Prior to contact with Europeans, First Nations on the Northwest coast evolved complex social and ceremonial institutions, including the potlatch system, hereditary systems of rank and descent, ceremonial societies, and permanent villages. Social organization involved groups of kin, reckoned variously matrilineally, patrilineally or bi-lineally. These groups hold various tangible and intangible rights and properties. Among them are origin stories. Many instances of Northwest coast art are visual references to these stories.
After European contact, in the late 18th century, the peoples who produced Northwest Coast art suffered huge population losses due to diseases such as smallpox, and cultural losses due to colonization and assimilation into European-North American culture. The production of their art dropped drastically as well.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Northwest Coast artists began producing work for commercial sale, such as small argillite carvings. The end of the 19th century also saw large-scale export of totem poles, masks and other traditional art objects from the region to museums and private collectors around the world. Some of this export was accompanied by financial compensation to people who had a right to sell the art, and some was not.
In the early 20th century, very few First Nations artists in the Northwest Coast region were producing art. A tenuous link to older traditions remained in artists such as Charles Gladstone, Henry Speck, Ellen Neel, Stanley George, and Mungo Martin. The mid-20th century saw a revival of interest and production of Northwest Coast art, due to the influence of historians, artists and critics including Bill Reid, a grandson of Charles Gladstone and Bill Holm. A revival of traditional ceremonial ways also drove the increased production of traditional arts. This time also saw an increasing demand for the return of art objects that were illegally or immorally taken from First Nations communities. This demand continues to the present day. Today, there are numerous art schools teaching formal Northwest Coast art of various styles, and there is a growing market for new art in this style.
The revival of ceremonial life, following the lifting of the potlatch ban – have also driven production of traditional clothing, painting and carving for use in ceremonies.
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