Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Northwest Coast Indians Musical Instruments

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The music of the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast is largely associated with ceremony and feast-giveaways, known as potlatches. Potlatches serve as opportunities to aid in maintaining social order by regulating the ownership of land, title, ancestral names, and music, as well as to observe life cycle changes—birth, puberty, marriage, and death. The transmission of honor associated with these events is traditionally marked by ceremonial dances accompanied by songs. Proprietary songs and dances are punctuated by extra-musical effects provided by whistles, rattles, and specific vocal utterances (89.4.2243). Typically, the sound of whistles is associated with the presence of spirit beings. Cultural taboos surrounding the ownership of songs and dances have remained intact into the twenty-first century, albeit with some leniency to accommodate for varying degrees of observance of traditional lifeways.


A customary element to the music of the Northwest Coast is the beat of the drum; however, unlike the use of drums on the Great Plains, the concept of communal drumming on a single large instrument is not typical in the Pacific Northwest. Rather, drummers are known to congregate and play individual hand drums together. The use of a single drum was traditionally isolated to a few groups, such as the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl), who are known to have used a single wooden plank struck by multiple players. As in other regions, the drum is used to begin and to mark certain points within a song. Some indigenous people of the Northwest Coast utilize the drum to indicate the presence of spirits. For example, a tremolo created by rapidly striking the drumhead can be perceived as an audible manifestation of a spirit being's presence. Aside from use within the potlatch setting, drums are employed by shamans—powerful individuals who have the ability to move in the liminal space between this world and others, communicating with spirit guides. Many of the musical instruments used on the Northwest Coast can be associated with shamanic practice. Often, a physical representation of a shaman's spirit guide is carved in the form of a rattle or whistle, as an effigy used to invoke the spirit's power.


Traditional three-dimensional art of the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast can be characterized as highly sculptural, including relief and sculpture in the round, with geometrically stylized totemic—memorial—symbols integrated into the composition of the piece (89.4.1963). Similar principles govern two- and three-dimensional art of the Northwest Coast. Elements common to both include "ovoid," "U-form," and "form-line" figures that constitute the majority of a given work. These three specific design elements are combined to define anatomical features, as well as ornament the outlying space. When applied to three-dimensional artwork, the aforementioned elements are aligned with the surface contours of a given object. Often, pigmentation defines, or in some cases embellishes, sculptural figuration. A typical palette includes red, black, and some variant of green or blue.


Until the eighteenth century, European presence in the Pacific Northwest was erratic at best. The resources and trade that were available throughout the continent made it less pressing to reach the west coast, albeit a perceived destination for many explorers. The presence of foreigners on the Northwest Coast, primarily Russian, in the eighteenth century contributed greatly to the traditional use of color and dyeing methods. These newly introduced innovations affected textile preparation, as well as pigments used for adornment on carved, three-dimensional objects—of particular interest is the raven rattle illustrated here (89.4.611). Raven rattles, ritual clan objects employed for various uses by their owners, depict the story of the Raven who stole light—symbolic of knowledge—and brought it to humans. The personification of knowledge is carved as tongues extending from the mouth of one being to another.


Historically, the color blue was not in use as a dye, as the method for producing blue was not possible through natural sources on the Northwest Coast. Various shades of green were derived from copper minerals in combination with a native moss. Blue was first introduced by woolen material carried by travelers, mainly blankets, in the early nineteenth century. Blue-dyed blankets (most likely from indigo) were traded with indigenous people, and later the dye was rendered from them through boiling. Synthetic blue dyes were introduced to the market at the turn of the twentieth century, following the isolation of indigotin by Adolf van Baeyer in 1897.


Foreign presence in the Northwest Coast brought with it foreign aesthetics and markets along with the introduction of trade materials, like dyes or dye-products. Native artists were quick to identify the foreigners' propensity to collect and to consume native cultural items and artwork as curios. As foreign traffic became more prevalent in the region—a result of commercial tourism up the coast of North America heading toward the territory that would become Alaska—Euro-American cultural items abounded. Carved, sculptural items, like smoking pipes and walking sticks, appealed to the preexisting art forms of the native people.


The mid-nineteenth-century carved argillite trade of the Queen Charlotte Islands is an example of this phenomenon. Although argillite, a unique type of black shale, is known to have been used minimally by the native inhabitants, a lucrative non-native market firmly established the practice among the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands. A smallpox outbreak in 1862 decimated the population of the islands, effectively halting the intergenerational transmission of traditional art forms. Argillite served as an ideal medium for replicating forms and patterns commonly found on material objects. While artisans were capable of reproducing the physical appearance of centuries-old, three-dimensional cultural objects (albeit on a smaller scale), much of the symbolism and stories inherent to the figures were lost. This fact did not diminish the Euro-American desire to collect argillite sculpture in myriad shapes and sizes, including a western European style duct flute. Additionally, the practice of argillite carving presented Haida artists with an opportunity to begin reconstructing links to traditions of their past. Three-dimensional objects from the region, among them rattles, drums, and whistles, are highly prized for their sculptural innovation and figurative form-line composition by native and non-native people.

Michael Suing
Department of Musical Instruments, The Metropolitan Museum of Art