Indigenous Art Across Canada

Art mirrors society. That becomes obvious when one walks through a gallery and sees large canvas paintings and marble sculptures representing the fall of Rome, the rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, Modernerism and more. And while it isn’t as well displayed, the same can, of course, be said about Indigenous art. It varies wildly from prehistoric to post European contact to today. It changes even more from region to region across Canada, using different mediums and depicting different beliefs. We can’t cover the hundreds of Indigenous groups across the country in just one article, but here’s a brief look at how some Indigenous art varies over time and distance.

Coast Salish

West Coast

The earliest records of Coast Salish artwork is from 5,000 years ago in the form of sculpture—made out of bone, stone and horns. Many of the oldest carvings depict humans and animals or mythology. In fact, these old sculptures are often thought of today as ancestors, rather than inanimate art pieces, as each one reflects a figure and relays a lesson over generations. In the last few centuries, however, the Coast Salish have become more recognized for other art forms.

What may be one of the most well-known symbols of the Coast Salish is the woven cedar hat, which is perfect for BC’s wet climate, as cedar creates a waterproof seal and expands when it becomes wet. Each of the sloped hats with its wide brim was made unique for its wearer, meaning people could see who was coming, based on the design of the hat.

While people often associate totem poles with west coast Indigenous groups, the Coast Salish are not the original creators of the totem poles you usually see today. Totem poles started on the northwest coast through the Haida, the Tlingit and the Nuxalk, among others. Whereas the Coast Salish built interior house posts—often seen in long houses. They usually represent people, as opposed to other First Nations who carve animals—some with wide bold eyes and others with narrow eyes—or supernatural beings.

The Coast Salish began carving traditional totem poles in the 1920s and ’30s, after the Seattle Chamber of Commerce removed a totem pole from southeast Alaska without consent and placed it in downtown Seattle. It then became a symbol of the city and replicates were added across BC and Alaska. The Coast Salish began carving totem poles—despite the fact that they differed from what they usually created. The poles made by the Coast Salish are often shorter and more minimalist than those from the Northwest coast. Interior poles and totem poles are often created with western red cedar—BC’s official tree.



Métis history has melded together Indigenous and French culture since the 1700s. That influence can be seen through the beading and embroidery Métis often decorate traditional attire with. The floral designs were introduced to the Métis by French-Canadian nuns in the 1800s and soon decorated everything from moccasins, mitts, belts, bags, table cloths and even blankets and jackets for sled dogs. But there is influence from others as well. While Cree have referred to the Métis as the “Flower and Beadwork People,” the geometric patterns seen in some of the work takes inspiration from the patterns several Plains First Nations used on tipi covers and clothing. By the late 1800s, there was a market across Canada and the U.S. for the Métis’ unique beaded designs. With the demise of bison and increasing European settlers, Métis women began decorating Victorian objects like picture frames, glasses cases and greeting cards which sold to tourists. Those designs persist today with Métis from the Prairies as well as from the Western Arctic.


Great Lakes Region

The Anishinaabe are known for many art forms, including birchbark and ash baskets, which traditionally featured designs made from porcupine quills and beads. Those designs can often be seen as floral patterns on moccasins, clothing and bandolier bags.

But these days, when one thinks of Anishinaabe art, one modern artist may come to mind. One of the most well-known Indigenous artists today is Norval Morrisseau, who created the Woodlands style of paintings. Coining the style in the 1950s, it reflects Morrisseau’s Anishinaabe culture, while also combining the modern artwork of his time. In fact, he is known as the “Picasso of the North,” and the “grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art.” Woodland style paintings are vibrant with bold black lines that depicts people, animals and wildlife. Much of it is done in X-ray views, which is coincidentally similar to the X-ray style of art done by Aborigine Australians. Morrisseau’s work is influenced by the history and legends taught to him by his shaman grandfather Moses Potan Nanakonagos. Morrisseau first began painting on birch bark, which is a traditional back drop for Anishinaabe artwork. However, artists later took up the Woodlands style with acrylics, gouache and watercolours on paper, wood panels and canvas.


Eastern Arctic

There are five distinct Canadian Inuit art forms: Pre-Dorset, Dorset, Thule, Historic and Contemporary. Since Pre-Dorset art is nearly 5,000 years old, few artifacts have survived, but there are some, such as harpoon heads and lances made from lithic stones. Dorset culture started to evolve between 500 and 700 BC, where surviving artwork includes the Tyara Maskette—a mask that is 3.5 cm in height and made of ivory. There are several other similar ones and although their purpose is mostly unknown, the size and material they’re made of is often the same. Harpoon heads also exist from that time, but are shaped like bears and falcons and imitate supernatural themes.

As the climate became colder in the 1500s and Europeans were exploring the Arctic, Inuit art began to change. Much of the carvings dialled back on its supernatural themes and instead depicted tools and weapons—only the work was more detailed, as it became less about function and was more a souvenir for settlers in the 1920s. By the 1900s, soapstone and ivory carvings were the first pieces of art to go for sale in the south. Carvings still play a big role in Inuit art today.

However, in the 1950s, printmaking was introduced to Cape Dorset, which produced famous artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak and Pudlo Pudlat. Their work has graced Canadian stamps and has sold in auctions for thousands of dollars. These drawings—both in colour and black and white—depict everything from Arctic animals, traditional ways of life and legends to modern life and vehicles.

Nanook Inuit Art Gallery shares work from Qavavau Manumie:

While it’s just a glimpse of Indigenous art, many of the most well-known forms go to show that tradition and culture has and continues to play a role in art throughout Canada.



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