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.
A deep-water fish, which held especially important significance to the Haida, Halibut is represented in Northwest Coast artwork and as a crest symbol for some nations. Halibut is respected for its nourishment and can be associated with wealth and stability and is often depicted in a two-dimensional form and is a common choice for designs on feast bowls and platters. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw, the ʼNa̱mg̱is trace their origins to a halibut-like being that came ashore after the great flood and transformed into a human. Halibut hooks were fashioned from two lashed pieces of wood with an upward tine or barb made of bone and, later, metal. Halibut hooks were decorated with sculpted images with intentions of luring the Halibut to the bait and were often baited with Octopus. Halibut is identified by a wide, diamond-shaped body, asymmetrical close-set eyes and downturned mouth.
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.