Indigenous artwork on the Pacific Northwest Coast often incorporates figures and animals that are related to crest symbols. Crests have been passed down through families and have varying meanings depending on the context and association with a nation, clan, or family. The figures depicted in contemporary Northwest Coast Indigenous artwork also have varying meanings but there are some common characteristics from a range of sources, including oral histories and artist descriptions.
Killer Whale is a common crest and being among many groups of the Northwest Coast, and one of the most prevalent depictions in the artwork. In some Haida oral traditions, Raven-Finned Killer Whale is a whale-chief and characterized by a Raven-headed dorsal fin. There are also Haida depictions of two-, three-, and even five-finned Killer Whales. It has been suggested that these supernatural figures may have originated from sightings of whale pods surfacing, with multiple dorsal fins visible above the water. Killer Whale’s familial bonds and skillfulness in teamwork can oftentimes lead to associations with communication, family, unity, and travel. Killer Whale is generally identified by a large ovoid eye, blowhole, dorsal fin, and tail flukes.
Thunderbird is not a primary crest figure amongst Northern Nations, instead being associated with southern nations like the Nuu-chah-nulth, Salish, and Kwakwaka’wakw. Some oral traditions suggest that Thunderbird preys on Killer Whales and lives in the peaks of the coastal mountains. Others recount that this supernatural figure creates the boom of thunder as he flaps his wings in flight and is said to shoot lightning snakes from his eyes. It is sometimes suggested to epitomize power and strength. Not to be confused with Eagle, Thunderbird is identified by an exaggerated crooked beak and prominent horns. Sometimes artists will depict Thunderbird with teeth, lightning motifs, or alongside Killer Whale.