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.
Raven is one of the most recognized figures in Northwest Coast art and oral tradition. Viewed oftentimes as a transformer and a trickster, Raven is the hero of many adventures such as the release of light into the world and the discovery of mankind. As a trickster figure, Raven can be celebrated for his cleverness, wit, and mischievous nature. In some oral traditions, Raven possesses the ability to shape-shift and is often depicted with a sense of humor and playfulness. Raven is identified by a thick, straight beak and the lack of plumage or horns on the head. Oftentimes, Raven will be depicted with a ball of light in his beak.
Wolf is a principal crest among many Northwest Coast cultures and in many regions is a figure related to hunting and fishing. Among the Tlingit, Wolf is one of the two main clans, the other being Eagle. To Tsimshian groups, Wolf is one of four main clans. Wolf is often connected to Killer Whale, with both animals exhibiting similar hunting and familial patterns. Some oral traditions describe Wolf’s ability to transform into Killer Whale. Among the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Wolf Dance is an important Winter Ceremony. Initiates are kidnapped by a supernatural Wolf pack and reintroduced to society upon their return where new dances, songs, and stories are performed and meant to be passed down to later generations. In Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, the Wolf Dance is one of the few dances where women wear carved Wolf headdresses.