Lesson 1: Story and Imagery in Northwest Coast Art


-Kitimaat Clans [Painting], Lyle Wilson
-Raven and the Fisherman [Painting], Lyle Wilson
-Blank Paper, or Paper divided into a sections like a comic strip
-Coloring materials (felts or pencil crayons)

Students Will be Able To:

Understand that artists may get inspiration from stories to create works of art

Learn that people create art to express who they are as individuals and as members of a community

Lesson Introduction (Teacher Monologue and Questions):

“Why do people create art? There are many reasons. Can you think of any?” (If students do not mention them, you may say: to show a feeling, to copy what we see in the world, to celebrate something that happened, or simply to create beauty.) “Even though First Nations’ art from the Northwest Coast is beautiful, it is not simply a decoration. The art often tells us stories—stories about a family’s history, what they own, and how a family is connected to the spiritual realm.”

“It is important to remember that not all cultures from the Northwest Coast are the same, in fact, there are many different cultures on the coast. These cultures speak different languages, and have their own distinct art, dances and ceremonies. Some of these cultures, particularly the northern groups, divide themselves into clans. A great deal of Northwest Coast art depicts crests, which express and record clan ancestry, status, and privileges as well as family histories.”

“Before contact with Europeans, Northwest Coast First Nations families lived together in one big house, or set of houses. Family groups were often made up of a head chief and his family, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and adopted members. The people living in the house were related to a common ancestor in some way. Does anyone know what an ancestor is? They are our family from a long time ago. We usually use the word ancestor not just for our parents, or our grandparents, but rather for our great-grandparents, and their parents, and their parents! Common ancestors in Northwest Coast First Nations societies were usually ancestors from a very long time ago when people were said to be able to take both animal and human form. This is why outside of a powerful family’s house, there might be a house front painting showing animal or supernatural characters from a family’s history.” (Point out house front designs in painted belongings). “Designs like these, that are owned by a family, are called crests. A family group might own several crests. These crests can include birds (eagle, raven), land animals (bears, wolves), sea animals (killer whales, halibut, salmon), natural features (sun, moon, mountains), or even supernatural creatures (thunderbird, double headed sea-serpent). These stories and crests are very important and might be placed on many objects like spoons, boxes, hats, and much more.” (Show the students the pictures of painted belongings). “Family histories and crests are still very important and tell about a family’s place and purpose in the world. Often they tell about the common ancestor, how the ancestor came to earth at the beginning of time, and a place where the ancestor came to earth. A family’s connection to their first ancestor gives them ownership of certain songs, stories, artwork, land, and fishing areas related to this first ancestor’s story. Crests are a display of a family’s wealth and history.”

Kitimaat Clans © Lyle Wilson, 1992. Photo: Jenn Walton

 “Now let’s look at Lyle Wilson’s Kitimaat Clans. This picture shows a modern example of Haisla family crests all in one painting. The Haisla social system is based on clans; membership in a clan passed down through the mother’s side of the family. There are eight Haisla clans: eagle, salmon, raven, frog, wolf, killer whale, crow, and beaver. Northwest Coast First Nations art is done in a stylized way. Stylized means it is not meant to look exactly like the thing it represents; it is not supposed to look realistic. There are little signals that usually tell us what kind of creature is being shown. (Use the class library or the internet to create a slideshow to show students real pictures of the animals that might be shown in a crest) “Now, if we look at Kitimaat Clans again, what signals do you see that might give you a clue about what you’re looking at?” (Give students time to answer. Share the following information if the students do not mention it: eagles are usually shown with a shorter, hooked beak. Ravens have longer, flatter beaks. Whales usually have dorsal fins and blowholes, whereas salmon have shorter fins and no blowholes. Bears are usually shown with wide nostrils and big teeth, whereas wolves are shown with a longer snout. Beavers are shown with big front teeth. Frogs have wide mouths.)

“Now let’s look at Lyle Wilson’s Raven and the Fisherman. It is based on a story about how Raven tried to steal the halibut hook from the supernatural fisherman Kwaganoo (Kwa-gah-noo). Today we are going to make our own art based on this story.”


  • (Explain to students that you are going to tell them a famous story from Lyle Wilson’s community. Before you start, take a moment to clarify the following details, and write the names on the board for students to refer to in case they forget). “Here is the Haisla story of Raven and the Fisherman. During the story you will be introduced to some interesting characters: Wigit (Wee-get) is the Haisla name for the supernatural Raven. Kwaganoo (Kwa-gah-noo) is a supernatural fisherman, and mumugazu (moo-moo-gwa-joo) is the name for halibut. This is the story of how Raven tried to steal the halibut hook.”
  • (Explain to the students that you want them to listen carefully to the story and illustrate different parts as they go. This can be done on one sheet in a random manner, or as a sequence of images, as in a comic strip).

  • (As you tell the story of how Raven tried to steal the halibut hook (See story below). Have students draw what is happening in the story. Make sure you take time to pause, review the main points and ask students what they imagine is happening. Encourage them to think about what the characters look like and what the setting might look like. Encourage students to simply sketch out the main characters loosely and then come back at the end to add details and colour).
Raven and the Fisherman © Lyle Wilson, 2003. Photo: Bill McLennan.

The Raven and the Fisherman

One day, Wigit heard about a fellow called Kwaganoo. Now Kwaganoo owned a special hook that he never let anybody see, let alone use. This hook was used to catch a very tasty fish called the mumugazu. (pause) Being constantly hungry and so lazy, Wigit always tried to find food with the least amount of effort – so he decided to trick Kwaganoo out of his special hook. (pause) At first, he succeeded in getting it, but when Wigit tried to use the hook to catch his own mumugazu, Kwaganoo retaliated by swimming underwater and yanking Wigit into the sea. (pause) Kwaganoo then proceeded to try to drown poor Wigit. (pause)

Using his supernatural powers, Wigit ended up surviving Kwaganoo’s revenge – but only barely! (pause) The Haisla people learned to fish for mumugazu because Wigit remembered how the hook was made and gave it to them to use. But Wigit himself never used it again because he was so afraid of Kwaganoo.” (pause) (Wilson, 27).

Look at “Raven and the Fisherman” one more time and have students identify the main characters in the story. Ask them if they can name any of the other animals in the picture. 

  • Invite students to pick their favorite part of the story and add some detail and colour it. Circulate to provide encouragement and praise.

Lesson Closure:

Invite students to share which part of the story they chose to illustrate and why. Consider displaying the work.