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Most have seen the beautiful jewelry created by the native people of the American Southwest. By contrast, the distinctive jewelry of the Northwest Coast, though highly prized by those in the know, is less familiar to the general population. I hope that this brief article will help jewelry lovers learn to recognize and appreciate this wonderful art form.
Raven Transforming. Bracelet by Don Yeomans, 1992. Haida-Cree-Metìs. From "North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment" by Lois Shurr Dubin.
Modern day Northwest Coast Indian jewelry developed as a natural extension of the indigenous art forms of the region. The geographical area being discussed is the northernmost reaches of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, Vancouver Island, and Coastal British Columbia extending nearly to the Alaska border. Before the coming of the European people this area was home to many tribal groups with widely varying languages and traditions, yet bound by a larger culture. These tribal groups are identified by many names including Coast Salish, Haida, Tlingit, Makah, and others (1). In Canada the indigenous tribal groups are collectively referred to as First Nations, just as they are referred to as Native Americans in the United States. When discussing their jewelry, however, Indian is still the most commonly used terminology.
The Northwest Coastal peoples lived in a very rich ecosystem, where dense primeval forests met the sea. Food was plentiful, and although these people did engage in some small-scale agriculture, the abundance of the region easily met their needs without a heavy reliance on cultivated crops. Seafood, especially salmon, was a mainstay of their diets, along with game from the forest and wild plants, including berries. They hunted whales using powerful sea-going canoes and traveled widely throughout the region, trading with other groups as far east as the Great Plains and as far south as California. They lived in villages of ornately decorated wooden homes, usually with totem poles near the door identifying clan affiliations. Clothing was made not only from furs and treated hides, but also from finely worked and woven cedar bark and from the wool of mountain goats. Theirs was the largest concentration of non-agricultural people ever to exist, with a culture considered to have been the most sophisticated in North America, with the possible exception of some in Mexico (1, 2).
Kwakwaka'wakw dancers assembled for the sacred winter dance ceremonial. Raven, sea eagle, mountain goat, grizzly bear, wasp, and orca clans are represented. 1914. From "North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment" by Lois Shurr Dubin.
Rank was clearly designated within the formal social hierarchy as hereditary nobility, commoners, or slaves. Specialized workers, such as carvers, were chosen by their talents and supported in their artistic endeavors by the group as a whole, although most men carved. Powerful shamans directed the spiritual lives of these people, performing rituals of transformation and healing. One of the most fascinating customs of the region was the potlatch. These events (which typically occurred during the long, dark, cold, wet winters) were generally given in honor of a particular individual, who achieved clan identification and honors at these ceremonies. Those hosting potlatches saved for years to acquire enough goods to perform their duties. Hosts gained status by generously gifting their guests and sometimes freeing slaves. The more they unburdened themselves of property by bestowing it on others, the greater their power and status within the community. One category of gift which was frequently given at these grand events was jewelry, especially bracelets (2, 3).
Tlingit potlatch guests. From "Totems to Turquoise" by Chalker.
Men posing with potlatch gifts to be distributed. Note the silver bracelets on cedar poles, blankets, woven hats, and tin and enamel wares. Circa 1910. From "Totems to Turquoise" by Chalker.
Bracelets stacked for potlatch distribution at Alert Bay in late 1800s. From "North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment" by Lois Shurr Dubin.
Before European explorers and settlers brought new materials to the area, the precious metal of these native people was copper. Copper was worked into bracelets, breastplates, and other ornaments. It played an important role in shamanic rituals. Mountain goat horn was carved into bracelets, sometimes inlaid with shell. Abalone shell, traded up from California, was inlaid into many sculpted objects - containers, masks, headdresses - and sometimes bits of abalone were glued to faces for special occasions. Stone and bone were also carved into amulets, pins to hold robes or blankets securely, and as ornaments for body piercings. Jewelry such as arm bands, anklets, necklaces, bracelets, and rings was worn both for decoration and for its symbolic or healing properties (3, 4).
Mountain Goat Horn Bracelets, inlaid with shell. Tlingit or Coast Salish, c. 1800. From "Totems to Turquoise" by Chalker.
Copper bracelet with gold inlay. The gold is believed to have been a later addition to this very old bracelet, which was probably originally inlaid with abalone. From "Totems to Turquoise" by Chalker.
Tlingit copper and abalone bracelet, prior to 1896. From "Totems to Turquoise" by Chalker.
