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.
Eagle is an especially prominent figure in artwork on the Northwest Coast. There is a large population of eagles along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Eagle is one of two crests among the Haida and Tlingit, and one of the main crests among the Tsimshian and Heiltsuk. It is typically respected for extraordinary vision, in both the literal and figurative senses.
Eagle is considered one of the most sacred figures as it has been said to carry the prayers of the people to the Creator and Eagles are frequently referenced in ceremonial contexts. Eagle feathers and down are customarily used in a variety of different ceremonies such as honouring a respected guest. In Northwest Coast artwork, Eagle is often depicted with a hooked beak and small ears.