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.
In oral traditions across the Northwest Coast, there are many human heroes and legends. These figures are depicted in many ways. Some figures might represent a chief or shaman while others are an ancestor. Ancestors are incredibly important in Northwest Coast culture; thus, you will often see human portraits in the artwork depicting an ancestor figure. Free-standing Human figures can range in size from small amulets to large-scale poles several feet high. As amulets, they are often a guardian symbol whereas the larger human figures can represent a welcoming figure. Human-like personifications of the sun and wind are common in Northwest Coast artwork as well.