Monumental Art and Architecture

The cultural area known as the Northwest Coast or the Pacific Northwest is located on a narrow strip of land stretching from Northern California to the Alaskan Panhandle. The area is known to be rich in resources, a factor which facilitated a number of indigenous societies to thrive and develop distinct languages and cultures in the area.

The land itself is sandwiched between the soaring Coast and Cascade Mountain ranges on the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The coastline is deeply indented with thousands of fjords, inlets, sounds and bays west of which several major (Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii) and thousands of smaller islands are located, providing shelter from the ravages of the westerly Pacific winds. Under jagged mountain peaks, glacier-fed rivers carve narrow rainforest valleys emptying into the ocean.

Moderated by the warm Japan Current, the climate on the Coast is temperate, with much rain and little snowfall. Temperatures are warm in the winter and cool in the summer, giving rise to a land and seascape which are extremely rich in natural resources, sea creatures, flora and fauna.

The entire coast is carpeted with moss-laden coniferous forests reaching over 100 metres in height and which date back thousands of years. This untamed land is also home to soaring eagles, graceful seals and whales, mighty grizzly bears, agile mountain goats and sheep, herds of deer and ––– at the centre of it all ––– dozens of major wild salmon runs.

Northwest Coast Culture Area

The salmon are the lifeblood of the forests as well as the First Nations of the Northwest Coast. From mid-summer to late Fall, teeming masses of Coho, Chinook, Sockeye, Pink, Chum and Steelhead salmon fight their way up the rivers and streams that flow through the West Coast’s temperate rainforests. The natural life cycle of the salmon brings them back to their birthplace to spawn and die. Upon their return, bears preparing for winter hibernation, joined by wolves, eagles and other animals, feast on the salmon. Bears drag the fish carcasses up the forested slopes, adding valuable nutrients to the soil in the process. Thus, a healthy salmon population is one of the keys to the health of the entire rainforest ecosystem.

The salmon also play a central role in the cosmology of the coastal nations. Humans and salmon share souls from a common pool that supplies both the schools of fish and the villages of the people in alternating generations. “We are the People of the Salmon” is a phrase still heard in many First Nations communities on the coast.

The temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest Coast once stretched from Northern California to Alaska. Today, only Alaska and British Columbia still contain large, undisturbed tracts. Therefore, this is a rare ecosystem in which the valley floors and mountainsides are home to some of the world’s most majestic trees. Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, and Sitka Spruce can measure up to one hundred metres tall. But the kings of them all are the Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) and Yellow Cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), which can grow up to six metres in diameter at the base, and which the native inhabitants call the “tree of life”. The cedars became co-dominant in lowland coastal rainforests about 6,000 years ago. They routinely grow to be up to 70 metres tall, and are a rich source of raw materials for the indigenous people of the coast. The First Nations use the inner bark of the Cedar as fibres for baskets and yarn. The fibrous roots are knotted and woven into cordage. The wood is ideal to split into planks and stakes, and is easily carved into small objects. In the round, cedar is also used for house posts and beams. Cedar can be harvested from either standing trees or felled ones, and since drift logs persist on the ground and on beaches for decades, they are also utilized. The cellular structure of the Red and Yellow cedars are full of volatile oils which are potent natural pesticides. Cedar is therefore a durable wood. It is strong but light, can easily be split or worked, and has straight grain with few knots. It is also buoyant and resistant to rot, making it ideal for boatmaking.

Northwest Coast shoreline. © Adelaide de Menil, 1968.
Northwest Coast forest. © Adelaide de Menil, 1968.

This ecologically diverse landscape is the ancestral home of the complex, stratified, and varied cultures of 6 major First Nation language groups: from north to south, the Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimshian, the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Nuu-chal-nuth, and the Coast Salish. These people have lived off the land and oceans since the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded from the continent more than 10,000 years ago. Today, First Nations’ culture, history, spirituality and identity are intimately linked with the land, forests and waters of the coast, making sustainable management of these natural resources essential not only for protecting bio-diversity, but also for ensuring the First Nations’ cultural survival.

The abundance of the region’s land and sea supported the emergence of highly sophisticated, complex, stratified cultures and an intricate trade network. These people lived without the aid of agriculture, one of the very few complex societies in the world to do so, and developed a striking, intricate style of ceremonies and art which is now admired worldwide. Their relatively sedentary economic activities did not require them to migrate long distances to follow sources of food. The surpluses from their abundant harvests from the rivers and seas were exchanged along water routes and networks of trails into the interior which in turn supported an extremely sophisticated inventory of architecture and monumental art that honoured their ancestors and the rights they inherited from them.