The Art of America Homeschool Unit Study: First Nations PeopleEva Varga
The First Nations people of the Northwest Coastal region includes the Haida, Gitxsan, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Sugpiaq, Unangax, Yup’ik, Inupiaq and Coast Salish. Their culture, customs, beliefs, and history were passed down orally through stories, songs, and dances.
They had stories about why certain things occurred, for example, the changes in season. There were also stories about each group and how they first appeared in this world. All of these stories were passed down to subsequent generations.
Art also played a major part in Northwest Coast culture. They were known for their
- basketry (baskets, hats)
- woodworking (masks, totem poles)
- weaving (Chilkat blankets)
The patterns depicted include natural forms such as bears, ravens, eagles, orcas, and humans; legendary creatures such as thunderbirds and sisiutls (two-headed serpent); and abstract forms made up of the characteristic Northwest Coast shapes. Totem poles are the most well-known artifacts produced using this style.
The Northwest Coast people used baskets for storage and trade. Women were responsible for all the weaving, and they made clothing, hats, and bed mats.
For weaving the women used softened cedar bark strips or cattails, with colored grasses to add color. The materials were collected during the summer months and then dried. One of the most common things they wove was the chilkat blanket.
Chilkat blankets are one of the most well known symbols of First Nations culture. The colorful blankets worn for special occasions, were woven from goat’s wool and cedar bark, and then painted.
Woodworking, particularly carving, was an art form passed down from generation to generation. Tribal designs were also used to decorate household items such as spoons, ladles, baskets, hats, and paddles. First Nations artists are notable for producing characteristic “bentwood” boxes, masks, and canoes.
Bentwood boxes are generally made out of one piece of wood that is steamed and bent to form a box. Ranging in size, they were used for food storage as well as for storing possessions of everyday life including ceremonial regalia.
Each box was elaborated decorated. Their intricate motifs also represented the personal crests of the owner. These crests were displayed proudly, for they served to verify rank as well as spiritual power.
The Northwest Coast art style has increasingly been used in gallery-oriented forms such as paintings, prints, and sculptures.
Feeling Inspired? First Nations Art Activity
For an in-depth tutorial on how to create these stunning, hand carved chests, I encourage you to watch this video. It is thirty minutes in length but it is excellent.
(affiliate link) The Bentwood Box by Nan McNutt is one of several titles in a best-selling series on Northwest Native art. It offers the only activity books that teach children about Northwest Coast Indians.
These volumes are reviewed for cultural accuracy by tribal members and Northwest Native artists create all the artwork. Each book includes various games and activities, plus a teaching guide.
If you don’t have the time or resources to craft a bentwood box from a cedar plank, consider using a pre-fabricated bentwood box. These are available at local craft stores and online retailers. For example:
These craft boxes would likely be too thin for carving but would be a great painting project for tweens and teens. Select a design and use a pencil to lightly sketch an outline on your box.
The most common colors used by First Nations are red and black, but yellow is also often used. Gather your paints and brushes and begin to cover the surface of your box.
Historically, black paint was made with charcoal and salmon eggs. It wasn’t until about 1900 that store bought paint began to be used. A recipe for Salmon Egg Paint is included in the book The Bentwood Box.
Here are a few print resources to get you started:
- Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast
- Northwest Coast Indian Designs (a Dover publication)
- Northwest Native Arts: Basic Forms
- Learning by Designing Pacific Northwest Coast Native Indian Art, Volume 1 and Volume 2
The Art of America Homeschool Unit Studies
This post is part of a 10-post series, providing an overview of the history of American art from Pre-Colonial times to today, including multiple art forms:
- wood carvings
- editorial cartoons
Moving chronologically through All American History curriculum, each post summarizes the art trends and movements popular during the period and features one or two artists from that time period. Plus I will provide a related art lesson or project that you can enjoy with your students.