FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS, the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest were among the most sophisticated--and the most materialistic--in North America. They lived in an area extending northward from the Columbia River in Oregon through Canada into Alaska, building their settlements in a magnificent landscape of islands, beaches, inlets and towering mountains. Members of these tribes--the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Nootka and Salish among them--spent most of their lives at the sea and in the great forests. One gave them their food; the other provided material for houses, seagoing canoes, totem poles and implements of all kinds, even clothing.
Winters in this part of the world were, and still are, long and cold, with gray skies, omnipresent fog and abundant rainfall. The huge cedar trees that grew in nearby forests were an integral part of tribal culture, providing a lush and seemingly endless supply of wood. The entire culture was based on wood, and art forms were restricted almost entirely to three-dimensional wood carvings. In addition to hunting for meat and fish, the men of the coastal tribes made all wooden artifacts; basketry and weaving were left to women. In the winter, when hunting and fishing were at a low, men worked diligently with their carving tools: the versatile curved knife, an elbow adz for rough work and a D-shaped one for finer work (at first made of stone and later of steel). Sharkskin took the place of sandpaper.
Houses were large and well constructed, made of wood, of course, as were all interior fittings--mats, dishes, storage boxes, tools, fishhooks, pipes, ceremonial rattles, clubs, fish and animal traps, spoons, rattles, masks, bows and armor. Totem poles provided the most spectacular examples of the carver's art, but small objects included gorgeous masks and other artifacts, often decorated with the symbolic images of the Raven, the Toad and the Bear. In addition, many were used for the elaborate ceremonials held regularly in the winter and presided over by shamans and tribal leaders. One of the most spectacular was the Kwakiutl Winter Ceremonial, where a Thunderbird figure, covered with eagle skins and feathers and wearing a wooden mask with massive beak, screamed shrilly.
Today, smaller items such as rattles and boxes and fishhooks can still be found, but masks are rare and their authenticity is often difficult to determine. Too, they are expensive, though experts still think of them as being undervalued. In 1988, a Tsimshian mask (c. 1830) with subtle modeling and sophisticated carving sold in the high five figures. Oddly enough, it is sometimes easier to find such objects in Europe than in the Pacific Northwest. In 1778, Capt. James Cook brought many of them back to London, where they can still be seen at the British Museum. Over the years many other Europeans carried carvings back with them as well.
Look for Northwest Indian carvings at Taos Indian Trading Co., Wounded Knee Gallery and Federico--all in Santa Monica; Native American Art Gallery in Venice; Don Bennett Antique American Indian Art in Westlake Village; Ojai Indian Shop in Ojai, and Michael Haskell in Santa Barbara.