The Visual Vernacular of Northwest Coast Indigenous Prints and Coast Salish Aesthetics

India Rael Young
Andrew W. Mellon Dissertation Fellow, Department of Art and Art History,
University of New Mexico

India Rael Young is an Andrew W. Mellon Dissertation Fellow in Art History at the University of New Mexico. Young’s research addresses the history of contemporary Native and First Nations prints from the Northwest Coast. More broadly, Young’s interests lie in North American print media and emerging modes of reproduction. Her curatorship and writing negotiate feminist, post-colonial, and critical race frameworks to expose the complex web of cultural underpinnings in the North American art world.

Over the last sixty years the Northwest Coast has developed a vibrant and flourishing Indigenous print culture. With over 10,000 editions, these art prints have come to signify that which is Indigenous to the coast through their iconic graphics. In his 1983 text, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson perceives the relationship between the emergence of capitalism, printing in European vernaculars, and newly defined nation-states.1 The inherent reproducibility of print allows for mass distribution, and when printers began to print in vernacular languages, discourses that would have otherwise been isolated to one language-group now became commonly understood, and broadly accessible. Those communities who spoke regional dialects began to define themselves in relation to certain shared linguistic traits, and Anderson argues that nation-states became defined through “national print-languages.”2 Of course, there is nothing imagined about the very real emergence of language-based nations that largely continue to define Europe today. The vernacular is predicated on the relationship between language and geography. It is indigenous and native, as opposed to literary or learned. Indigeneity is inherent to the bond of common understanding.

Northwest Coast aesthetics have been in place for centuries, and their roots reach to time immemorial. The term aesthetic has its own European antecedents and it has been argued that such colonial language can never fully define Indigenous concepts.3 Nevertheless, it establishes a lingua franca. Like the vernacular, aesthetics create a commonality between a concept and a culture. The many peoples of the Northwest Coast – from the Coast Salish who are aboriginal to territories on the Olympic Peninsula, through Seattle, Vancouver and Southern Vancouver Island, all the way to the Tlingit of the Alaskan Panhandle – create objects with culturally distinctive but aesthetically related iconographies. These many peoples have long histories of using particular visual languages to relate their laws, their histories, and their ways of understanding the world. The art print is the newest medium employed to relay this visual vocabulary. With the arrival of the silkscreen in the 1960s, a new era of Northwest Coast aesthetics emerged when coastal artists consciously decided to assume the simultaneous identities of artist (as differentiated from craftsmen or artisan) and Native.

The other defining element of vernacular, for Anderson and for coastal arts, is capitalism. In the 1960s and 70s, after decades of disenfranchisement, and during the civil rights era, coastal Indigenous craftsmen began to cultivate a new space for their objects. No longer interested in the pigeonholes of the tourist industry or of ethnographic informant, cultural object-makers came out as full artists, whose works could rival contemporaries across the landscape of the art world.4 These artists, primarily through new commercial galleries, used capitalism to redefine their cultural products and works of art, made to be consumed for their aesthetic value. The Northwest Coast art market and the Native silkscreen developed simultaneously because the medium was broadly recognizable, accessible, and could infinitely disseminate Northwest Coast presence.

In 1965, just one year after Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Chief Henry Speck’s silkscreens became the first Northwest Coast Native art prints, a new text gave this visual history a name. Bill Holm’s Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form inventoried 392 historic objects from museum collections across North America, and employed art historical traditions of Connoisseurship and Formalism to analyze the visual language at play. In this now iconic work, Holm coined the term formline to describe the calligraphic lines that define the graphics of the Northern peoples of the Pacific Northwest, including the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. The text broke down the components of this historic graphic form into discrete elements, primarily the line, the ovoid, and the u-form. These elements, ever united by fluid dynamic formlines, are both infinitely mutable and simultaneously specifically structured, much like the fundaments of a language. The term formline, along with the text, proliferated throughout the region; artists referenced the printed images as a kind of handbook, and academics used the art-centric language to reinvigorate the study of Northwest Coast material culture. In the fiftieth anniversary edition of the text, Holm reflects:

Probably the first thing I would have changed is the title, adding the word northern before Northwest Coast. Although the geographic limits of the tradition are stated a number of times in the text, many artists and some others using it have often skipped the words in favor of the pictures. The result has been that many people have assumed the art tradition described was pancoastal.5 

Here Holm obliquely refers to the ubiquitous employment of the term formline to describe all graphic art from the coast. Holm’s text arrived at a nexus of larger societal shifts in perceptions and possibilities. Northwest Coast artists became interested in establishing a sophisticated market that would bring the power of visibility and unity to Indigenous peoples in the region. Coastal artists reproduced and disseminated this bold, graphic aesthetic in historic and new media to cultivate a newly imagined community.

