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.
A minor crest figure (among certain Kwakwaka’wakw clans, for example), Butterfly is an increasingly prevalent figure in contemporary Northwest Coast art. In one Haida oral tradition from Masset, Butterfly is Raven’s travelling companion and spokesman, also acting as a scout who leads Raven to food sources and uncovers hiding spots. To some, the remarkable life cycle of the Butterfly can represent change, renewal, and rebirth. Butterfly is usually identified by a curling proboscis, rounded wings, and often accompanied by a floral motif.