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Totem Pole by James Bender at Pike Place Market (#72: 15046 bytes)

Northwest Coast Indian Art:
An Analysis of Form

by Bill Holm
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Symbolism and Realism

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Fig. 5. A: Woven blanket, Chilkat. The formline structure of the design in the woven blanket is somewhat obscured by the angularity typical of Chilkat woven designs.

The important role that symbolism plays in Northwest Coast Indian art is readily apparent to the casual observer. With a little familiarity he will recognize that certain design elements, or "symbols" as they are often popularly known, seem to occur again and again. "Eyes," "joints," "ears," and "feathers," delineated with broad black lines, suggest the existence of a "Northwest Coast" style. Increasingly careful scrutiny reveals that, during the period that produced most of the familiar examples of this art, several more or less distinct styles flourished. It soon becomes apparent that the artists in the area stretching roughly from Bella Coola to Yakutat Bay had a highly developed system of art principles that guided their creative activity and went far beyond the system of conventional animal representation described in the literature, most notably in the works of Franz Boas (1897:123-76; 1927:183-298).

Boas and others recognized that there were other principles important to the character of the art, but only those directly concerned with representation have been adequately covered. These were summed up by Adam (1936:8-9) to include (1) stylizing, as opposed to realistic representation; (2) schematic characterization by accentuating certain features; (3) splitting; (4) dislocating split details; (5) representing one creature by two profiles; (6) symmetry (with exceptions); (7) reducing; and (8) the illogical transformation of details into new representations. All these elements are important and basic to Northwest Coast Indian art, but they are, with the exception of number 6, principles of representation rather than of composition, design organization, or form.

Haeberlin (1918:258-64) indicated a direction for research and analysis in the composition of this art. In reference to the well-known principles of "unfolding" (Adam’s "splitting") and the "whole" animal, he wrote, "These important principles refer still to the contents of the representations of this art, not really to the relations of forms, for which it would seem to me the term artistic’ is properly reserved" (Haeberlin, 1918:258-64). Boas (1927:13) pointed out the importance of recognizing this aspect of art in general. He said, "It is essential to bear in mind the twofold source of artistic effect, the one based on form alone, the other on idea associated with form. Otherwise the theory of art will be one-sided."


That even the most abstracted box or Chilkat blanket design is representative in a symbolic sense has long been known, and the principles of representation have been investigated and published (Boas, 1927:183-280; Inverarity, 1950:40-48; and others). The more highly abstracted the design becomes, that is, the more nearly the represented creature, by distortion and rearrangement of parts, fills the given space, the more difficult it becomes to interpret the symbolism accurately. This difficulty is graphically illustrated by the many contradictions in the explanations by Indian informants of the meaning of Chilkat blanket designs, particularly in the lateral panels (Boas in Emmons, 1907:387). Figure 5A illustrates a blanket that is nearly identical to that shown in Emmon’s figure 564A, of which the lateral fields are said to "represent a young raven sitting, at the same time the sides and back of the whale."

It is also very difficult to explain satisfactorily the meaning of designs that are fragmentary in character. The designs painted on Haida gambling sticks are of this type. A set of seventy of these sticks is illustrated by Swanton (1909:149-54) and again by Boas (1927:210-16). The effect that seemingly insignificant detail can have on interpretation is illustrated by an explanation by Charles Edensaw, an outstanding Haida artist, of No. 34 of these gambling stick designs. The intent seems quite obviously to be the head and foot of an eagle, but "Edensaw was rather inclined to consider the design on the left as intended to represent the raven’s wing, because it has no tongue, and because it is not the proper form of head belonging with the foot on the right!" (Swanton, 1909:152). From these examples it can be seen that the formal element of the designs very often takes on such importance as to overshadow the symbolic element to a point where the symbolism becomes very obscure.

To meet the requirements of space filling demanded by traditional design principles, the artist must introduce decorative elements so "that it is not possible to assign to each and every element that is derived from animal motives a significant function, but . . . many of them are employed regardless of meaning, and used for purely ornamental purposes" (Boas, 1927:279).


Northwest Coast art can be divided into a number of general categories, according to the degree of realism in the design. Practically no examples of Northwest two-dimensional art are realistic in the ordinary sense. Paintings on shamans’ paraphernalia frequently approach representational realism, but even these figures are in the Northwest Coast idiom. The different degrees of realism in this art seem to result not from a variety of concepts of representation but from the artist’s preference (more or less strictly bound by tradition) in handling the given space. In each case individual parts of the creature represented assume their conventional form, and the degree of realism (that is, resemblance to the visual form of the creature in nature) achieved is due to the arrangement of these conventionalized bodypart symbols.

Three rather loose categories of design can thus be defined for which I use the terms con figurative, expansive, and distributive—terms that I believe to be descriptive of the actual handling of the design elements.

  1. When the animal to be represented is shown with an essentially animal-like silhouette, perhaps occupy ing a great part of the decorated field but not distorted so as to fill it entirely, and still exhibits the character istics of the art style, it can be considered an example of configurative design (Fig. 6).

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Fig. 6. Woven spruce root hat, Haida. A configurative design of a split wolf is painted around the hat in black, red, and blue-green.
  1. When an animal is distorted, split, or rearranged to fit into a given space, but the identity of the essential body parts is apparent and to some extent their ana tomical relationship to one another is maintained, the resulting arrangement can be considered an example of expansive design (Fig. 7).

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Fig. 7. Woven spruce root hat, Haida. An expansive design representing a beaver is painted in black and red.
  1. When the parts of the represented animal are so arranged as completely to fill the given space, conse quently destroying any recognizable silhouette and ignoring natural anatomical relationships, the arrange ment can be called a distributive design. Though it may represent a particular animal and may consist of elements representative of that animal, the require ments of space filling have so distorted it that it is difficult or impossible to identify the abstracted animal or the exact symbolism of the parts (Fig. 8).

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Fig. 8. Woven spruce root hat, Tlingit. Slightly more than half the design is shown as if flattened out. The short lines extending from the rims indicate (a) the front and (b) the back of the design.

It is the purpose of this book to describe some of those stylistic characteristics of Northwest Coast Indian art which have heretofore escaped analysis. None of the principles of representation that have been so well described in the literature will be reviewed, except as they relate directly to organization and form.

Unless otherwise noted, all images and text are: 2009 Chief Seattle Arts
Last modified: November 09, 2014