There is no definitive border that defines the peoples of the Northwest Coast. These nations, connected by geography and cultural values, are as diverse as they are similar. Their territories today span over 2,000 miles of coast. Historically, northern nations developed a highly codified visual system, while the other nations used related bold, abstract graphic form in similar, but more freely occurring fashions. Yet, modern artists specifically from the Haida, Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, Nuu-Chah-Nulth, and Coast Salish nations deployed the print medium to reinforce their communities’ culturally specific graphics within a larger aesthetic discourse. Each of these groups has enough artists working within a common aesthetic to create culturally distinct works on paper.

The Coast Salish, whose territories span the Canada/US border, who speak fourteen languages as diverse as Spanish and German, and whose historic cultural objects were most severely decimated by urban settler development, have used the print medium to build unity, and to command space within the Northwest Coast art world as distinct from Northern nations’ aesthetics.6 Susan Point has said,

I have used printmaking to create images of educational value, giving historical insight into the roots of my culture, the environment and current social issues… Overall, I hope that through my artwork I have used a visual language to help carry the torch that was lit by my ancestors.7

Coast Salish prints cultivate Anderson’s imagined communities through their dissemination of specific and regionally common culture. Likewise, Haida, Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, and Nuu-Chah-Nulth prints can be distinguished as culturally specific while simultaneously identifiable as part of the broader Northwest Coast aesthetic.

Today’s Coast Salish artists work with a distinctive visual language to make themselves visible through aesthetics that can be easily read by larger cultures, nations, and economies. This language, which has only been developed in the last three decades, is both legible as “Northwest Coast Native art,” and as distinctively Coast Salish to regional and educated audiences. Between the 1960s and 80s, a handful of Coast Salish artists working in the print medium employed variations of formline. Once the silkscreen had fully cemented itself as an object with cultural value, a new generation of contemporary Coast Salish artists entering the Northwest Coast art market concertedly worked to distinguish their works as separate from formline design. Galleries were hesitant to market these new graphics because they did not conform to the strictures of formline.8 Yet, like Tony Hunt and Robert Davidson before them, this second generation of artists turned to museum archives for guidance and inspiration and pushed for the continuation and recognition of their arts tradition.

Working from a much thinner archive of material than other coastal communities, Coast Salish artists quickly found value in reproducibility. They focused on certain objects which had been most often reproduced in texts, such as spindle whorls, basketry and rattles, and identified formal characteristics of historic Salish design that they could link to the larger vocabulary of coastal aesthetics. As a literature about contemporary Coast Salish art has emerged such forms have often been isolated as distinctively “Salish” and new language has been coined to describe it. Notably, scholars often speak of the crescent, circle, and trigon.9 As with discourses on formline, these forms have now become routinely employed by scholars and dealers alike to define Coast Salish art. If we carry the parallel back to vernacular languages, bold graphic lines could be considered the root language. In their graphics, northern communities chose to create a rigid, formal employment of distinctive forms and lines. In sculptural works, the Salish sometimes employed circles, crescents, and trigons to ornament parts of representational figures, while simple geometries reigned in their basketry and weaving. Salish artists have used these elements to ally themselves with the visual and textural rhetoric of coastal arts.

The overwhelming tendency to draw parallels to formline has resulted in a gap in the discourse. Coast Salish artists revel in the representational elements of historic Salish works to push contemporary design. The archive of sculptural objects illustrates delightful figural forms of humans and animals: minks on house posts and in miniature, top-hatted men smoking pipes on combs, and wonderfully human faces almost everywhere. Their most defining characteristics are not necessarily their abstract forms but their very real and recognizable figures. Susan Point and Charles Elliott, among others, began their careers in Coast Salish aesthetics with overtly representational pieces that defied the formline abstraction. Their figures became ornamented rather than articulated by form. For the first time in the medium, design moved beyond pure graphic forms on plain backgrounds into figural forms, sometimes within full landscapes (Figure 1).10 Once Point and Elliott (and northern artist Roy Henry Vickers must also be acknowledged here) established that such works were salable, the possibilities for Indigenous graphics expanded.


Figure 1 Charles Elliott, Blue Heron, 1980, Serigraph on paper, University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries

Along with a revision of what constituted Northwest Coast design, Coast Salish artists radically expanded the “acceptable” colour palette and its employment. Most notably, Susan Point insisted upon a broad colour spectrum that illuminated the possibilities of the silkscreen medium. Red and black had become synonymous with “Haida” graphics, and Northwest Coast design in general. The Nuu-Chah-Nulth insisted upon Rickett’s blue, and Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw artists included bold yellows and oranges. Some artists depicted rainbows. These colours, when experimented with in the 1970s, were aggressively bright and bold. Point used the silkscreen process itself to blend colour into design. One colour melded into the next through a refined pulling technique (Figure 2). Rather than the intense colours of the 1970s, Point’s new palette tended towards the feminine, with rosy pinks, lilacs, and sea foam greens. This revisioning of colour insisted upon women’s inclusion in contemporary practice.


