Indigenous Art of BC Westcoast

Animal Symbols
Source: Understanding Northwest Coast Art - A Guide to Crests, Beings and Symbols
Author: Cheryl Searar
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre, University of Washington Press, 2000


Raven is the cultural focus for Northwest Coast peoples. Mischievous and curious, the Raven discovered the Sun and Moon and symbolizes creation, knowledge and prestige.

Orca (Killer Whale)

The traveller and guardian of the seas, Orca is called by some "Lord of the Ocean." To the Kwakiutl, all great chiefs who die are transformed into Orcas. They are believed to be closely related to humans, thus allowing transformation from one to another. Orcas symbolize long life.


Eagle can be a symbol of power, and belongs to the supernatural world, next in line to Thunderbird. The down from the eagle is a symbol of peace and would be sprinkled before guests in welcome dances. Eagle feathers are used in ritual and as decoration for masks and other carvings. Eagle's beak is shorter than Raven's and has a downward curve with the tongue often being evident.


This great bird, living high in the mountains, is one of the most powerful of all the spirits and is the personification of Chief and protector of people. The flapping of his wings was thought to be the sound of thunder and lightning flashed from his eyes. He is distinguished from the Eagle by the curled 'ears' or feather tufts on the top of its head. These are believed by some to be power symbols.


Hummingbird is thought by some to be a joyful messenger. If a hummingbird appears at a time of sorrow or pain, healing will follow.


The "Giver of Life," Salmon is an important food source for the people of the Northwest Coast and accordingly, always treated with great respect. It is often the crest figure for twins. Salmon is depicted with no teeth, but often with the hooked upper jaw associated with spawning salmon.


Frog, because of its ability to live in both water and on land, is associated with communication, and the transference of knowledge and power. It is recognizable by a large mouth, thick lips, and no teeth.


Sun is thought to have been put into the sky by Raven, along with the moon and the stars. Some believed that entry to the sky world could be gained by the long rays of the sun. Providing the Earth with healing energy, the Sun symbolizes life and creative power.


Moon illuminates the night sky and controls the tides. Moon is associated with transformation and is an important guardian spirit and protector.


Wolf is often associated with the spirit power a man would need to acquire to be a good hunter. It also symbolizes family and togetherness because of its habit of living in packs. Wolf is the land manifestation of the killer whale (Orca), which also lives in family groups or pods. The characteristics are a long snout with sharp teeth and prominent ears, and a long bushy tail.


Bear is a great hunter and symbolizes strength and power. Always treated as a high-ranking guest by many of the cultural groups on the coast, it is also known for its human-like qualities. The characteristics of the bear that are symbolized in Northwest Coast art are: a short blunt nose with conspicuous teeth, a protruding tongue, small upright ears and claw-like fore and hind paws.


Loon is known for its unique and haunting voice: it is a carrier of power and magic. Loon symbolizes wealth and is generally depicted with a long, pointed beak and in a floating posture.


Sometimes associated with hard work, perseverance and determination, Beaver depicted in Northwest Coast art is one of the easiest to recognize. Two identifying symbols are the large incisor teeth and the flat, broad tail. These two elements are always used, with the tail being crosshatched to resemble the patterning on the scaly surface.


The Otter is a playful spirit and is often associated with the Shaman. In legend, Otter is the dispenser of great riches and symbolizes wealth and light heartedness. It is identified by a blunt head, sharp teeth and streamlined body.


The Heron is valued as an alarm caller because of its loud warning call. In myth, Heron appears as a watchman. It is identified by its long neck, long legs and pointed bill.


Owl, because of its nocturnal habits and silent flight, is often associated with the spirit world. For some of the cultural groups of the coast, Owl is associated with Shaman as spirit helpers and healers. They are depicted with large eyes, a rounded face and a small, curved beak.


Sisiutl is a two-headed serpent, and is often used as a symbol of protection. This supernatural being could transform itself into many things, including a self-moving canoe, which the owner would feed with seals. Sisiutl is always portrayed with a face in the centre of its body, and the two ends of the snake extending out from the sides of the face or curling around to form a circle. The profile heads on each end have curled horn-like appendages, teeth and a long tongue.

Wild Woman (Dzunuk'wa)

A female monster in Northwest Coast peoples culture, the Wild Woman possesses great strength and spiritual power. A human flesh-eating being, she is known to capture human children who stumble into her path. The Wild Woman, while having magical powers and wealth, is also known for her weaknesses of vanity and being easily tricked. She is identified by her large, round eyes, open mouth, thick dark hair, and sometimes facial hair. The Wild Woman is often painted black, with red, dark lips from drinking human blood.

Wild Man (Bakwas)

The Wild Man of the Woods is a supernatural being who is the Keeper of Drowned Souls. He lies in wait on the edge forests or near water to tempt those who stumble upon him, to eat his ghost food. Children are told to be wary of him. Characterized by a human-like, skeletal face with hollowed eyes and cheeks, a hooked nose, and a big, grimacing mouth.

Copper Shield

One of the first metals used by Northwest Coast peoples, copper was viewed as having great value and prestige. The Copper Shield is an important symbol, representing status, power, and wealth.

Crooked Beak

A monstrous, human-eating bird, Crooked Beak is one of three cannibalistic birds featured in the Hamatsa (Cannibal Dance) Ceremony. Crooked Beak evokes fear and is recognized by its squared head, short, wide beak, flaring, wide-spaced nostrils, and aggressive expression.