Appropriation (?) of the Month: Differentiating "Northwest Coast-style" from Northwest Coast art and design

Coffee packaging by Tsimshian artist Bill Helin

By Solen Roth

Living in Vancouver, one comes across images and objects of Native Northwest Coast design on a daily basis. At your neighbourhood coffee shop on Monday morning, you notice the Spirit Bear Coffee Company logo by Bill Helin. 

On your way to work on Tuesday, the person sitting next to you in the bus is wearing eagle-design reading glasses. On Wednesday, you go to the library to pick up books for your children and pass by the Northwest Coast art section. At your weekly Thursday appointment, the earrings dangling from your physiotherapist’s ears are cedar and abalone frogs. Coming back from the restaurant in Gastown on Friday evening, you pass by the windows of several stores that sell Northwest Coast artware. Saturday, you fall asleep in front of a movie wrapped in a Salish blanket. During your run on Sunday along the seawall in Stanley Park, you cross paths with a cyclist wearing a thunderbird hoodie.

(L) Display of reading glasses by Komoyue and Tlingit artist Corrine Hunt; Centre: Display of a selection of books about Northwest Coast art; (R) Takaya and Star blankets by Musqueam weaver and designer Debra Sparrow. All photographs: Solen Roth, used with permission. 

The ever-increasing variety and sheer number of these kinds of Northwest Coast-themed products mean that, in Vancouver, such encounters are no longer restricted to aficionados who purposefully seek these products out, but rather have become part of the fabric of life in the city. Depending on how accustomed Vancouverites are to seeing such images and how much they appreciate Northwest Coast art, each person may notice, ignore, admire, dismiss, stay silent or remark on them—but one thing is certain, they cannot avoid them. What is less clear, especially to the casual observer, is how many of these items are actually designed by Indigenous artists, in comparison to those that are merely "inspired by" the graphic design of Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples. While the specific items listed above are all examples of the former, the market continues to generate many examples of the latter.

The artistic adornment of functional objects and clothing is by no means new. Indeed, this is an age-old practice among the region’s Indigenous peoples. Arguably, the development of a Northwest Coast-focused artware industry has been facilitated by the fact that, through potlatching, Pacific Northwest peoples are not at all foreign to the idea of producing series of items, and exchanging them in large quantities (Cranmer-Webster 1992; Glass 2008; C. Roth 2002). This ongoing cultural practice helps explain the continued development of the market, despite ever-present concerns surrounding misappropriation and the unequal distribution of the wealth that it produces (S. Roth 2013).

While it has an Indigenous precedent, the Northwest Coast artware industry as it currently exists is largely a product of the 20th century. In the first half of the century, just as restrictions were being placed on Indigenous cultural practices, some non-Indigenous academics and educators were encouraging the Canadian government to recognize Indigenous “arts,” “crafts,” and “motifs” as (economically) valuable not only to Indigenous peoples, but also to the young nation of Canada itself (Hawker 2003; Smith 1917; Raley 1935; Ravenhill 1944). Thus, even while Indigenous ceremonial practices were being purposefully targeted by repressive legislation—in particular through the 1884 amendment to the Indian Act, which banned the practice of potlatching—there was a push to further develop the non-Indigenous market for Indigenous objects. In the second half of the 20th century, overt repression of Indigenous culture diminished, which meant that a range of cultural practices regained visibility after decades of having been driven underground. By then, marketers had already begun establishing Indigenous imagery as a distinctive marker of British Columbia (Dawson 2004), largely without the consent of those whose images and symbols were being used. The lifting of the potlatch ban in 1951 worked to reinforce this use of Indigenous imagery, and also opened space for increased Indigenous involvement in and control over such marketing strategies.

By the late 20th century, a different perspective on Indigenous cultural expressions was gaining traction. Increasingly, critiques focused not on Indigenous peoples practicing their culture but rather on others who imitated these cultures and – even more severely criticized—those who sought to profit from them. Indeed, the colonial policies of Canada have made it very difficult for Indigenous people to access and use their natural resources, including in order to meet basic community needs. This has made the reliance on heritage as “cultural resources” all the more crucial to their prosperity. The Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia estimates the market of Aboriginal-themed products to several million dollars, stating that only a small part of it currently benefits Indigenous people despite this representing “much needed funds [for their] people and communities” (Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia 2012). Understandably, any capture of this market value by outsiders is often experienced by Indigenous people as yet another act of theft or colonial dispossession.

Despite increasing critique of such practices, some companies continue to create products with designs that are based on Northwest Coast cultural expression but are not the work of Northwest Coast artists. These firms task non-Indigenous designers to imitate Northwest Coast art, despite there being hundreds, if not thousands, of Indigenous artists across British Columbia they could contact, and potentially contract. A few decades ago most companies producing artware would simply “lift” a design from an image found in a book or online, and use it on their product without much public backlash. Today, however, there are many examples of items that are the products of Northwest Coast artists working with an artware company (e.g., Chloe Angus Design, Panabo Sales, Native Northwest Ltd), as well as examples of Indigenous artists running their own businesses (e.g., Spirit Works, B.Wyse, Eighth Generation). In this context, cultural misappropriation gets noticed: “Native-inspired” products become the targets of negative campaigns, often starting on social media and later relayed through articles and petitions. Some companies even end up in court (as with Urban Outfitters vs. Navajo Nation). Despite such high-profile cases, there remains a relatively low level of awareness regarding the ethics, and the risks—both economic and reputational—of such a practice.

(L) Thunderbird hoodie by Squamish artist Xwalacktun, (R) Logo by Navajo artist Victor Pascual, for the Beyond Buckskin blog “Buy Native” list.

