Northwest: 20th Century to Present

Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

Toward the Future: Finding a New Way

"I Can See In All Directions" Eagle Mask
William Kuhnley (Nuu-chah-nulth)

By the early 1900s, traditional village life on the Northwest Coast was rapidly disappearing. Native people who once hunted and fished for a living now worked for logging companies or in canneries. Children were sent to boarding schools and taught to abandon their Native culture. Even the potlatch declined after Canada banned the practice in 1884. A few Native traditions were lost altogether during this time of transition, yet many were kept alive. Some families held potlatches in secret. A number of artists made a living from the tourist market, carving wood, silver, gold, and argillite and passing their knowledge down family lines.

With the end of the potlatch ban in 1951, a new generation of Northwest Coast artists emerged. Inspired by Native art of the past, they created works not only for sale but also for ceremonial use in their own communities. In 1969, Haida carver Robert Davidson raised a totem pole at Masset in the Queen Charlotte Islands—the area's first in nearly a century. That act of cultural and political rebirth has been followed by many others. Today, Northwest Coast artists continue to draw strength from their Native heritage, even as they seek to chart new paths.

Tourist Trade

By the late 1800s, tourists could reach ports such as Sitka, Alaska, by steamship. To meet the demand for souvenirs, Native jewelers turned visitors' coins into decorative objects such as spoons, brooches, and bracelets. Shark tooth earrings might be worn by chiefs or sold as curios—a Native art form at the crossroads between two cultures.

One popular subject of Haida carvings for the tourist market was the Bear Mother myth, in which a woman is seduced by a bear and has a child in the form of a bear cub.

Training for Tomorrow

Northwest Coast artists today are giving new life to traditional forms, reinvigorating styles passed down from generation to generation. As in the past, people of different cultural backgrounds often learn from one another. Nuu-chah-nulth artist William Kuhnley was trained by Haida carver Robert Davidson, and Don Yeomans has studied with Gitxsan silversmith Phil Janze.

Some of today's leading artists are graduates of the Kitanmax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art, founded in 1970 in Hazelton, British Columbia. Many others have trained in non-Native schools of art and design. Haida artist Bill Reid began studying jewelry design at a technical school in Toronto. Throughout his life, he experimented with both traditional and contemporary styles.