Time Period: 1931

Category: Accessories; Wallets, Pockets, and Purses

Accession Number: 1962.99.42

Donor: Whitlock Collection


Above is the image of a handmade, Nootka inspired, Canadian handbag. This bag displays a plain weave using an off-white, burlap-like fabric held together with a zig-zag stitch border using black, teal, and orange yarn. The image of a fish eagle, also known as the koot, is embroidered on one side of the bag with forest green, orange, yellow, off-white, and black yarn. On the opposite side, the image of the conventional hawk's head is embroidered using yellow, black, teal, and off-white yarn. Inside, the bag is lined with light teal fabric sewn in place with orange stitching. This handbag is 10.5 inches (26.7 cm) wide by 10 inches (25.4 cm) long with an opening 15 inches (38.1 cm) in diameter. Attached are two 11.5 inch (29.2 cm) long straps spaced 5 inches (12.7 cm) apart. The inner tag reads " NOOTKA BAG- worked by Alice Ravenhill. Victoria. B.C. Canada.- Koot, the Fish Eagle. Painted by Geneskels, a Haida Chief and Principal Tattoo Painter to the Tribe. 1873.- On the reverse: conventional Hawk's head, carved on a Haida Grease Bowl; Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands. B.C. Canada.- Originals in the Provincial Museum, Victoria. B.C. Canada."


Alice Ravenhill, the creator of this handbag, was born in Essex, England in 1859. Ravenhill had a strong passion for home economics and child care, graduating from the British National Health Society with a degree in domestic sciences. Ravenhill emigrated to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada in 1910 where she quickly gained interest in the arts and crafts of the aboriginal people. Inspired by the designs of the indigenous craft collection from the Provincial Archives, Ravenhill began creating rugs, bags, and other household items. Ravenhill's artistic creations did not gain popularity until 1935 when she shifted her focus towards educating children. In 1938, Ravenhill published The Native Tribes of British Columbia to act as a guide for teachers to educate children on the history of the aboriginal people. The native tribes gained significant recognition from this publication leading to the formation of the Society for Furtherance of British Columbia Indian Arts and Crafts, spearheaded by Ravenhill in 1940. This committee aspired to gain societal and federal interest in order to preserve the native American cultures and supplement the Canadian economy. In 1944, Ravenhill published a second book called A Cornerstone of Canadian Culture: An Outline of the Arts and Crafts of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia. Alice Ravenhill was, and continues to be, an iconic figure in the revitalization of aboriginal arts and crafts.[1]

According to the tag attached to the inner lining of this bag, the design of this handbag stems from the First Nations Nootka and Haida tribes. The Nootka tribe is historically indigenous to Vancouver Island, located off the mainland of northwest Canada. The climate in this area is lush with frequent rainfall.[2] Indigenous North American tribes were hunters and gatherers. They depended on the land and animals as a means for survival. In order to protect themselves from the environment, northern tribes such as the Nootka created garments using plant fibers. Clothing and household objects were usually hand woven using materials such as evergreen root, bark fibers, sedges, grasses, and ferns.[3] Pictured below is an original cedar bark bag produced in the Nootka region. This original bag, along with thousands of other traditional objects, is part of the Royal BC Museum's Ethnology collection

The embroidered designs on this handbag are linked to the Haida tribe. The Haida tribe occupied the Queen Charlotte Islands, an area just north of the Nootka.[4] Similar to the Nootka, the Haida depended on the land and animals for survival. The tribes had great respect for the animals and honored them through mythological stories and crests. Although the crests are artistic and well designed, their main purpose was to serve as statements of social identity. The Haida were divided into two social groups, the ravens and the eagles. Crests were lineage specific and were portrayed through painting, tattooing, and stitching.[5] According to the tag, the embroidered "koot" or fish eagle on this bag is a crest that was originally created by chief Geneskels in 1873. Geneskels was the primary tattoo painter of the tribe. The eagle was a sacred creature to the Haida tribe, representing power and prestige. Haida families either owned or inherited the right to use this crest. Additionally, eagle down was sprinkled around during important ceremonies. Eagle feathers were utilized in prayer and also given as a gift to show respect to an individual's accomplishment or act of courage and wisdom.[6]

The Haida were well known for their carving and exceptional craftsmanship. They created magnificent canoes and totem poles. Additionally, they carved and painted household items such as bowls, trays, ladles, and spoons. These items were considered prestigious because they were used to hold and serve food at ceremonial potlatch events. According to the tag, the embroidered design on the opposite side is a hawk head carved onto a grease bowl. Grease bowls were traditionally carved from a solid block of wood, usually alder. They were used to hold fish oil, a dipping sauce enjoyed at potlatch ceremonies. Pictured below is an original Haida grease bowl, also part of the Royal BC Museum's Ethnology collection. This embroidery utilizes a two-dimensional "flat line" design, popular in original northwest coast art. The flat line design utilizes form-lines and ovoids. Primary form-lines outline the figure while secondary form-lines are used to fill in the primary. Rounded and bulging ovals or rectangles, termed ovoids, are used to portray eyes, joints, teeth, ears, and nostrils.[7]


Anna Costello

Last updated:

March 21, 2015

Other Images

Embroidered Eagle Grease Bowel
Inner Lining
62.99.42_inside tag.JPG
Handbag Tag

  1. ^ Wan, Lilynn. 2013. ""A NATION OF ARTISTS": Alice Ravenhill and the Society for the Furtherance of British Columbia Indian Arts and Crafts." BC Studies 178: 51-70. Accessed March 17, 2015. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.uri.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=313fd40b-b07d-4b13-b014-a60bf0b0de35%40sessionmgr111vid=6&hid=102
  2. ^ Parsons, Adam. 2000. "The Nootka Indians." www.dcccd.edu. Accessed March 9, 2015 http://delrio.dcccd.edu/pnunley/HOMEPAGE/PARSONS/DREAM.HTM
  3. ^ Steele, Valerie. 2005. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Vol. 1. Farmington Hills, MI: Charles Scribner's Sons, 42-45.
  4. ^ "Haida People." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed March 6, 2015 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/251732/Haida
  5. ^ MacDonald, George. "The Haida : Children of Eagle and Raven." Canadian Museum of History. Accessed May 2, 2015.
  6. ^ Squamish Lilwat Cultural Centre. 2011. "Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre Whistler, B.C." Accessed April 6, 2015.http://slcc.ca/.
  7. ^ MacDonald, George. Canadian Museum of History. "The Haida : Children of Eagle and Raven." Accessed May 2, 2015.