Native Arts and Crafts
Indigenous artistry tends to fall into one of two categories: “arts,” such as woodcarving and painting, argillite carving, jade- and silverwork, and totem restoration (all generally attended to by the men), and “handicrafts,” such as basketry, weaving, beadwork, skinwork, sewing, and knitting (generally created by the women). Today, all of these arts and crafts contribute significant income to First Nations communities.
Painting and woodcarving are probably the most recognized art forms of the northern west coast tribes. Throughout British Columbia— in museums and people’s homes, outdoors, and of course in all the shops—you can see brightly colored carved totems, canoes, paddles, fantastic masks, and ceremonial rattles, feast dishes, bowls, and spoons. Fabulous designs, many featuring animals or mythical legends, are also painstakingly painted in bright primary colors on paper. You can buy limited-edition, high-quality prints of these paintings at many Indian craft outlets. They are more reasonable in cost than carvings, yet just as stunning when effectively framed.
Basketry comes in a variety of styles and materials. Watch for decorative cedar-root (fairly rare) and cedar-bark baskets, still made on the west coast of Vancouver Island; spruce-root baskets from the Queen Charlotte Islands; and beautiful, functional, birch-bark baskets from the Hazelton area, between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
Beaded and fringed moccasins, jackets, vests, and gloves are available at most craft outlets. And all outdoor types should consider forking out for a heavy, water-resistant, raw-sheep-wool sweater; they’re generally white or gray with a black design, much in demand because they’re warm, good in the rain, rugged, and last longer than one lifetime. One of the best places to get your hands on one is the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, although you can also find them in the Fraser Valley from Vancouver to Lytton and in native craft outlets. Expect to pay around $90–160 for the real thing, more in tourist shops.
Carved argillite (black slate) miniature totem poles, brooches, ashtrays, and other small items, highly decorated with geometric and animal designs, are created exclusively by the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands; the argillite comes from a quarry near Skidegate and can only be used by the Skidegate band. You can find argillite carvings in Skidegate and in craft shops in Prince Rupert, Victoria, and Vancouver. Silverwork is also popular, and some of the best is created by the Haida. Particularly notable is the work of Bill Reid, a Haida artist living in Vancouver. Jade jewelry can be seen in the Lillooet and Lytton areas.
Shops throughout British Columbia are generally open Monday–Friday 9 a.m.–5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Major malls stay open all weekend.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition