ART OF THE ANCIENT AMERICAS II: TLINGIT AND HAIDA
The indigenous people that make up the Tlingit and Haida nations inhabit the coastal regions of what are now Alaska and British Columbia. With its abundant and easily harvested natural resources, the Pacific Northwest supported populations large enough to make it the most densely-inhabited indigenous region on the globe for a time. Fueled by prosperity and a great concern for social rank, the aristocracy of the North Coast tribes engaged in the ostentatious display of wealth, including rituals of hospitality and expenditure (the potlatch), and personal adornment. A chief could also demonstrate his wealth, and thereby enhance his social status, by hiring artists and buying, displaying, giving away and even destroying works of art, valued for their precious materials and fine craftsmanship,
Images permeated Tlingit and Haida culture to a higher degree than other Native American groups. Objects ranging from prestigious 60-foot totem poles representing the chief’s ancestry, embroidered ceremonial blankets and carved amulets to simple objects meant for daily use like canoe paddles, bowls and ladles, were decorated with figural imagery, rendered in a highly-stylized formal language that is still practiced today and is a major component of the self-definition and cultural identity of both nations.
The iconography of Tlingit and Haida art is almost entirely figural, with the representation of humans and animals at its center. In North Coast mythology, animals and their behaviors are reflections and/or antiypes of human acts and traits. This is given visual form in the images of ravens, wolves, salmon, bears and seals who stand upright and mimic human facial expressions and comportment.