National Geographic : 1945 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine the days before the arrival of the Russians, sea-otter skins were standard for this purpose. Since the coming of the white traders, woolen blankets have gradually replaced the native types except for display purposes. In the 1880's and 1890's it became a popular custom to decorate woolen trade blankets with buttons of mother of pearl (Plate VIII). These blankets are usually blue and further embellished with a design representing the crest of the owner, cut out of red cloth and sewed on the blanket. Nowadays men wear a shirt under the blan ket and women wear a dress. Before woolen blankets were introduced the women wore an apron made of shredded cedar bark, sus pended by a belt of the same material. One of the few Indian tribes to use raincoats, the Northwest Coast Indians made a highly serv iceable waterproof poncho of cedar bark for use in the wet season. Men as a rule wore their hair comparatively short, keeping it out of the eyes with a fur or cloth headband. The women wore their hair in two braids. Ear and nose ornaments made of bone, wood, and abalone shell were extensively used. The women of the northern tribes beautified themselves by wearing, in slits in their lower lips, wooden disks shaped like pulley wheels and 3 or 4 inches in diameter. Tattooing was practiced especially by the Haida, who favored elaborate designs repre senting their family crests. The Kwakiutl and others painted their faces. Two methods of deforming the head were practiced by the Northwest Coast Indians. The Kwakiutl bound the head in infancy so that the skull grew upward and back in an elongated fashion. Tribes south of the Kwakiutl placed a pad on an infant's forehead, flattening the front of the skull and causing it to slope backward from the eyebrows. In addition to producing a beautifying effect, according to their stand ards, the deformed head was also the mark of a freeman, since slaves were not allowed to indulge in this vanity. Wood Sculpture Highly Developed The art of the Northwest Coast tribes found expression in the skillful weaving of baskets and blankets, in painting, and in the working of native copper and, later, silver. Most spec tacular achievements were in wood sculpture and in stone. Wood sculpture was usually embellished with painting. Northwest Coast carvers and painters pro duced highly realistic designs. Some masks or images were actual portraits. For the most part, however, they preferred the grotesque representation of semianimal or semihuman mythological beings. A curious stylization was developed wherein the artist dissected his subject, as it were, representing mainly those features which came to be symbolic of the creature he wished to represent. The faces of a man, a killer whale, and a beaver, as carved on a totem pole or a box, might all look essentially alike. The beaver and the killer whale would be distinguished as animals, however, by representing erect ears on top of the head. They would be further distinguished by showing the dorsal fin of the killer whale, its accepted symbol, or the flat crosshatched tail and long incisor teeth of the beaver. All animals and birds represented had from one to three characteristic symbols, which instantly told the observer which was in tended. In the opinion of many modern critics, this was the finest art work ever developed by any American Indians. To some the art appears Asiatic in inspiration. It has been suggested that it may have been in troduced by the Polynesian or Asiatic crews of early European voyagers. Many such sailors, it is known, settled early among the Indians. Explanation of the significance of the totem pole is not as simple as the name implies. It is oversimplification to say it is heraldic in nature, and represents the owner's mytho logic genealogy. Carvings on the house poles or memorial poles might be crests, or they might illustrate events in a myth. Sometimes the figure of the owner is intro duced as a touch of vanity, usually shown holding a valuable possession to indicate his wealth. Again, the figure of some rival whom he wished to ridicule might be shown. Totem Poles Signified Social Standing For example, a man of the Raven clan gave a potlatch to a rival of the Killer Whale group, bestowing the usual gifts. The latter became a drunkard and could not return the gifts as required by social law. So the Raven man carved on his totem pole the figure of a Raven biting the dorsal fin of a Killer Whale. The impoverished Killer Whale representative could do nothing to counteract the affront. Totem poles might also record a notable event which had happened to the owner, such as being the first member of his group to see a white man, or being converted to Christian ity.