Native Art of the Northwest Coast

  • 2013

Chapter 3: Haida Cosmic, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Shortlisted, 2014 Melva J. Dwyer Award, Art Libraries Society of North America - Canadian Chapter

The Northwest Coast of North America has long been recognized as one of the world's canonical art zones. Since the mid-1700s, objects or "art" deriving from the Indigenous cultures of this area have been desired, displayed, and exchanged, classified and interpreted, stolen and confiscated, bought and sold, and displayed again in many parts of the world. "Northwest Coast Native art" has proved to be a powerful idea, assuming many guises over the centuries. But how has it been defined, and by whom and why?

This remarkable volume, many years in the making, records and scrutinizes definitions of Northwest Coast Native art and its boundaries. A work of critical historiography, it makes accessible for the first time in one place a broad selection of more than 250 years of writing on Northwest Coast "art." Organized thematically, its excerpted texts are from both published and unpublished sources, some not previously available in English. They cover such complex topics as the clash between oral and written knowledge, transcultural entanglement, the influence of surrealist thinking, and the long history of the deployment of Northwest Coast Native art for nationalist purposes. The selections are preceded by thought-provoking introductions that give historical context to the diverse intellectual traditions that have influenced, stimulated, and opposed each other.

The central importance of this book is that it counters the tendency to turn Northwest Coast Native "art" into a one-dimensional spectacle that obscures and reduces the values of its component cultures and ignores the wider histories of thought that have contributed to its production. In unsettling the conventions that have shaped "the idea of Northwest Coast Native art," this book takes a central place in the lively, often heated, and now global, debates about what constitutes Native art and who should decide.


  • A survey of the history of ideas and arguments that have shaped and disputed Northwest Coast Native art for more than 250 years.
  • Contributors include leading Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians, art historians, anthropologists, legal experts, artists, and holders of traditional Indigenous knowledge.
  • Richly illustrated with black-and-white figures and colour plates.
  • A significant resource for scholars and students in a variety of disciplines that will also resonate with a wide international readership.


This work is an anthology, akin to improvisational jazz... embroidered around a core theme... but allowing every contributor remarkable latitude, creativity, and individuality. Subtitled "A history of changing ideas," it indeed questions many long-held assumptions in the field, and posits fresh notions on contemporaneity. It also works to suggest what might be appropriate, respectful, and well-informed means of appreciating, sharing, and studying ceremonial objects, and the Native Northwest cultures which imbued them with life... it is rare indeed that one encounters a book with the capacity to make the reader feel woefully uninformed, while simultaneously tempering with the unflinchingly illustrative personal narratives of Native elders, Haida Manga, and thought-provoking arguments on cultural patrimony... to the degree that any criticism can be made of this volume, it would only be that its sheer size may deter the casual observer who sees it on a shelf. This would truly be a shame, since its wealth of information, multiplicity of perspectives, diversity of opinion, and review of historical literature make it a terrific resource for any library.
-- Michelle Paquette, Circulation, Periodicals, and Reserves Specialist, Frick Fine Arts Library, ARLIS/NA Reviews, 2014