Pacific Northwest Coast Culture and Art
For thousands of years, people like Suquamish leader Chief Seattle lived along the shores of what are now the states of Washington and Alaska in the United States and the province of British Columbia in Canada. This favorable living corridor is hemmed in to the east by the Coastal Mountains, to the west by the Pacific Ocean, and to the south by the Columbia River.
The regions resource-rich environment, with its mild, temperate climate and cornucopia of foodespecially salmon and berriesmade it easy for its people to establish permanent villages. The settled way of life, constant supply of food, and long winter rains also allowed them to develop a very advanced social and spiritual life that took advantage of a great variety of beautifully decorated objects, the best of which reached the level of the highest art. Northwest Coast art is on a par with the classical art of Greece, Rome, and Egypt. It was even a big influence on European Cubists and Surrealists, who saw in it a reflection of their aesthetic principles--thousands of years before Europeans developed them!
The Northwest Coast includes many cultures: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Nuxalk, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish. To the untrained eye, the art created by these different cultures has enough similarities to be mistaken for a single identity. But over thousands of years, each culture developed its own artistic style, myths, and ceremonies.
These cultures were wealthy enough to support full-time artists to create objects such as masks for ceremonies, totem poles to decorate buildings and denote lineages, and boxes and paddles for daily use. Outstanding artists established personal styles within their cultural confines to keep the art new and progressing. The result was the development of their stunningly beautiful artistic tradition--one of the world's greatest cultural achievements.
Above all, their choice of material was the Western Red cedar, which provided them with most of what they wore, lived in, and used to gather and cook food. They even used cedar to construct boxes with which to bury their dead. This tree was so versatile that native life in the Pacific Northwest was an amazingly rich, full life, both culturally and physically.