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.
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.