Posted in Musings

Ovoids and Northwest Coast Indian Art

In my last post I cited Johnathan Raban’s observation in The sea and it’s meanings about the elongated oval motif seen in Northwest Coast Indian art. He said that the image was inspired by wave patterns on the water’s surface.  Though I wasn’t that impressed by Raban’s book, I think of this idea whenever I contemplate the play of light flitting over the water.

Then I began I began reading The Way of the Masks by Claude Levi-Strauss.

The stories of the masks are about preservation of a heritage, the appearance, healing or perpetuation of the ancestors through drama. Since the drama occurs in the timeless realm, its artistic retelling is continuous with the original creation, and the cyclic rehearsal of the masks’ origins is part of a long process establishing it’s status as an ancestor.

Levi-Strauss, using structural analysis of Salish stories, claims the masks (and accompanying stories, songs and dances) originated on the mainland and made their way to Vancouver Island. During migration, the chthonic, submarine origin stories of the mainland are counterpoised by a celestial derivation. As they made their long journey to the islands the stories underwent a structural and thematic inversion:

“Having placed the masks’ origin at the beginning instead of the end of the tale, and having the masks fall from the sky-in contrast with the mainland versions where they are pulled up from the bottom of the water-the island versions literally do not know how to finish the story. They need a conclusion…”

He goes on to say how these contrasting origin stories were resolved:

“…as the story unfolds between the mainland and the island, it always adopts intermediate courses. Instead of falling from the sky or surfacing from the bottom of a lake, the first mask suddenly appears on the roof of a house: halfway between up-above and down-below.”

Another such midpoint is the surface of the water.

Many have remarked on the Northwest Coast artist’s capacity for improvisation within a limited set of design motifs. With this image of the oval, the  artist invites us to see above and below simultaneously. The ovoid shape and surrounding areas are interwoven with a fluid dynamism that unifies various elements and vantage points.  In addition to the simultaneous views of front and back, left and right, we see a fusion of above and below, uniting not only various views on the horizontal plane, but that along the vertical axis as well. The contrasting viewpoints are artistically realized on a higher plane-a broader prospect that transcends contradiction. Northwest Coast art is animated by the dialectics of height and depth.

In the two origin stories and their resolution we see how myths and art are co-extensive with the tribe’s history, and how the reconciliation of chthonic and celestial origin stories are reflected in the development of artistic styles.


I am an artist, writer and sailor in the Pacific Northwest.

6 thoughts on “Ovoids and Northwest Coast Indian Art

  1. I appreciate your success in putting into words your perception of how this art form conveys a wordless mysterious interface.

  2. The ovoid shapes are found on the sea, in bark and worn wooden pieces of driftwood, and on rocks. I’ve seen them glowing in fire pits. They all speak to a connection with our earth.

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