Northwest: Precontact

Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

Basketry Hat
Unknown artist (Haida)

First People: Early Northwest Coast Design

Long before the first Europeans came to the Northwest Coast, Native villages dotted coastal Alaska and British Columbia. Archeologists have shown that people have occupied the region for more than 10,000 years.

As early as AD 500, people lived in communal houses of wood, built in rows facing the ocean. They caught salmon, traveled in canoes, and made fish traps, baskets, and wooden bowls. Native groups traded with each other, and some grew wealthy. Traditions such as the potlatch ceremony emerged and shaped the bold ceremonial art that Northwest Coast culture is known for today.

An Ancient Art

The distinctive styles of Northwest Coast art have developed over many centuries. More than 2,000 years ago, people living in southwestern British Columbia made ornaments from bone, stone, and antler. Like later artists, they favored animal forms.

Man's Earrings
Unknown artist (Tlingit)

Jewels from the Sea

Northwest Coast artists have long prized abalone or Haliotis, a mollusk with a bright, iridescent shell. Much as turquoise adorns bracelets and belt buckles in the Southwest, shimmering abalone shell brightens Northwest Coast jewelry.

Early artists sometimes used local abalone shells but preferred a blue-green variety introduced through trade from California. The shell could be carved and displayed on its own or inlaid on horn, bone, wood, or metal.

Unknown artist (Tlingit)

Foreign Exchange

Northwest Coast people traded actively with other Native groups, exchanging exotic ornaments and raw materials such as walrus ivory, shell, and copper. Among the most sought-after trade items were tusk-shaped dentalium shells from the shores of Vancouver Island, which circulated up and down the coast and across to the Great Plains.

Different cultural groups exchanged design ideas as well.