Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

Southwestern cultures emphasize unity, beauty, harmony, and balance—all ideals reflected in their art.


Southwest Native societies have complicated social structures. Tribes such as the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni include many divisions—by clan, gender, and ceremonial society, for example—but these groups overlap one another, creating a complex web of relationships. Many rituals and traditions further unite these divisions.

The cultural ideal of balance and harmony is reflected in the colors, patterns, symbols, and images in art—and in the process by which art is made. Because beauty cannot be separated from the larger ideal of harmony in the universe, creating art is a central part of a spiritually healthful life. Making art thus serves the same purpose as the sacred rituals it often depicts: to create balance in the individual, the community, and the natural world.

Community Life on the Northwest Coast

Map of the West Coast of Canada, with native groups labeled.

Native Northwest Coast jewelry motifs are rooted in centuries-old rituals and social forms.

In Northwest Coast Native societies, each extended family—or house group—strives to assert and maintain its historic status and ceremonial privileges. Toward this end, many people display crests—images of animal spirits such as wolves or killer whales. Crests, displayed on objects such as totem poles, blankets, or jewelry, proclaim the proud history of the house group and its connections to the supernatural world.

Dances, songs, and dramatizations of ancient stories also link people with the spirit world and inspire the creation of spectacular masks and costumes. Although social and economic pressures that followed European contact once seriously threatened these traditions, Native people have renewed their interest in ceremonial life, and in creating and displaying crest art.