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.
Sun is not a common crest figure but does occur as a crest amongst the Kwakwaka’wakw. Therefore, Sun is often depicted by artists of this nation. The designs can be quite dramatic, with pronounced and elaborate rays. To the Haida, oral traditions suggest that Sun (along with Moon and all Light) was stolen by Raven and released into the sky to illuminate the world. Sun is often, though not always, portrayed as a masculine form and viewed as the counter-figure to Moon. Depicted with any number of rays surrounding a humanoid face, Sun is, at times, emblematic of life-giving, creativity, and benevolence. In some depictions, Sun will have the face of Eagle or Hawk, and may have rays shown in the shape of human hands.
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.
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.