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.
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.
Bear is one of the most prevalent figures in Northwest Coast art and oral tradition. Bear is often considered to be a close relation to humankind and a link between the human and non-human realms due to physical characteristics such as appearance and expression, as well as anthropomorphic behaviours like nurturing young and standing on hind legs. Associated with strength and fierceness, Bears have been depicted as guardians and protectors of human heroes. Bear is identified by a wide mouth with prominent teeth, a short round snout with large nostrils, and clawed feet.
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 an ancestor. Ancestors are incredibly important in Northwest Coast culture; thus, you will often see human portraits in the artwork depicting an ancestor figure.
Freestanding 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.