The First Nations of the Northwest Coast – the Kaigani Haida, the Tlingit, the Tsimshian – are known as the “people of the totem,” a reference to the large carved poles seen in their villages. Their totems symbolize the secret power of the legendary ancestor and protector of the family or clan. They are also a visual representation of this power, which is usually associated with an animal like a bear, wolf, whale, raven or fish, or even a plant.
The raven – humankind’s creator and benefactor – is one of the most important of these figures. Here, a raven sits astride a fish. Highlighted with colour and copper cutouts, the fish’s hollowed-out wooden form is a helmet meant to be worn by a dancer during a ceremony such as a potlatch. Signs of the power and wealth of an individual or group, gifts were central to this tradition, sometimes prompting rival clans to attempt to surpass each other in offering objects of value.