The Northwest Coast Collection

By: M. R. Harrington

Originally Published in 1912

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AN ethnological collection from the Indian tribes of the Northwest Coast of America, constituting a part of the George G. Heye collection never before exhibited, has recently been thrown open to the public view in the hall adjoining the Museum lecture room. The visitor is struck at once by the difference between the specimens shown here and those in the other Indian collections; they seem as if they were products of another continent.

Four knives with animal head on the handles
Fig. 4. — War knives of the Tlingit.
Image Number: 12671

The difference is due to the fact that the group of tribes scattered among the islands and along the shores and inlets of the Pacific from Washington northward and westward to Controller Bay in southeastern Alaska have developed a form of culture peculiarly their own, including a style of art, a system of heraldry, in fact a way of living, differing widely from anything known among Indians elsewhere. While it is true the ideas underlying most of their peculiar arts and customs may be found in simpler forms among tribes in other parts of the continent, these people have developed them to such an extent and in such an individual and peculiar way that they seem to be a people apart.

Their country is blessed with a mild climate, thanks to the Japan current, and the growth of timber, mainly evergreens, is particularly heavy and luxuriant. Chief among the trees is the cedar, here attaining gigantic proportions, the wood of which splits easily and is easily carved —at the same time retaining some degree of durability.

The many fiords and inlets swarmed with fish, each kind in season, and shellfish of many kinds were found in abundance along the shores, while the woods teemed with terrestrial game. Thus the people were furnished a good living with small effort, and found time to develop the strange conventional art and the complex institutions, traditions and myths for which they are noted. They became, with the cedar at their command, by far the best wood carvers on the continent, as well as notable weavers and workers in copper. A well defined system of caste and nobility was in full operation, and the wealthy had even acquired the luxury of slaves—captives taken from other tribes and held in bondage. Commerce and trade had reached a degree of development rare in aboriginal America. Heavy laden freight canoes bearing products for exchange were continually plying up and down the shores, while the simple natives of the interior were visited yearly by traders from the coast tribes in search of furs. Oblong plates of copper, embossed and engraved according to conventional rules, were used to represent a certain amount of property, and formed a near approach to real money; while furs, skins and even slaves were used as common mediums of exchange.

The people lived, throughout the area, in massive gable roofed houses made of planks split from cedar and spruce, the façade often decorated with huge mythological paintings and carvings and fronted by towering heraldic columns or “totem poles.”

The great canoes in which the people travelled, traded and made war, were made of single huge logs of red cedar. Their great size some of them were nearly one hundred feet long—their high prows and sterns, their graceful lines, give them first place in native American naval architecture.

To understand and appreciate the art of the region as shown in the collection, we must understand its motives, which lie in the mythology and heraldry of the people; for the fantastic animal figures which form the basis of almost every design, often conventionalized and elaborated beyond recognition, are usually one of two things—they either represent the crest or coat of arms of a family, or illustrate an incident of the old legends.

These old tales, rich in the adventures and experiences of supernatural persons, animals and monsters, form an inexhaustible mine of subjects for the artist, who chooses some particular, well known happening as the basis of each design. The heraldic carvings are more difficult to explain, because they depend largely upon the social system, which differs considerably among the different tribes; but an example from one particular tribe, the Chilkats of southeastern Alaska, may make the matter clearer. The Chilkats are divided into two clans, the Eagle and the Raven, each of which is composed of a number of families of graded rank to which animal names are given. Thus in the Eagle clan, the Bear family is considered “royal,” or highest in rank, then follow in succession the Killer-whale, Wolf, Eagle, Shark, Fish-hawk and Duck families. Similarly, in the Raven clan, we find the Whale family at the head; then the Raven, Frog, Monster Worm, Crow and Giant families.

Drawing of a plate with a Raven crest
Fig. 5. — Copper plate of the Tlingit Indians, bearing the crest of the Raven Family.
Image Number: 12679

Thus it happens that a member of the Pear family can use the bear as a crest and carve and paint the conventional bear design on his belongings; while a member of the Shark family has the shark for a crest, and so on.

In practice, however, the members of the Bear family may use the Killer-whale and Wolf crests too and carve them on their totem pole, as these families are related to them; and there are other complications—but the general principle has been illustrated.

A good example of the use of a crest is the wooden helmet representing a bear’s head, illustrated on the cover of this journal. This was one of the valued heirlooms of the Bear family of the Chilkat tribe, by whom it was used in war and ceremonies as a standard or emblem, much as the. Romans used the eagle. In war one of the bravest of the leading men in the family was selected as standard bearer, to whom fell the duty of wearing the helmet. In battle he kept constantly near the chief, and continually imitated the actions of the bear to encourage his fellow warriors. In ceremonies the helmet was worn by dancers representing the family. Should a quarrel arise at a festival, the host’s family helmet and other insignia were held up between the angry parties, who were then compelled to abandon their dispute out of respect to their host’s totem.

The use of a legendary subject in art is well illustrated by a carved pipe from one of the tribes of the Tlingit group. It was used in a ceremony to commemorate the deaths of members of the tribe in the treacherous tide-rips and whirlpools of the narrow entrance to Lituya Bay. A mythical monster named Kah Lituya was supposed to live in an ocean cavern near the passage, and claimed dominion over the bay. He resented any approach to his domain, and tried to engulf all invading canoes. Those whom he captured took the form of bears and became his slaves. When the approach of canoes was heralded by lookouts from their watchtower on the near-by mountain Kah Lituya with his slaves grasped the water and shook it, causing waves to rise and engulf the unwary voyagers.

