Sunday, December 26, 2010

CYL: Technology and Totems- Northwest Coast Native Americans

A 19th century Tlingit chilkat blanket

The peoples of the Northwest coast were not wigwam-builders or buffalo hunters- they were salmon fishers and on the most part and lived off of the land in a manner so technically advanced that it will make you re-think Native American clothing and art.

Historical and Geographic Background
The region these people inhabited ranges from the southern Pacific coast of Alaska down through Canada to Oregon and Washington states- a place rich in rainfall and diversity and the only temperate rainforest in the world. This made for a culture and lifestyle unlike any other region of the Americas; food was primarily gathered (berries, seaweed, and roots), hunted (caribou, birds, deer), or fished (salmon, halibut, and occasionally even whales) with relative ease, which meant that more time could be spent developing arts, crafts, and housing.

A Nakoatok chief's daughter: note the abalone decorations, which only higher echelons could wear.
There was a strict social code established on the principal of wealth. Great wealth was passed between generations in a family and doled out in excess through the building and decoration of comfortable cedar plank houses, totem poles, and potlatch ceremonies- huge parties in which possessions and items were given freely (and feverishly) to attendees in order to display a family's status (and by the same token, generous hospitality). Slavery was also an occurrence in Northwest culture, which was one of the reasons why such technical artisanship was allowed to flourish. It was estimated that pre-contact one out of every three people was a slave within this system, taken either in war or special raids.

The fur trade is what brought European settlers to the region- first British and Russian, then American and Canadian groups such as the Hudson Bay Company. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that Western encroachment became threatening, when the gold rushes sent wave and wave of people into Coastal territory. Unlike many tribes to the east however, many bands were able to stay on their traditional lands, albeit in a shadow of the prior rich existence.

Prominent tribes of this region include the Chinook, Tlingit, Kwakuitl, Haida, Tsimshian, Bella Coola, Wishram, Salish, and Nootka.

Telling the Story
Northwest Coast art is unique, in that it uses a combination of geometric and zoomorphic designs to create an almost puzzle-like appearance to the animal or person being represented.  Every family, or clan had a symbol (ravens/crows, beavers, whales, frogs, bears, and wolves were common). People decorated their houses, furniture, clothing, and possessions with these symbols, which were specifically chosen and tailored to their clan's history and social standing. In this way, art not only became a form of decoration, but a visual history and indicator of your family. A famous example of this is the totem pole, a column of carved and brightly painted wood that used clan symbols and art motifs to advertise the prestige of the family who owned the house that it adorned.

A man draped in a chilkat blanket.
Dressing Up and Down
The daily dress of the Northwest coast during the 19th century varied from band to band. Some tribes, such as the Chinook, took to European clothing eagerly and wore the cotton dresses and shirts up for trade. Other tribes fused the two worlds together, like the Salish who learned to knit using traded yarn, but accented their new attire with fringe, fur, and leather ornaments. Other tribes continued to wear the cedar-barked woven garments (aprons and skirts for women and breechclouts for men) up until the late 19th century. It should be noted that peoples of this region traditionally went shoe-less, and it wasn't until the later part of the period that they began to wear them.

Where fusion truly flourished was in ceremonial and special occasion dress. Traders brought wool to the Northwest Coast in the early 19th century and wealthy tribal members fashioned these into the famous button blankets. Originally these garments were chilkat blankets- fringed shawls woven from cedar roots and goat hair that were decorated with familial crests and motifs. Naturally, these took time to produce. Button blankets were made of red and black trade wool that were appliqued with a single crest then adorned with rows of mother-of-pearl buttons. They were cheaper, quicker to make, and made excellent potlatch gifts so they soon eclipsed the chilkats in popularity and abundance.

A family near modern-day Vancouver wearing button blankets
Northwest Clothing Tech
The peoples of the Northwest Coast were some of the few to develop textile weaving methods pre-contact. Fiber from mountain goat hair was used to create the iconic chilkat blankets. Plant fiber was also used to make clothing, hats, and headdresses. Many tribes of the region, such as the Haida, wore a wide-brimmed, conical hat woven from spruce roots that protected the wearer from inclement weather not only from the shape, but because the plant roots were naturally waterproof! Fashionable AND quite convenient in a rainy, wet climate. Spruce roots and cedar bark were also used to make waterproof overcloaks.

A Haida basket hat, made by 19th century native artisan Isabella Edenshaw
The tribes of the Northwest Coast were also highly adept at woodworking, shown off in masks, headdresses, household items, and totem poles. Masks were used in rituals and ceremonies to embody the spirits of the natural world, and were often highly technical pieces. Foremost of these were transformation masks, which told the story of various people and spirits via hinges and pulls that would open portions of the mask up to reveal other faces or animals as the dances or stories progressed.

A Canadian transformation mask inlaid with glistening abalone- Portland Art Museum.
Woodworking also found its place in war. Certain tribes even made armor out of it in the form of tough elkskin tunics reinforced with slats of wood, which were decorated with familial crests. The Chinook were famous for this armor, which may have explained their prominence in the region.

A Moment of Multicultural Steampunk Geekery
It's Miss Kagashi's opinion that Haida hats are one of the ultimate examples of multicultural steampunk. Want to know why?

