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.
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.
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.