To Be Native in the Northwest


For Native peoples of the Northwest, as with other cultures, artwork is a form of storytelling and space for expression. Today, we’re still creating in ways that share and celebrate history and tradition. Formline design, for instance—a familiar Northwest Native style of two dimensional outlines—is abundant in the region. Formlines are always swelling, always diminishing, endlessly transforming—ideal for an outlook on life that celebrates the vitality of all things. It’s a worldview that embraces spirit in all things and dismisses hierarchy.

Formline Design in Carving (Artist: David Boxley, Tsimshian)
Samish Formline Design on Drum

You can see formline design being used in Northwest Native Art in wooden carvings and in capes that many peoples wear during special ceremonies.

In case you were wondering... 

What does it mean when someone says low man on the totem pole? Is that an insult in Native cultures? 

Each totem pole is different. So to understand the meaning behind its figures, you need to know the pole’s history and the family from which it came. The phrase “low man on the totem pole” suggests a universal hierarchy in the order of their figures on totem poles—which is hardly the case.

"Leaders, women, are always at the bottom of a totem pole – holding the people up."

Chairman Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish


Are those dogs carved on the front of Native boats?

Pro tip: Natives never call a canoe a “boat.” (If you’re lucky enough to be in one, and you call it a boat —you may soon find yourself swimming.). The canoe is an integral component of Northwest Native culture. Northwest Native communities have developed over thousands of years intimate relationships with the waters surrounding them. Don’t get us wrong, we love canines—ask us about rez dogs sometime!—but the fronts of our canoes are not inspired by them. In fact, Edward Curtis actually noted this fact:“It is frequently assumed that the prows of North Coast canoes are carved in imitation of a dog's head, but the Natives deny any intentional resemblance. The notch in the top of the prow, dividing it into two sections suggestive of an animal's ears, is simply a rest for the shaft of a spear or harpoon.”


I feel like a see a lot of Native art these days. Why is it trendy?

The art world is a space where Native people are leading by proudly practicing their traditions while ever expanding what it means to be a Native artist. Native art is often misused in mainstream media and that has led to broad misunderstandings of cultures. In their journey to create, Native artists are just like any other artists, seeking to share an expression, a story, a moment or a feeling. But they have a deep responsibility to reconcile in their work. That is to honor their cultural traditions and relationships while pushing their practice forward. In times that daunt many, Native people and artists are excited by that challenge and are producing work that is meaningful and invigorating.

Tlingit artist Preston Singletary shares how we weaves his cultural heritage into his work with glass.

“Art has this special capacity to challenge us, wake us up, shift imagery, inspire powerful emotions, and point directly at social ills. Our Native communities have a wealth of cultural assets through which we can claim space and reconnect. Artists, dancers, musicians, and storytellers help keep the momentum alive: a testament to the creativity and resilience of First Peoples. ”
Lulani Arquette, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation
To Be Native in the Northwest

Lands and Water





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