Eagle is one of the most important beings in the art and mythology. It is respected for its intelligence and power, as well as its extraordinary vision, in both the literal and figurative senses. In many regions, Eagle clan families are traditionally the most prominent, and Eagle chiefs the most powerful. Eagles in myth are, likewise, usually noble characters. Eagle spirits are associated with lofty ideals and the pursuit of freedom.
Eagle is revered as a powerful hunter. Groups of mythical Eagles may gather for
co-operative whale hunting expeditions, since, unlike the giant Thunderbird, Eagle is not strong enough to hunt whales alone. Eagle may often be depicted with Salmon,
one of its favorite foods.
Eagle feathers and down are sacred: traditionally, shamans believed in their healing powers and used them in a variety of ceremonial and ritual contexts, such as honouring a respected guest.
ORCA (KILLER WHALE)
The Killerwhale, also known as the Orca, is a primary crest within many Northwest Coast Native cultures. The Killerwhale can also be found along the west coast of North America throughout the year.
Killerwhale clans connect themselves to the sea, where their ancestors are said to have once lived at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. There are many legends that tell of Killerwhales tipping canoes and bringing the occupants to their villages at the bottom of the ocean, and of whales guiding people to safety when they are caught on the water.
All along the coast, fishers and hunters often apply Killerwhale designs to their canoes and paraphernalia. These depictions often include human elements, such as a human face in the blowhole or tail flukes. The human elements within these depictions may represent the artist, the artist’s connection to their clan, or an image of transformation.
Generally, Killerwhales symbolize longevity, communication and strength within Northwest Coast art and culture.
There are five species of Pacific salmon: chinook, coho, sockeye, pink, and chum. All five species hatch in fresh water, mature in the sea, then return to their freshwater homes to spawn. Salmon are honoured by all coastal peoples: this fish is a symbol of regeneration and the life cycle.
Shortages of salmon are traditionally attributed to human disrespect and refusal to live by advice of the elders. Many legends express the importance of appreciating salmon and observing traditional rites of respect, such as placing all of the salmon’s bones back into the water after eating. If this rite is not observed, the salmon tend not to return.
In many Northwest Coast cultures, the salmon is a symbol of good luck when seen in pairs. Two salmon represent balance, and a yin-and-yang within the natural world. The salmon is also the symbol for twins in Northwest Coast First Nations culture, and any individual who is a twin can claim salmon as his/her family crest.
Adapted From Understanding Northwest Coast Art by Cheryl Shearar, Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.