face is normally that of a human, or a bird. Occasionally, it has a crescent form, and at times, Moon wears a labret, indicating a feminine aspect.

For great examples of Native American art prints, see Moon by Art Thompson, Affinity, 4 Phases of the Moon and Long Beach by Francis Dick, Love and Light by Margaret August, Mountain Eagle by Roy Henry Vickers.

The Salmon Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

To the First Nation cultures of the Northwest coast, the salmon is a symbol of perseverance, self-sacrifice, regeneration and prosperity. For thousands of years, this fish has been the primary food source for coastal people, and is held in high esteem for the important role it continues to play in Northwest coast cultures and ecosystems today.

The salmon has shaped tribal culture and also facilitated the emergence of the art form we know today as Northwest Coast art.

Due to the hospitable climate of the region, the indigenous population did not need to travel far to hunt and gather food. There was an abundance of food resources nearby, chief among them the salmon. This afforded the coastal population time to pursue the arts, which led to the distinctive art form we can still appreciate today.

Salmon are typically easy to recognize in Northwest Coast art by their shape and curved, beak-like mouth (Haida Gwaii Salmon by Alvin Child, Spawning Salmon by Art Thompson, New Territory (Sea) by Dylan Thomas, Salmon Water Waves by lessLIE). Females have a less pronounced beak and are normally shown with small circles in their bodies, which represent eggs. In some cultures of the area, Salmon are associated with twins and are therefore often shown in pairs.

The salmon and the cycle of life are honoured and celebrated by Indigenous Nations all along the coastline.

There are five species of Pacific salmon: chinook, coho, sockeye, pink, chum. They differ in size, appearance and feeding habits, but they all hatch in fresh water, mature in the ocean, and return to their place of birth to spawn and die. This cycle of life is celebrated and respected by all Northwest coast cultures. As a sign of respect, salmon bones are returned to the water. The spirits will then rise, allowing the life cycle to begin again.

Northwest cultures believe that any shortages of salmon during any year can be attributed to a lack of respect for the salmon’s life cycle, so the seasonal return of the salmon to their spawning grounds is celebrated to show appreciation for the salmon’s sacrifice.

This celebration and the harvest are important aspects of Northwest Coast tribal life as they also involve the transfer of traditional values from generation to generation.

“My strength is from the fish; my blood is from the fish, from the roots and berries. The fish and game are the essence of my life. I was not brought from a foreign country and did not come here. I was put here by the Creator.”

– Chief Weninock, Yakama, 1915

The Raven Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

Raven is one of the most important creatures in Northwest Coast mythology and art. He is a powerful, cultural focus and symbol in many communities and to First Nation peoples along the Northwest coast of North America; both as a crest figure, and as a guardian spirit.

Raven is cunning and a schemer. He is mischievous and curious, selfish, and a glutton. Always looking for an angle, Raven is known as a trickster. As such, he will deceive anyone to advance his own self interests.

Raven is a magical creature that can easily assume any shape. He can be human, an animal, or any inanimate object.

There are many stories told of Raven explaining how things came to be, or as lessons about right and wrong. The Haida tell stories of how Raven discovered and freed the first men who had been trapped in a clam shell. He then freed the first women from another shell and put the men and the women together. Raven also stole salmon and deposited them in the rivers all along the coast to provide food for the people. Another story explains that Raven played a significant role in transforming the world by first stealing, then placing the sun, the moon, and the stars in the sky.

In First Nations mythology of the Northwest Coast, Raven has two sides. On one hand he is creative, intelligent and adventurous. On the other hand he can be extremely self serving and mischievous.

Raven is depicted in many Northwest Coast Native art prints: White Raven, Sharing Knowledge, Five Ravens, Haida Raven, and more.

The Orca Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

In First Nations cultures of the Pacific Northwest, Orca is represented frequently in visual works, as well as oral traditions. Known to some as the Guardians of the Sea, Orcas (Killer Whales) are associated with compassion, strong family bonds, protection, and community.

Orcas, who are also called Sea Wolves in some Northwest coast cultures, are revered for their hunting skills and sheer strength. Similar to wolves, Killer Whales live and hunt in packs. The entire family, or pod, will normally stay together for life and work together to feed and raise their young.

Along the Washington and British Columbia coastline there are four resident communities of Killer Whales. The Southern Resident Killer Whale Pod is the smallest of the four, and it is listed under the Endangered Species Act. As of the end of 2018, this pod numbered 75 members, which is down significantly from 250 a few decades ago. The reduction in their population size is due to increased marine traffic, environmental damage, and the depletion of their major food source, Chinook Salmon.

Coast Salish artist Joe Wilson has dedicated his serigraph, titled Orca, to the Southern Resident Killer Whale Pod. He feels that the print should serve to celebrate the beauty of this magnificent animal, raise awareness, and help ensure its survival.

There are many legends in the Northwest involving the Orca. One legend tells us that when a person drowns, Killer Whales will take the body to the deep ocean and transform it into one of their own. This is why we can sometimes observe Orcas swimming close to shore. They are transformed humans, yearning for their old life.

The Orca is the largest predator on earth. Hence, in First Nations art the Orca is often depicted as a powerful and intimidating being. This is indicative of the respect First Nations have for the Killer Whale.

The Frog Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

Frog is a very important symbol in Northwest coast Native art and culture. We can find him on totem poles, house posts, as well as many house hold items.

Frog is a supernatural being which inhabits the human, as well as the spirit world. He adapts easily to his environment and communicates between the two realms.

In the natural world, Frog can easily switch between water and land and is associated with springtime, renewal, and the changing of the seasons. When spring comes, and frogs start to croak loudly, it is the signal for tribes of the Northwest coast to end their winter ceremonies and prepare for the next hunting and fishing season.

Many Native customs all over North and South America recognize Frog as a healer. Some old European traditions also recognize his ability to heal, and many believe that his songs are magical and contain divine power. Frogs are seen as cleansers of bad spirits, and Shamans use frogs as Spirit Helpers.

In Northwest coast art, Frog is usually depicted with a wide mouth and protruding tongue – Wak’es, Northern Frog, Tree Frog. If Frog’s tongue touches another creature, this represents the sharing of knowledge and power – Sharing Knowledge.

On totem poles it occupies the bottom with its legs stretched out to symbolize stability. On Haida house posts, Frog is depicted to lend structural stability.

Frogs also represent wealth, abundance, ancient wisdom, rebirth, and good luck. As such, the Frog symbol plays an important part in Northwest coast cultures.