At one end of the pipe is carved a frog-like figure representing the monster, at the other, one of his bear slaves. They are in the act of grasping and shaking the water, the waves of which are represented by two brass ridges. A canoe cut out of brass is shown just beneath the waves.

In similar fashions a large proportion of the designs, carved, painted and woven, may be interpreted by the initiated.

Perhaps the most picturesque objects in the collection are the weird masks carved of wood, of which there are a considerable number. They are made to represent the personages, supernatural animals and monsters of the old legends, who are impersonated in dances, which reproduce their traditional behavior. Sometimes portions of the legends were acted out in full dramatically, the parts being taken by dancers appropriately masked. Many masks, to interest the public, were provided with movable eyes and jaws manipulated with strings by the wearer; while others, the compound or transformation masks, had one face so arranged that it would fall apart and fold back at the proper time, revealing an entirely different face inside. Now and then masks are seen which are skillful portraits of living human faces, but most of them are purposely grotesque.

Also used in dances are the fine headdresses with carved wooden fronts. The front pieces are beautifully carved to represent legendary characters, and are tastefully inlaid with abalone shell (Fig. 6). A double crown, the outer of woodpecker feathers, the inner of long walrus whisker bristles, completes the circuit of the head, while down the back hang many ermine skins. Such headdresses are said to have originated among the Tsimshians, but they are widely used by well-to-do men and women of the other tribes in their dances. Sometimes soft down feathers are placed in the cavity at the top of the headdress, so as to float out like snow with the movements of the dancers, producing a very pleasing effect.

Among many other objects of unusual interest in this rich collection may be seen a number of the famous beautifully woven Chilkat blankets. Such blankets were formerly made by several bands of the Tlingit family and some of the neighboring tribes, but for some time past the Chilkats alone have retained the art, and have given their name to the product. Instead of a loom a frame of the simplest form is used for weaving, consisting of a cross bar supported at either end by an upright stick. A thong is stretched just below the cross bar, and over this the warp strands, cut the required length, are doubled, thus hanging in position for the woof to be woven across, which is accomplished with the fingers alone, without the aid of a shuttle. The warp is a two strand cord of shredded and twisted yellow cedar bark covered with mountain goat’s wool, while the woof is made of mountain goat’s wool alone. The pattern to be woven is painted, full size, on a board, of which two specimens are on exhibition. The weaver sits in front of the section upon which she is working, the pattern board within easy reach. As the design is being worked out measurements are made from time to time with a piece of cedar bark laid over the pattern on the board and then compared with the work on the blanket. Sometimes a blanket takes as much as six months to weave. Among the examples now exhibited one was made by the Tsimshians, and its very intricate pattern, a family crest, is said to represent the Thunder Bird; the others are of Chilkat make, and show variations of the obscure Halibut pattern. This does not occur as a crest among the Chilkats, so perhaps these blankets were made to trade with the Indians among whom the Halibut crest is used.

Belonging to the same class of objects as the blanket is a very fine ceremonial shirt of the same Chilkat weave, with a pattern representing the mythical Sea-bear, which, like most of the woven designs, is so obscured by purely decorative elements that it is with difficulty that the conventional outlines of the bear can be followed out and identified.

Part of a headpiece with a large beaver head and paws
Fig. 6. — Frontpiece of a ceremonail headdress, representing the beaver.
Image Number: 12673

In close proximity to the Chilkat blankets, the visitor to the museum may see three oblong sheets of copper, which, although of little value in themselves, are used among the Indians to represent large amounts of property, much as bank notes represent a certain number of dollars. They were highly prized, for the possession of good ” copper ” added much to a man’s reputation for distinction and wealth. Some of the finest, beaten out by hand from nuggets of native copper, have been sold by one wealthy Indian to another for slaves, blankets or other property worth several thousand dollars.

Sometimes a wealthy chief, insulted by a rival, would break and destroy a “copper,” for the purpose, as the Indians expressed it, of “wiping away the stain of the insult with something valuable.” Whereupon the rival, if he wished to preserve his dignity, felt obliged to destroy or give away enough of his own property to equal in value the ruined “copper.” One of the ” coppers ” on exhibition shows the Raven crest engraved upon its surface (Fig. 5); another that of the Bear, while a third is plain.

The exhibition also shows the peculiar styles of clothing worn by these tribes; their vicious looking war-knives and their armor of walrus hide and wood; the different kinds of fishing implements, the highly decorated wooden storage boxes and the ornate food dishes; the characteristic baskets used for many purposes; the carefully executed carvings in slate; the paraphernalia of the medicine man; and the implements made of stone and bone. Many cases are devoted to special collections from the various coast tribes; and by way of contrast, there is shown also a large collection from the Tahltan Indians of the interior of British Columbia, whose manufactures, though powerfully influenced by the coast people, resemble in other respects those of the northern tribes in the middle west and in the east.

Among the tribes represented in the collection, besides the Tahltan, are the various Tlingit bands, including the Chilkats of blanket weaving fame, and the Yakutats, famous for their fine baskets; the Tsimshians with their kinsmen the Niska and Kitsan, all of whom ‘were noted as wood carvers and traders; the Haida, who prided themselves on their elaborate tatooing; the Bellacoola; the Kwakiutl tribes, including the Bellabella; and the Nootka tribes, including the Makah of Washington State. Among this last group, however, whose territory marks the southern limit of the true Northwest Coast culture, the characteristic products, except basketry, are much coarser and ruder in workmanship—they lack the artistic touch of the more northern people.


Cite This Article

Harrington, M. R.. "The Northwest Coast Collection." The Museum Journal III, no. 1 (March, 1912): 10-15. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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