Dramatic eyes and striking faces, bold shapes and colors, luxurious fur this artwork dazzles the imagination. Although you might see it in a museum today, this object wasn’t made to be displayed indoors. Rather it was meant to sway and bob atop the head of a dancer as a story was reenacted in firelit ceremony. The materials that compose it and the imagery carved on it reveal much about the people and environment of the Northwest Coast region of North America.
The Northwest Coast region of North America is a narrow strip of forested land stretching from northern California to the Alaska Panhandle. It is sandwiched between majestic mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Within this area, inland waterways weave among lush northern rain forests. In the past, Native Americans here obtained their food, clothing, and shelter from the natural resources of this rich ecosystem. They relied on fishing, along with hunting and gathering, for their food supply.
The cultural resources created by Northwest Coast artists reflect the riches of the region. This frontlet a wooden forehead carving and attached headdress was made by the Bella Coola, or Nuxalk (nu-hawk). Most of the materials for it, such as wood, ermine fur, and sea lion whiskers, came from the dense forests and teeming waters. It is painted with red and blue-green pigments from plants and minerals.
Trade was another source of materials for Northwest Coast artworks. Trade with neighboring native groups brought abalone shell, from mollusks found on the California coast, and copper, a metal scarce and highly valued in the region. Buttons, cotton, and wool came through trade with Europeans, starting in the late 18th century.The homeland and present-day territory of the Bella Coola people is the Bella Coola Valley, on the central coast of British Columbia, Canada.
Abundant natural resources and a temperate climate meant Northwest Coast peoples did not face a constant struggle for survival. During the winter months, especially, they had time to develop complex cultural, social, and artistic traditions. Ceremonies became important activities, and art objects were central to the ceremonies.
Frontlets like this Bella Coola example included imagery and designs considered property of a specific family. The right to use a certain image, song, story, or dance, or a particular family name or rank, was bestowed during ceremonies such as the potlatch. A potlatch was held to celebrate an important occasion–marriage, the naming of a child, or the mourning of a death. The word “potlatch” means “to give.” At potlatches, family possessions were given away to the guests. Because wealth was measured by how much a family could give, not what they kept for themselves, distributing lots of gifts during a potlatch raised a family’s social status.
Certain objects were central to the potlatch ceremony. This frontlet would have been worn on the forehead of a dancer as part of an outfit. The dancer’s swaying movements, accompanied by music, caused the shiny shell inlays of teeth and eyes, the white ermine fur, and the graceful crown of sea lion whiskers (now missing) to flash and glow in the firelight, making for a dazzling performance. Fluffy eagle down, placed inside the ring of sea lion whiskers, drifted down as the dancer bobbed and tossed his head–a gesture of peace and friendship to those attending the ceremony.This frontlet from another Northwest Coast group, the Tsimshian (CHIM-she-en), was once part of a full headdress worn by both men and women during a potlatch.
Throughout the Northwest Coast region, rattles like this raven-shaped example were symbols of status as well as ceremonial objects.
The Bella Coola are well known for their skillful carving and bold sculpture. In fact, their work greatly influenced the art of their neighbors. Sharing and borrowing among Northwest Coast groups resulted in a strong regional style with bold shapes, outlines, and colors. Figures combining animal and human features were commonly used in ceremonies. Often such figures were a family’s crest, representing its ancestors and lineage.
In spite of the many similarities in Northwest Coast art, there are differences that make each group’s style distinctive. Bella Coola frontlets traditionally have a large central figure with smaller figures above and below. Also unique are the sharply angled facial features thrusting dramatically outward and emphasized by the contrasting red and blue-green colors favored by the Bella Coola.
The ovoid (egg-shaped) eye and strongly outlined eyebrow are common in Northwest Coast art. However, the sharply angled eyes and eyebrows are unique to Bella Coola work.
Research the animals of the Northwest Coast. Are they similar to animals in the area where you live? Are they different? Why do you think that is? (Compare climate, geography, etc.) In their artwork, the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast used imagery of animals in their region that had special meaning for them. What animals in your area have special meaning for you or are unique to the region and might inspire your artwork?
The Bella Coola frontlet is made of materials obtained from local natural resources and also from trade with other peoples. What natural resources (such as forests for wood, mines for minerals or metals) in your area might provide materials for creating an artwork or an object for some special use? How are these materials acquired today? Are they plentiful or scarce? Does scarcity make a material more valuable to its owner or more costly to obtain? Why do you think that is?
Talk with family members about your ancestors’ history. Where did they come from? What did they do for a living? Was their livelihood tied to the place where they lived (city or countryside)? What surprising things did they do in their lives? What stories did you learn that you did not know before? Using what you learned, can you develop a family tree? Have any traditions or skills been passed down from your ancestors? Share an interesting family story with your class.
There is more to explore! Learn about the plants, animals, and people of the Pacific Northwest by opening up one of these books:
Helman, Andrea. O is for Orca: A Pacific Northwest Alphabet Book. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1995.
National Audubon Society. National Audubon Society Regional Guide to the Pacific Northwest. New York: Knopf, 1998.
Press, Petra. Indians of the Northwest: Traditions, History, Legends, and Life. The Native Americans. Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2000.
Rodanas, Kristina. The Eagle’s Song: A Tale from the Pacific Northwest. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.