Sunday, May 7, 2017

West Coast First Nations Art

For an hour or two after visiting Fisherman's Wharf, and having that delicious desert (!) we visited the gallery featuring West Coast First Nations Art in the Royal B.C. Museum.  Among all the First Nations cultures in North America, this is the group that fascinates me the most.

The overwhelming symbol of this culture is the totem pole, carved from enormous single Cedar trees.  They are used to celebrate individuals who pass away, and to identify family homes.  If I understood the explanation correctly (in the dim light with my vision I was having difficulty reading the labels), these three pieces are one totem pole, cut in three for display purposes.

This shorter pole is the entrance to a house, the bottom opening the door, and the top curve holding a huge horizontal cedar beam to anchor the roof.

There are stories that accompany each figure on the poles, all providing symbolic meaning behind the carving.

But there is much more to this culture than totem poles.  This is a house front, made from enormous cedar slabs split out of huge trees, with painted figures.  We have seen a group of these houses, recently made, at the Ksan historic village in northern B.C., near Hazelton, as well as in the national museum in Ottawa.

Beading is another element of this art.  This is a small portion of a beaded woman's dress, and in the background you can see a button blanket.

I hadn't understood before what 'bentwood boxes' were, but this is a good example.  They are made from a single long piece of cedar, with grooves cut partway through across the board, enabling the single piece to be folded in four - so each of the corners is simply 'bent'.  The lids are made separately.

Here's a canoe full of bentwood boxes, all decorated with native designs.

There's much more to this story, including the tragic smallpox epidemic of 1862 which nearly wiped out the entire First Nations population on the west coast, and almost destroyed this culture.  Recent revival of the skills such as totem carving is much more than just art; it is deeply symbolic of the survival and resurgence of this culture and these people.

In visiting I have to say that I found the dim light very hard to cope with.  The camera, with ISO set at 1600 or higher, provided nice pictures with no flash, but it automatically brightened up all the photos to what you see in the ones above.  I have tried in this last photo to dim the light down to what it actually looked like.  My vision is quite good outdoors and if the lighting is good, but in this gallery it was very frustrating.  I know that this is presumably done to protect the artifacts, but it still made it difficult to enjoy the exhibit.

Meanwhile here at home in the valley, the rain is over!  We enjoyed a bright sunny, if cool day, and got out to see some waterfalls, running at their highest after all the rain.  Some great pictures for after we've finished our west coast tour!


  1. Love museums specially First Nations----Coastal is what we are here too. Great shots.

  2. The totem carvings are amazing and more so in being carved into a single tree, but those are sure some scary-looking images. I'm sure the dim light made them seem even more so!

  3. The beauty of the First Nations workmanship is just grand. So inspiring.

  4. Some beautiful work there! So interesting to see them.

  5. Love all your pictures the carvings, look pretty good considering the light factor.
    Sure is nice to have the rain stop finally.

  6. A wonderful set of pictures of the First Nation art. I have visited several of them in the area, but these are especially striking. Which is probably why they are in the museum. Thanks for sharing. :-)

  7. The craftmanship is tremendous! Those cedar trees must have been enormous! The lighting is a real problem as we age, that's for sure. Great job with the photos however!

  8. Great pictures just the same even in the low light conditions.
    While I was growing up, an old family friend lived in a log cabin. He always kept the lighting low. A single candle lit the interior and thick drapes covered the few windows. He said the light was meant only for the outside.
    Be Safe and Enjoy!

    It's about time.

  9. The beading on the dress has such intricate delicate work whoever is responsible for it is very clever.

  10. Those totem poles are amazing!

  11. I would love to see this museum. Excellent shots!

  12. I haven't visited in a while so had a look at your recent posts of your trip to Victoria. I really enjoyed all your beautiful photos and the narration. The pics of the Legislature at night are beautiful with all the lights. We visited Victoria in 1978 and have always wanted to return to the island when visiting my sister in Chilliwack but just never fit it in. Great posts! I hope you weren't affected by all the recent rains. So many people are in devastating ways.

  13. It is all so fascinating...all the work that goes into those things. I have always been a bit fascinated with beading.