In the North American market more broadly, there have been a number of Indigenous-led initiatives to counter this. For instance, Nooksack artist and entrepreneur Louie Gong’s “Inspired Natives Project” takes a business and educational approach, showing the public “the tangible costs of cultural appropriation” all the while supporting artists in the development of products based on their art (“Inspired Natives Project by Eighth Generation” 2015). Gong encourages consumers to “think before [they] buy a product featuring Indigenous art” and to use the #inspirednative hashtag to express their support to “Inspired Natives, not Native-Inspired” (ibid). In a similar vein, Chippewa academic and fashion expert Jessica Metcalfe has created a “Buy Native” list of Indigenous fashion designers and companies to buy from in order to support economic development in Indigenous communities. She has also written a “How-To Critique Racism, Call Out Companies, and See Results Guide” (Metcalfe 2015) to advise her Beyond Buckskin blog readers on how to effectively approach companies they think have inappropriately used Indigenous imagery. Along with Adrienne Keene, a Brown University post-doctoral fellow and creator of the Native Appropriations blog (and an IPinCH Associate), Metcalfe was herself part of a successful campaign that led fashion designer Paul Frank not only to apologize for a stereotype-laden powwow-themed fashion party, but also to partner with four Indigenous artists—Candace Halcro, Louie Gong, Autumn Dawn Gomez, and Dustin Quinn Martin—in the production of a special collection of products they designed collaboratively.

In British Columbia, one initiative that seeks to change the tide through both producers and consumers is the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia’s “Authentic Indigenous Arts Resurgence Campaign”. Launched in Vancouver in the fall of 2014, it is led by Kwakwaka’wakw artist and arts administrator Lou-ann Neel and Sechelt artist and entrepreneur Shain Jackson. The program was created by the organization as a response to the “serious concerns of Aboriginal artists about the issue of Authenticity in the Aboriginal art market” (Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia 2012). Using a multi-tiered system of certification, the program’s aim is to protect “the integrity of [Indigenous] artworks while ensuring the resources from the sales find their way largely back to where pieces originated from, [Indigenous] people and [Indigenous] communities” (ibid). This certification includes not only items that are designed, produced, and distributed by Indigenous artists, but also products where an Indigenous artist contributed the design and was fairly compensated for this work. By excluding all “inspired by” and “Native-style” products, the goal is to support Indigenous artists as well as foster good practices on the part of the companies who wish to partner with them.

The hope is also that such a certification will make it easier for consumers to be more aware of what they are buying, so that if a company chooses not to work with an Indigenous artist, consumers can also choose not to buy their products and turn to certified products instead. While one might think this kind of “boy/buycotting” would already be possible, many consumers actually find the marketplace of Indigenous-themed products confusing. The language used is not always straightforward—such as when a company uses the expression “made by a Native Canadian” to indicate a product produced by a person born in Canada, regardless of whether they are of Indigenous descent—and even accurate product labels don’t always tell the full story. Some consumers approach the information made available to them with scepticism: the absence of any artist name might suggest misappropriation, but can they trust that the inclusion of a name guarantees that the artist is Indigenous? Even if the artist is Indigenous, does it necessarily mean that he or she has been compensated? Further, what kind of compensation can be deemed “fair”? By establishing standards, these are the kinds of questions the “Authentic Indigenous” program seeks to help clarify for consumers. The reasoning is that if the buying public is able to read the market more clearly—for example, distinguishing Northwest Coast art and design from “Northwest Coast style”—an increasing number of companies will in turn see a competitive advantage to working out meaningful partnerships with artists when they choose to bank on Indigenous art, nudging them towards a more ethical treatment of the cultural heritage of Pacific Northwest Indigenous peoples.


References Cited

Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia. 2012. “Authentic Aboriginal Artisan Certification Program - Aboriginal Tourism BC.” Accessed July 18.

Cranmer-Webster, Gloria. 1992. “The Contemporary Potlatch.” In Chiefly Feasts. The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, edited by Jonaitis, Aldona. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Dawson, Michael. 2004. Selling British Columbia: Tourism and Consumer Culture, 1890-1970. UBC Press, Vancouver

Glass, Aaron. 2008. “Crests on Cotton: ‘Souvenir’ T-Shirts and the Materiality of Remembrance Among the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia.” Museum Anthropology 31(1): 1–18.

Hawker, Ronald William. 2003. Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-61. UBC Press, Vancouver.

Inspired Natives Project by Eighth Generation.” 2015. Eighth Generation. Accessed February 23.

Metcalfe, Dr Jessica R. 2015. “BEYOND BUCKSKIN: A How-To Guide!” Accessed February 23.

Raley, George H. 1935. Canadian Indian Art and Industries; an Economic Problem of To-Day. G. Bell, London.

Ravenhill, Alice. 1944. A Corner Stone of Canadian Culture: An Outline of the Arts and Crafts of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia. Occasional Papers of the British Columbia Provincial Museum, no. 5. British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria, B.C.

Roth, Christopher F. 2002. “Goods, Names, and Selves: Rethinking the Tsimshian Potlatch.” American Ethnologist 29(1): 123–50.

Roth, Solen. 2013. “Culturally Modified Capitalism: The Native Northwest Coast Artware Industry.” 

Smith, Harlan I. 1917. “Distinctive Canadian Designs: How Canadian Manufacturers May Profit by Introducing Native Designs into Their Products.” Industrial Canada, September.


Further Reading

Dr. Adrienne Keene’s Native Appropriations blog

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe’s Beyond Buckskin blog

On Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia’s “Authentic Indigenous Arts Resurgence Campaign”:

On the "Urban Outfitters vs. Navajo Nation" story:

On the “Paul Frank X Native Designers” story:



Solen Roth is a post-doctoral researcher in the design department of Université de Montréal, and an IPinCH Associate. 

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight the complexity of 'cultural appropriation' and 'cultural appreciation'.