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.
Killer Whale is a common crest and being among many groups of the Northwest Coast, and one of the most prevalent depictions in the artwork. In some Haida oral traditions, Raven-Finned Killer Whale is a whale-chief and characterized by a Raven-headed dorsal fin. There are also Haida depictions of two-, three-, and even five-finned Killer Whales. It has been suggested that these supernatural figures may have originated from sightings of whale pods surfacing, with multiple dorsal fins visible above the water. Killer Whale’s familial bonds and skillfulness in teamwork can oftentimes lead to associations with communication, family, unity, and travel. Killer Whale is generally identified by a large ovoid eye, blowhole, dorsal fin, and tail flukes.
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.