Northwest Rock Art


What is the Northwest area, exactly?

Figure 1: (Hill, Indian, 28) Map of the Northwest Area and the tribes which occupy it. The tribes are (from North to South): The Tlingit, the Tsimshian, the Haida, the Native Americans of Bella Coola, the Kwakiutl, the Nootka, the Native Americans of Coast Salish, and the Chinook.

The region goes from Yakutat Bay in Southeastern Alaska and runs to Trinidad Bay in Northwestern California. This region gets a lot of rain, has very dense coniferous forests and many big rivers. There are also many islands, the largest of which is Vancouver Island.

Figure 2: (Wellman, picture C-1) Here is an example of the forests in the Northwest:

Figure 3: (Wellman, picture 2) And here is an example of the coast where many petroglyphs are found:

Who are the tribes?

The tribes are (from northernmost to southernmost): the Tlingit, the Tsimshian, the Haida, the Native Americans of Bella Coola, the Kwakiutl, the Nootka, the Native Americans of Coast Salish, and the Chinook.

More about the tribes and types of rock art each has: The tribes


What types of resources did they have?

The Northwest Native Americans mainly ate the 5 different types of salmon available to them, as well as carved and created many useful objects from the red cedar. Examples of what they carved are: canoes, big communal houses, totem poles, caved vessels, figureheads for their canoes, utensils, and masks.

What types of Rock Art are there?

There are two main types of Northwestern rock art. There are petroglyphs which are highly stylized, and there are pictographs, mainly using red paint, which are more natural pictures. The pictographs are found mainly in the southern part of the northwestern area.

To hear more about the rock art Click Here

To see the comparison to the crafts Click Here

How old is the rock art?

Well, we're not totally sure. But I'll give you some different theories. It is extremely difficult to date the rock art using typical dating methods because much of the art doesn't have the organisms growing in it, or there isn't any superpositioning to give us any concept of what came first. So therefore we use techniques like tree ring dating or how much dirt was on top of the art, ethnography, or just use the motif of the art itself (like if it has post-contact images).

The seemingly oldest piece of rock art is a petroglyph found 10 feet below the roots of a 1000 year old tree. Doris Lundy believes some of the rock art is at least 2000 years old. So there is still a debate about the age of the art.

Another interesting thing in relation to the age of the rock art is how many petroglyphs surface at low or medium tide. Did the artist mean to draw it such that is did this, or did he draw it back when low tide was lower than it is now, and so the rocks weren't ever submerged? Scientists estimate that that would have been 2000 years ago. But the next question is whether the petroglyphs would have survived too many years of being beaten by waves (since soon after the rocks would've been covered by water). One guy, Keithahn, has suggested that it is possible that the Northwestern Native Americans purposefully placed the art on rocks in the water to "carry their pleas out to the seas" (Wellman, 36). So we still do not know how old some of the art is. But we do know some is fairly recent.

Why did they do this art?

We are unsure of this as well. Some of the art is definitely just to pass time (we know this from ethnography). For instance, when one Northwest Native American was asked what he was doing, he said he was "pass[ing] the time while waiting for the tide to change." (Wellman, 37). However, much of the art is about myths or ceremonies. However, Lundy asks the question about whether "the myths inspired the designs" or vice versa. Therefore, the reasoning behind creating the art is unknown to us.

What about their culture?

One main thing that was pretty important to the Northwestern Native Americans was wealth. They had "potlatch ceremonies" where the chief of the tribe would throw a big party and invite guests who were required to bring gifts. The chief also gave away things of his own which the guests were required to take, but then later return with interest. This lead to who could destroy more of their own valuable stuff in order to show their wealth. This culture put a huge importance on social status (hmm. sound familiar?). Some important status symbols were coppers as shown below (they are a sketch of the petroglyph in figure 5).

Figure 4: (Grant, Imprint, 18)

Figure 5:(Grant, Rock Art, 85)


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