These people's fascination for elaborate decoration and ornamentation extended to their own bodies. Slaves were forbidden to alter their physical appearance in any way, but everyone else was decorated following puberty in ways that denoted family, clan, and spiritual affiliations. The elite classes were permitted the greatest freedom in this artistic expression, and of course had the economic resources to pursue it the most fully. Ears, noses, and lips were pierced and sometimes extended with large plugs. The plugs worn through the bottom lip (common among women) were called labrets. Tattooing was common among both sexes, as well. The tattooing was especially concentrated over important joints, such as the wrists, as these were considered weaker areas of the body, prone to loss of vital forces and spiritual energy. The presence of clan tattoos was a safeguard against this loss. Some of these groups shaped the heads of their infants using constant gentle pressure to flatten the front of the skull and cause it to become permanently peaked at the crown (3).
A Kwakwaka'wakw girl wearing abalone earrings and a cedar bark cloak, circa 1914. From "Totems to Turquoise" by Chalker.
Northwest Coastal groups quickly adopted the use of new materials after their early contacts with European culture. These consummate traders and artists immediately recognized the virtues of iron and steel tools. They were also quick to recognize the beauty of new materials for use in body adornment. They traded for copper sheets and wire, so no longer had to prospect for nuggets of native copper. They developed an appreciation for silver and gold, as well, which were both easier to work and more durable than copper. The earliest silver jewelry was fashioned from coins (4).
Two 19th century European-influenced silver bracelets. The bracelet on the left is Haida, and earlier. The bracelet on the right is believed to be Tlingit and is a little later. It reflects more Indian styling. From 'The Box of Daylight'
Bracelets made of silver or gold quickly became the most favored type of jewelry used to continue indigenous traditions. The bracelets are believed to have become a way of protecting the vulnerable wrist joints with clan symbols, replacing the tattoos and labrets which attracted stares and made native women feel self-conscious when they visited European settlements. The earliest of these bracelets sometimes echoed European designs introduced on coins or in the art of sailor's scrimshaw, but the native design aesthetic quickly reasserted itself and blossomed in this new incarnation (3, 4).
Francine Hunt in 1914. Her husband assisted anthropologists in the collection and documentation of tribal artifacts. From "Totems to Turquoise" by Chalker.
The art of the Northwest Coast is unique. Created in both two and three dimensional formats, it was traditionally carved and/or painted onto wooden surfaces, sculpted into wood, and applied as decorations painted on or engraved into the surfaces of every imaginable material, including the bodies of the people themselves. Typically, the motifs represent real or magical creatures which inhabited the known world of the Northwest. The most important themes of this art are transformation and duality, and often two creatures, or two aspects of the same creature, are shown occupying the same space (5).
Diving whale amulet, with tail also representing the face and hands of a human. Carved of whale tooth inlaid with abalone, c. 1820-1850. Nisga'a. From "North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment" by Lois Sherr Dubin.
Although this style of art can be divided into varying categories based on the "realism" with which the animals are depicted, the use of line and the division of space remain constant, with every part of the available space filled with pattern and form. Sometimes the animal occupies a "natural" shape. More often, the creature is stylized and divided, with the most important aspects of its physical form or spiritual nature emphasized and rearranged in a fascinating foreshadowing of Cubism. Three dimensional forms are flattened, with a distortion of perspective which brings that which is normally unseen forward into view or which creates a fractured symmetry. The fracturing of symmetry and the use of nearly mirrored images creates a tight, dynamic harmony which is oddly violent and unsettling even while it expresses transformation, unity, and joy (5, 6). The most important underlying principle of this art form is "energy firmly contained" (7, pg. 86).
Bill Reid Raven, Bear, and Frog Silver Brooch, 1957. From "Bill Reid" by Doris Shadbolt.
The most easily identifiable characteristic of this art is what has been called the "formline." The formline is a black line which twists and curves continuously throughout the entire artwork, broadening and thinning, but never disappearing. It is the background, or "negative space" which binds the rest of the elements together. Within the boundaries of the formline are distinctive formal shapes that are used over and over again to fill space and which represent the characteristics of the animals. These are known as "ovoids," "eyebrows," and "U forms" (5).
This flattened Haida bracelet, shows the classic formline, ovoids, eyebrows, and U forms. From "Northwest Coast Indian Art" by Bill Holm.
