Why is shopping often seen as the frivolous side of travel? Perhaps it’s a matter of destination because, here in British Columbia, it’s a cultural experience. Browse in the vibrant tourist shops and galleries and you will get it! Aboriginal people — called First Nations in Canada — were hunters, seafarers, and warriors. They were also a spiritual and artistically gifted people.
I moved to British Columbia over a decade ago, and I am still fascinated by the diverse native culture. From the cold Northern Rockies to the hot “pocket desert” of the Okanagan Valley, 50 Nations live in 198 communities. They are all creative with natural materials, but those who live along the coasts are known for the sophistication of their arts and crafts. There is a reason for that.
Once Upon a Time Aboriginal Life
The main native groups of coastal B.C. are the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Salishan tribes. Nature took care of them with a food source at their fingertips: ocean, rivers and forests. Not having to farm give them time to embellish functional items. They developed artful skills and a keen eye for perfect visual balance.
European domination discouraged and even suppressed native expression until the late 60s when self-determination led them back to traditional occupations. Today, native heritage has become a significant asset of B.C. tourism. In fact, First Nations Fine Arts is now taught at community colleges.
In Your Bucket Because…
- There is more to buy than syrup in maple-leaf-shaped bottles, smoked salmon in painted wood boxes, and moose chocolate droppings.
- The aboriginal art of the Northwest is aesthetically more elaborate than native art anywhere else in North America.
- Of interest to visitors who want mementos and gifts, children, and collectors.
Shopping for Native American Art in British Columbia
If you drive from Vancouver to Whistler, or take a ferry to the Sunshine Coast or to the islands, you will have opportunities to shop. But not at every street corner: Native arts and crafts are not mass-produced. They are made in First Nations’ homes, and in the workshops of their cultural centers. From less than $100s in tourist shops up to $10,000s in galleries, prices depend on complexity and size, and on the artist’s reputation. Try to favor authenticity: $25 for a miniature cedar mask instead of $10 for a synthetic totem pole made in China! Be aware, however, that larger items are of fine arts caliber, and priced accordingly!
Sterling silver bangles are popular with their incised traditional motifs of animals such as eagles and frogs. Prices vary from $50 to more than $5,000 for large pieces combined with gold. Pendants, rings and earrings are also created in copper or pewter. A new generation of artists even puts a twist on tradition with creations intended to mainstream fashion: A cedar bark and stone bracelet, for example.
Sculpting stone replaced carving totem poles, forbidden by Canadian Law in the 1800s. The Haida Nation carved argillite and sold sculptures to traders, and later to settlers and visitors. The slate-type stone is only found on their archipelago, and reserved for their use.
Graphic designs and prints
Typically on ecru paper, original graphics was an early source of income from an art form. First, totemic symbols were drawn on paper instead of being carved in wood, then silk screens led to prints. The two traditional basic colors — black and red — were sourced from ochre, and lignite or charcoal. Others derived from barks and mosses. The binding agent was the ingenious result of chewing salmon roe and cedar bark to isolate a liquid, that was then mixed with the pigment. ($400 for a limited print edition, $40 for small framed copies).
If you observe an original or a print, you will notice the calligraphic sophistication of the two-dimensional sketches: Black shadow-lines taper where they end. See how rounded rectangles – called ovoids – express main body parts! Don’t be puzzled if butterflied bodies, flattened beaks, and wings filled with another symbol are separated! It’s the artist’s way to fit everything in the image, for a perfect balance. Today, synthetic colors depict scenery and people, or the spiritual stories of the past.
Basketry and hats
Imagine baskets so tightly woven they held water! They were also used to gather food and to cook. Traditionally made of spruce-root and grasses, cedar bark is often used today. Also woven with cedar bark, hats were effective in the region’s rainy climate thanks to their conic shape. They were allegedly inspired by those of early Japanese seafarers. Today, a spruce root hat sells for $12,000. A small collectible in cedar bark: $30.
Cedar wood carvings
With the proximity of forests, cedar was an abundant material prized for its resistance to rot. The most popular carvings among tourists and collectors are wall plaques (from $75) representing totemic symbols. Masks were used to scare the enemy and to impersonate mythical ancestors. Some of them feature an oversized beak with hidden strings to make it clap and bang. Other symbolic items are totem poles — they indicated the social status within a clan. Priced around $10,000s in galleries, some fetch in the 100,000s when commissioned as ceremonial poles.*
Bentwood boxes and chests are still made from a single cedar plank steamed to allow bending; the fourth corner is laced, pegged, or glued. Filled with water, hot stones were added to make it boil. They were also used to smoke meat, store food for the winter — and as burial urns. Bowls in the form of a clan motif (a raven for example) were carved from a single log, and valued at potlaches (traditional gift-giving celebrations).
Natives worked leather from the animals they hunted and made clothing, mocassins ($100) and boots ($250). Decorated with beads and rabbit fur, they are available in adult and children sizes ($25). Jackets ($450) can be quite flamboyant with fringes, intricate appliqués and adornments. Other items are purses, wallets, and other cases embossed with symbols.
Clothing, Textiles, Knits, Blankets, and First Nations’ Inspired Contemporary Fashion
Clothing was made of goat wool, leather, and of thin strips of cedar that were soaked for flexibility (and used to make baby diapers). Natives wore little or no clothing except during cold months. Chilkat blankets are still worn for ceremonies, and prized by collectors. Those made for high-ranked Chiefs have intricate patterns, can fetch $60,000, and take a year to make. Chilkat blankets draped the grave of a deceased Chief and were left to disintegrate. After European contact, they were slashed to discourage thieves. They are now treasured in museums, slash included.
Button blankets (from $75) are still used in modern ceremonies. They date back to the importation of pearl buttons by fur traders. Cowichan knits ($250) are an art form passed on by British settlers who brought sheep to Vancouver Island. Traditionally hand-knitted from (water-resistant) carded raw wool, Salish Fusion is twisting the traditional designs into new styles and a lighter wool for easier wear.
Contemporary designers such as Chloe Angus and her team find inspiration in traditional designs and collaborate with First Nations artists. Some of these transformative button wraps made of wool, silk, or linen are embellished with Swarovski crystals for a dazzling evening.
Contemporary wares make tradition relevant to everyday use: From silk scarves, etched wine glasses, molded pewter flatware, dishes, towels, toys, to magnifying glasses… all are decorated with traditional symbols.
- Shop for native art downtown Vancouver: Granville Island, South Granville Street, Water Street, Yaletown.
- On the North Shore: Stanley Park/The Artisan Marketplace – By the Horseshoe Bay terminal/The Spirit Gallery – On the First Nations Reserve by the Lions Gate Bridge/Khot-la-cha Gift Shop and Art Gallery.
- At Lonsdale Quay (12-min. crossing by sea-bus from Waterfront, downtown Vancouver or a 10-min. drive from the Lions Gate Bridge).
- On the road to Whistler: Lil’wat Cultural Centre Gallery in Squamish.
- Whistler: The Village shopping center, the Fairmont Hotel.
- If you can’t make up your mind, buy online later!
- Crystal Cabin Gallery in Tlell on Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands.
- House of Himwitsa Native Art Gallery in Tofino on Vancouver Island.
- Go to the source for Cowichan knits on Vancouver Island at Salish Fusion!
- Chloe Angus Design downtown Vancouver.
- Consider the issue of cultural appropriation (Ceremonial garments are not costumes)!
- Learn about totem poles!