Art Thompson – Potlatch Figure

Art Thompson
Nuu-chah-nulth (Ditidaht), 1948-2003

Potlatch Figure
Red cedar, hair


Art Thompson, born on Vancouver Island in the village of Whyac on the southern end of Nitinat Lake, considered himself fortunate to have been immersed in the cultural life of his people from an early age when he was initiated into the Tlukwalla (Wolf) Society. As a small boy he learned the history, songs, and dances of his people from his paternal grandfather, who also nurtured Art’s interest in artistic expression.

In 1970, Art met Nuu-chah-nulth artists Joe David and Ron Hamilton, both of whom influenced his development as an artist. His studies at Camosun College in Victoria and at the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver led him to focus on printmaking. He became known for his innovative silkscreen interpretations of Nuu-chah-nulth images. His work is included in many public collections around the world.


 Derived from the Nuu-chah-nulth word pa-chitle, “to give,” the term potlatch refers to a ceremonial event that marks a birth, marriage, death, house-raising, or significant transaction. Potlatches involve ritualized exchange of gifts; the value of the gifts given or received both reflects and determines a clan’s status.

Potlatches are closely bound up with visual and performing arts as well as with family and clan relationships. Tangible gifts exchanged include masks and other carvings, blankets, and coppers. Names, hereditary dances, and other privileges are passed along to family members or special guests. Storytelling, speeches, narrative songs and dances are key components of the festivities. Potlatches have played a key role in cultural and material exchange, the perpetuation of ceremonial traditions, and the definition of individual and clan status.

From 1885-1951, potlatches were banned in Canada, based on objections by missionaries and others who viewed them as extravagant and contrary to Christian values. In recent years, potlatches have tended to be more limited in scope and socioeconomic influence, but continue as an important means of preserving cultural heritage.