Northwest Native American arts and crafts

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This Northwest Native American Mask can be found at FreeSpirit Gallery
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Northwest Native American tribes each offer distinctive artistic styles

At one time, the Pacific Northwest was home to over 70 Native American tribes. These tribes spoke different languages and settled in the two thousand mile stretch from the Alaskan panhandle to northern California. These tribes had an extensive coastal trading network years and years before Europeans arrived in this country. The tribes were, and are, well-known for Northwest Native American arts and crafts, which are as distinctive as each of the individual tribes.


The artwork of the Northwest Native American tribes is easily identifiable by the distinguishing characteristics and designs that are particular to one tribe or another. The Northwest Indian artists are probably best known for their woodcarving, their idiosyncratic basketry that includes cape making and hats, ceremonial masks, weavings and totem poles. Northwest coastal art is bold and stylized and has remained popular over the years.  

Northwest Indian arts and crafts that are highly in demand include the Chilkat blanket, which is a traditional Indian robe made of merino wool, bark and yarn. This blanket is connected to the Chilkat, which is a northern tribe in Canada that participated in the northwest coast trade. Goats were hunted and killed, and a frame was constructed on which the blanket was woven and painted from the goat skin. The design often depicted a bear. The Chilkat blanket is generally black, white, yellow and blue and is only used for ceremonies. It took a year to make this blanket, which was very much revered by the northwest Indian nobility.  

Totem poles are a tradition among the Pacific northwest coast Indian tribes. Indians in the southwest did not carve totem poles because they did not have access to large trees. Totem poles are unique to the tribe that creates them. Totems were sometimes made to stand 40 feet, created out of single pieces of cedar.

Totem poles were given their name by the Europeans for totemism, which refers to a belief system in which people have a mystical relationship or kinship with animals or plants or other spirit being. The totem is believed to intermingle with a group and serves as its symbol.

Masks were also crafted and worn by native Americans as a part of religious rituals as well as for festivals. Many Northwest Native American tribes carved the masks out of wood and decorated them with fur and leather.  

Basket hats were worn by the Indian tribes west of the Rocky Mountains and were sometimes called basketry hats or twined hats. Depending on the tribe, the basket hat was made in a particular shape and style. The Indian tribes in California usually made small fez-shaped caps while the tribes further north constructed large conical or brimmed shaped hats out of cedar bark or spruce root.

The basket hat and its design revealed the status of the wearer status in his tribe, his achievements and what clan he came from. Northern California Indian males also wore flicker headdresses when they were dancing. These hats were constructed from leather strips that were wide and decorated with the red scalps of woodpeckers.

Jewelry styles varied depending on which tribe the individual was in but this art form did not vary as significantly as did other tribal arts and crafts. Jewelry was made from copper, beads, shells, amber, turquoise, silver, ivory and a variety of other stones and were in demand long before Europeans came to America. After colonization, the jewelry trade stayed strong. The two basic kinds of jewelry are beadwork and metalwork.

Northwest native American arts and crafts are distinguished by the use of copper, stone, wood, shapes that are called ovoids  (egg shaped), S forms, and U forms. Patterns that you will see often include eagles, ravens, humans, thunderbirds and sisiutls, which are legendary creatures, and abstract forms. The thunderbird is considered to be a supernatural birth of strength and power.

The sisiutl is a mythological creature that factors strongly in the northwest coastal tribes arts and crafts. It is the god of warrior invincibility, guardian of the house of the sky people and a magic war canoe that is capable of going underground.




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