Northwest Coast jewelers are most often skilled wood and/or stone carvers, as well. The bracelets and other jewelry objects are usually created from flat or subtly shaped pieces of silver or gold which is then engraved ("carved") with the design. Contemporary artist Don Yeomans says, "For me, a Northwest Coast artist is someone who has mastered the two-dimensional and three-dimensional design field in any size and any medium. The only difference I notice in going from one material to another is the compression of time" (3, pg. 379). One of the characteristics of the finest Northwest Coast jewelry is that it is "deeply carved." This term refers not only to the depth and quality of the engraving, but also to the depth of feeling, energy, and expression captured and contained within the carving (3).
Thunderbirds and Tsonokwa engraved silver bracelet by Lloyd Wadhams, 1965. Kwakwaka'wakw. From "North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment" by Lois Sherr Dubin.
The earliest known master jeweler from this region was Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920). During his lifetime he bridged the transition from traditional Haida culture to the more modern European-dominated world. Born into Haida nobility, he became a Christian, survived the smallpox which killed as many as 90% of the indigenous people during those years, and traded his work widely throughout the region, to other native groups and to the white world. His work is extremely valuable, shown in many museums around the world, and prized in private collections (1, 3).
Charles Edenshaw Dragonfly Bracelet with Beaver Teeth , late 19th century. From "The Box of Daylight" by Bill Holm
Charles Edenshaw Bear Bracelet. From "Bill Reid" by Karen Duffek.
Charles Edenshaw Bracelet. From "The Legacy" by Macnair, Hoover, & Neary.
Bill Reid (1920-1998) was a great-nephew of Charles Edenshaw. He was raised outside the native culture, though born to a Haida mother and an American-German-Scots father. In fact, he was not fully aware of his Haida ancestry until he was in his late teens, as his mother had rejected her ethnic and cultural roots and reinvented herself as a highly educated middle-class European woman. Reid awakened to the art of jewelry when he was 28 years old. Prior to that time he had pursued an unsatisfying career in broadcasting. He studied European techniques, heavily influenced by Scandinavian industrial design, but at the same time carefully analyzed old Haida collections stored in museums, Toronto, and New York. He trained with Haida master wood carvers and studied totem poles. Ultimately, with scholars Bill Holm and Wilson Duff, he helped invent the language that now describes the principles of Northwest Coast art, codified its traditional forms, and revitalized the native art community. Through his efforts and supreme personal artistic achievements, he brought the traditional art of his mother's people into major museums, galleries, personal collections, and into the modern world. His own jewelry, as can be seen by the following examples, was never bound by pure tradition. He incorporated the techniques of overlay, repoussé, and casting, fusing them with traditional engraving. Some of his work departed almost entirely from the Northwest Coast language of design, yet maintained the tension, complexity, and transformative themes of his roots. His work has been compared with that of Cellini and Faberge (1, 6, 7).
Bill Reid gold and fossilized ivory bracelet, 1964. From "Bill Reid" by Doris Shadbolt.
Bill Reid gold and abalone Hawk Brooch, 1971. From "Bill Reid" by Karen Duffek.
Bill Reid gold Dogfish Brooch, c. 1959. From "Bill Reid" by Doris Shadbolt.
Bill Reid gold and diamond necklace, 1969. The central portion can be detached and worn as a brooch. From "Bill Reid" by Karen Duffek.
Some of the best-known contemporary artists include Robert Davidson, Jim Hart, Norman Tait, Lyle Wilson, Corey Moraes, Dempsey Bob, Will Burkhardt, and Marven Tallio. Beautiful carved jewelry continues to be created along the Northwest Coast, by traditional people using traditional techniques. Their art is achieving greater recognition worldwide as examples appear in museums, galleries, and collections everywhere. A current exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City entitled "Totems to Turquoise" compares and contrasts the jewelry of the Southwest and Northwest Coast Indians. This exhibition will be running through July 10, 2005. A book has been published which describes the exhibit, the cultural exchange program that inspired it, and the artworks represented there (1). After closing in New York, this exhibit will be at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia, from Oct. 1, 2005, to Jan. 2, 2006, then move to Los Angeles, where it will be on view at the Museum of Western Heritage from April 2, 2006 to August 27, 2006.
Robert Davidson Bracelet. From "The Legacy" by Macnair, Hoover, & Neary.
Killer Whale Family by Richard Adkins, 1994. Haida. From "North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment" by Lois Shurr Dubin.
I would like to express my appreciation to Karen Duffek, Bill McLennan, and Jennifer Webb at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology and to Claire E. Gilbert at the Royal British Columbia Museum for their generous assistance during my research for this article. Supreme examples of this artwork can be seen in the collections at both of these institutions and contemporary artists are represented in their gift shops.