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.
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.
Moon is not among the most common crest figures but is frequently depicted in the art of the Northwest Coast. Often holding significant symbolism and depicted in varying forms, the Moon can represent a celestial force that carries both spiritual and practical associations. To some, Moon is associated with peace and transformation, but on occasion is regarded as a protector and guardian. Many nations associate Moon with a feminine aspect. The Nuu-chah-nulth, whose year is comprised of thirteen lunar years, view Moon as a masculine figure. There is also a Nuu-chah-nulth oral tradition that recounts that lunar eclipses occur when a giant, supernatural Codfish or Lingcod tries to swallow the Moon, thereby momentarily blocking the light. In Nuxálk culture, the Moon appears frequently in the Winter Ceremonies. Most often characterized by humanoid features, Moon can be distinguished from Sun by a lack of prominent rays, instead bearing a rim or halo of design around the circumference. In some instances, a labret in the Moon’s bottom lip indicates feminine associations.