Before the mid-to-late 19th century motifs that were created in the hats were sewn or woven in with dyed or different-colored grasses. When the Hudson Bay and other trading companies moved into the area, they brought with them new, Victorian formulated dyes- some of the first synthetic, long-lasting dyes on the market. These proved so popular as a time-saver that the Northwest peoples began painting their hats, which produced more detailed designs (or just more colorful hats, in many cases). The combination of technology of two extraordinarily different cultures in the 19th century to create something new? If the Haida can do it- why can't we?

Another Haida hat, just because they're so bloody cool.
Down to the Last Detail
Northwest Coast peoples were great lovers of accessories and the decorative ability of objects. Jewelry was popular; both original abalone, bone, and baleen and later silver and brass versions. Women often wore bracelets, noserings, earrings, and hair ornaments such as elaborately carved pins and combs. Nootka women wore ceremonial hair dressings that are reminiscent to hairfalls: the hair was divided in two, with each hank wrapped in a cuff of woven cedar bark that was embellished with dangling strings of beads, shells, fringes, and metal trinkets. Men also wore noserings and had multiple piercings in their ears which were often host to sticks of bone, shell, and sharktooth ornaments. Status could often be deciphered from these piercings, the more holes the more respected the rank.

A Hesquiat-Nootka maiden, Edward Curtis

Integrating Northwest Coast into Steampunk
These people were innovators and craftsmen of an amazing degree, which makes them perfect for a fusion steampunk:
- Haida basket hats are naturally waterproof and would make outstanding steampunk additions. A decorative veil wouldn't be out of place, or it could serve as a rest for goggles (if you are inclined to such accessories...). Basket hats can be bought from native artisans, twined from fiber in a manner similar to straw hats (which is remarkable simple), or spliced (two different hats could be cut apart and then woven or sewn together to achieve the proper shape).
- Button blankets. While I'm not advocating using pre-existing familial crests (please don't....) the look of button blankets can be used in steampunk through the use of red and black wool and mother of pearl (imitation is fine) accents. Even rows of these buttons could be sewn onto the hems of garments to suggest the look.
- Noserings. If you haven't read my nosering post, the Northwest Coast peoples were crazy for them, particularly shell or bone rings placed in the septum.
- Plant fiber woven clothing. Rethink what you can use for clothes! Perhaps add elements of basketwoven fiber or woven straw into your jackets, capes, or coats. Texture is your friend!
-Nootka hair wraps. Yes, I know, I had a few of you when I said hair falls... These are full of possibilities; brass, scrap metal, and found hardware parts could be used.
-Northwestern art motifs are visually fascinating and can be painted onto pouches, outerwear, or patches. HOWEVER, before using them I advise people to do their research to make sure they are not stealing a family's heraldry. Study the art for a while, look into the symbolism, and then make your own in the style. For advice on this matter, I would suggest the Canadian artist Bernice Gordon, who often uses this style in her illustration work.

"Totem" by contemporary artist Betty David. Ideas anyone?

A 19th century Tlingit button blanket decorated with a frog motif.

An Umatilla girl in mixed dress, Edward Curtis.
A Kwakuitl ceremonial winter dance with many masked performers.

A Tlingit warrior wearing a cuirass made of stacked and woven strips of alder wood.

Helpful links:

-Indian basketry by George Wharton James, a free ebook on google which goes into detailed depth on basketry of the Haida and many other Native American tribes. It also instructs on the various weave types used.
- - Northwest Coast basketry also instructs in the basic techniques used to make one of these outstanding hats.
- Lisa Telford is a craftsman who makes traditional cedar-woven garments, including hats and capes. Take a look at some of her amazing work.
- Betty David was a prolific native designer who combined modern garments with NWC motifs and detailing. Sadly she passed in 2008, but many of her pieces are viewable (and for sale) here:
-The Gallery of Fine American Native Arts has an article on the basics of Northwest Coast design and symbolism.
- -Basic annotated sketches of Tsimshian clothing.


  1. I don't suppose there's a way to follow you on Facebook is there? I rather do enjoy how you explore the possibilities of multiculturalism, its a topic I've become quite fond of.

  2. Another great designer is Dorothy Grant - who takes traditional Haida images, and appliques them on wool, embroiders them, and silkscreens them on fabrics. More inspiration like Betty David's work.
    - Dawn

  3. The masks are really cool. I'd like to attempt something like that since I make masks.

  4. Excellent stuff. There are other temperate rainforests in the world, though - the South Island of New Zealand's West Coast (which we sometimes call the wet coast) fits that bill. Parts of South America too, I think.

  5. Love the blog!

    Other things I see in a lot of old photos of Northwest Coast folks:

    * Sculptural hats. Don't copy, obviously, but if you come up with your own motifs and bust out the papier mache or whatever, you could probably have a pretty good time with those.

    * Shells shells shells, especially abalone. (I've always wanted to learn how to make shell beads.) These were big trade items all across the Americas, so you could apply it to anything.

    * Copper. This was a major status item, and would be perfectly conductive (see? see?) to steampunk.

    Going to rifle through older posts and applicable pictures for more ideas...