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.
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.
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.