Figure 2 Susan Point, Sturgeon, 1985, Serigraph on paper, University of Victoria Legacy Art Galleries

Both Point’s blending technique and her broad palette would become signature features of Coast Salish aesthetics, and would redefine the conversation about what constituted Northwest Coast design. Artists like Douglas LaFortune, Charles Elliott, Stan Greene, Floyd Joseph, Marvin Oliver, and Jane Marston helped establish the parameters for Coast Salish aesthetics throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 2000s a new generation of artists entered the market. Now secure in a recognizably cultural aesthetic, these young artists, many of whose parents defined contemporary practice, broadly deploy the aesthetic tools of their arsenal: elemental geometries; a completely free palette; landscapes that fill the page; and forms elevated to minimalism. Scholar of the Coast Salish Wayne Suttles has written:

… it took so long for writers on Northwest Coast art to recognize a Coast Salish style [because of] a tendency to view “tribal culture” as a homogenous, clearly bounded entity. The evidence today points to a more complex picture, with art influenced by localized practices and a fluid movement of ideas and styles.11

It is undoubtedly true that contemporary Coast Salish art has insisted upon an expanded interpretation of Northwest Coast aesthetics that continues to evolve. Yet, it remains equally true that a conception of united community has emerged from a shared visual language written only in the last thirty-five years. This youngest generation of artists operates with an established vernacular. Maynard Johnny Jr. has casually observed that in 1994, when he first began working in prints, people remarked how his pieces looked like Susan Point’s. At that moment Point’s visibility indicated the growing recognition of Coast Salish style. Yet, with family connections to both Coast Salish and Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw nations, he is able to move fluidly between the aesthetic traditions of both his Coast Salish and Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw heritages. Likewise, Andy Everson’s designs embody a complex identity. To a learned audience certain elements of design and colour choices may be dissected as signifiers that belong to one nation or another. Meanwhile, to the popular observer on BC Ferries, at the dentist’s office, or within the halls of the University of Victoria, Coast Salish prints demarcate regional Indigeneity.

The silkscreen has disseminated Northwest Coast design throughout the region and the globe. Coast Salish artists Point and Oliver have built their reputations on the relationship between their monumental public works in Vancouver and Seattle and the corresponding limited editions that circulate far beyond the coast. Northwest Coast prints, from their earliest moments, established a common bond of medium between the Northwest Coast art world and the larger North American world’s perception of art. Almost contrarily, they helped define and refine the many visual languages of coastal communities. Coast Salish prints articulate a community unified by a visual language. What historically had been read as idiomatic or fragmentary when compared to the formal system of northern design, has now been reclaimed through what Benedict Anderson might call print-capitalism and broad circulation. Coast Salish prints can be defined within – and distinct from – Northwest Coast graphics.12 They signify a place and a people through shared representation.


  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 1991).

  2. Anderson, 37-46.

  3. Ki-Ke-In, “Art for Whose Sake,” in Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas. Eds. Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Jennifer Kramer, Ki-Ke-In (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2013), 677-719; Richard William Hill, “Is There an Indigenous Way to Write about Indigenous Art,” Canadian Art, May 25, 2016, accessed June 28, 2016,

  4. Northwest Coast Indian Artists Guild: 1977 Graphics Collection (Ottawa: Canadian Indian Marketing Services).

  5. Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014), xxi.

  6. Wayne Suttles, “The Recognition of Coast Salish Art,” in S’abadeb = The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists. Ed. Barbara Brotherton (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press), 60; Private correspondence with between Andrea Walsh and Peter Jacob (June 25, 2016) illuminated continuing evolutions in understanding the breadth of the Salishan language family, and the linguistic and cultural modes employed to distinguish the Coast Salish.

  7. Gary Wyatt, Susan Point Works on Paper (Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2014), 3.

  8. Barbara Brotherton, “How Did it All Get Here? Tracing the Path of Salish Art in Collections,” S’abadeb = The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press), 120; Peter Macnair, Alan L. Hoover, and Kevin Neary, The Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Northwest Coast Indian Art (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1984), 110; Edith Ross and Hal Krieger in discussion with Edwin Hall and Margaret Blackman, January 1, 1978; January 17, 1978 (unpublished interview transcripts).

  9. Steven C. Brown, “The Coast Salish Two-Dimensional Art Style: An Examination,” in Contemporary Coast Salish Art. Eds. Rebecca Blanchard; Nancy Davenport (Seattle: Stonington Gallery; University of Washington Press, 2005); Shaun Peterson, “Coast Salish Design: An Anticipated Southern Analysis,” in In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum. Eds. Robin Wright, Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013), 13-21.

  10. There are a few exceptions: Charlie James and Mungo Martin were known to occasionally include watercolour landscapes in their drawings on paper, and some mid-century artists worked within European painting traditions.

  11. Suttles, 65.

  12. Ibid, 56.