The Bear Symbol – Native Art Symbols and Meanings

In American Native cultures, bears are a symbol of courage, strength, resourcefulness, wisdom and intuition. Native origin stories often describe bears as teachers and healers and many Native American tribes believed that bears were able to heal their own wounds. As such they are closely tied to healing and medicine. Because of their strength and fierceness, they are also the protectors, guardians and helping spirits of warriors. A bear claw was often worn on a necklace to protect the warrior and offer strength.

Bears are a common motif in Native American art. They appear as carvings on totem poles, on jewellery, as masks and in paintings or limited edition prints.

In Northwest coast Indigenous art, the bear has distinguishing features: a wide mouth, claw like hands and feet, large flaring nostrils, conspicuous teeth and a downward protruding tongue. Grizzlies are often depicted with fangs, whereas black bears are not.

Bears are also important crest figures and they are featured in many Native legends. They are believed to be closely related to humans going back to a time when humans and bears transformed back and forth. Due to their human like qualities, West coast people have even referred to them as elder kinsmen. When a bear is killed during a hunt it is taken to the chief’s house, sprinkled with eagle down (a symbol of friendship) and treated as a high ranking guest.

For some amazing facts about Canada’s bear species, please click here.

Native art print of a mother bear and its cub
Bear Mother and Cub
by Joe Wilson

The Owl Symbol – Native Art Symbols and Meanings

Few creatures are as polarizing among Native cultures as owls. They are often feared and revered at the same time. While some fear them for their supernatural powers, others celebrate them for their ability to guide and foretell future events.

In certain Native cultures the owl is believed to be connected to the afterlife and new beginnings. They are also seen as guardians, or protective spirits. To some they represent wisdom, clear vision and ancient knowledge. Still others believe that they are the restless spirits of ancestors.

Owls are superb hunters. They hunt at night, using keen hearing and sight, relying on stealth, rather than speed. Their flight is virtually silent due to their fringed wings, giving them the advantage of approaching their unsuspecting prey in silence and with no warning.

Many cultures around the world agree that owls are mysterious and elusive. It is this perceived mystery, which has sparked curiosity and intrigue for thousands of years.

For more fun facts about owls, please click here.

Native American print titled Owl Guardian by Trevor Husband
Owl Guardian
by Trevor Husband

The Eagle Symbol – Native Art Symbols and Meanings

Eagles are one of the most important clan and crest animals in Native American mythology, art and culture. The eagle is one of the main crests among First Nations, such as Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit and Heiltsuk, who live along the Northwest coast of North America. This area also features the largest bald eagle population in Canada. Here they find large bodies of water ideal for fishing and large trees for nesting.

Eagles are a symbol of strength, authority and power. They rule the skies with grace and great intellect. In many cultures around the world, their wings are symbols of protection, but to Northwest coast peoples they are spiritual messengers who carry prayers to the Creator. They have the ability to fly higher than any other bird and benefit from their extraordinary vision.

Eagle feathers and down are sacred. They have healing powers, and are symbols of peace and friendship. During welcome dances and other ceremonial occasions, they are used to honour respected guests. In some cultures, the feathers are given as gifts to honour a person’s accomplishments and acts of courage.

In Northwest coast art, eagle designs are found on totem poles, ceremonial staffs, and other traditional items. They are represented with a powerful beak. The upper half of the beak typically ends in a downward turn. They have large talons and piercing eyes. Also typical for Northwest coast art are the U-form shapes on top of the eagle’s head. Eagles are often depicted with a salmon in their talons; one of their favourite foods.

Please click here for more fun facts about eagles.

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 one of these birds before an 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 them 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 (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.

Please click here for more fun facts about hummingbirds.

Native American art print titled Hummingbird and Moon by Joe Wilson
Hummingbird and Moon
by Joe Wilson

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 as a male entity is rare. Among other Indigenous groups it 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, it 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, it wears a labret, indicating a feminine aspect.

For great examples of Native American art prints, see Affinity by Francis Dick, Love and Light by Margaret August.

First Nations art print titled 4 Phases Of The Moon by Francis Dick
4 Phases Of The Moon
by Francis Dick

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 (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 its 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

Native American limited edition print of salmon titled Salmon Water Waves by lessLIE
Salmon Water Waves
by lessLIE

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, he 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. He also stole salmon and deposited them in the rivers all along the coast to provide food for the people. Another story explains that he 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, Tree of Life and more.

The Orca Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

In First Nations cultures of the Pacific Northwest, the 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.

For another example of killer whales in Northwest coast art, see K’aka’win by Patrick Amos.

Limited edition Native art print of a killer whale by Patrick Amos
by Patrick Amos

The Frog Symbol – Native Art Symbols And Meanings

The 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.

The 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, frogs can easily switch between water and land and they are associated with springtime, renewal, and the changing of the seasons. When spring comes, and they 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 this creature as a healer. Some old European traditions also recognize their ability to heal, and many believe that their songs are magical and contain divine power. Frogs are seen as cleansers of bad spirits, and Shamans use them as spirit helpers.

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

On totem poles frogs occupy the bottom with its legs stretched out to symbolize stability. On Haida house posts, they are used to lend structural stability.

Frogs also represent wealth, abundance, ancient wisdom, rebirth, and good luck.

Native Canadian art print titled Sharing Knowledge by Alvin Child
Sharing Knowledge
by Alvin Child