January 28, 2014

Searching for what inspired the Seattle Seahawks logo

By Robin K. Wright

Since its debut in 1975, people have been speculating about the design influence for the Seattle Seahawks team logo, but until recently, a specific object that most likely inspired the designers had not been identified.



At the time of the 1975 logo design, the central and northern Northwest Coast art (traditional to the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakwaka’wakw tribes of Alaska and northern British Columbia) were the most readily recognized design styles from the Pacific Northwest Coast. 

The reasons for this are multi-faceted going back to the late 19th century popularity of the totem poles, seen by tourists on steam ship trips traveling to Alaska and British Columbia. One of these poles was appropriated (literally stolen) and used as a symbol of Seattle starting in 1899, gaining even more popularity during the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition of 1909. (1) 

Burke Museum Curator Emeritus Bill Holm’s pivotal 1965 book, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form (2), provided us with the vocabulary now used to describe this northern art style, further bringing this northern design system into public awareness. 

These northern Northwest Coast art forms eclipsed the more subtle and private expressions of art made by the local Coast Salish tribes throughout western Washington, until local Coast Salish artists such as William Shelton and Joseph Hillaire began carving Salish-style “Story Poles” and displaying them publicly throughout the region. (3) 

The original Seahawks logo designers referenced books about Northwest Coast art for the design inspiration:
(Seahawks general manager) Thompson said the NFL firm did refer to some books on Northwest Indian culture. 'Our intent was to follow the Northwest Indian culture, but there was no condition placed on them (NFL) in designing.'(4)
I recently asked Bill Holm if the NFL designers had ever contacted him, and he said no, they never did, but that he knew they had relied on published illustrations of the art. 

Reaching to his bookshelf, he pulled Robert Bruce Inverarity’s 1950 book, Art of the Northwest Coast Indians (5), off the shelf, and flipping through the illustrations he found the most likely source for the Seahawks logo: a Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask depicting an eagle (in its closed form) with a human face inside (revealed when the mask opens when danced). 

Kwakwaka'wakw transformation mask in its closed form
Published in Robert Bruce Inverarity's book,
Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, 1950.
Kwakwaka'wakw transformation mask in its opened form
Published in Robert Bruce Inverarity's book,
Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, 1950.

The sweep of the bold painted line around the front of the eyesocket and back of the mouth, the open-ended eyelid lines, and the line of the mouth and beak all match nicely with the original Seattle Seahawks logo. The origin of this mask is half-way between Alaska and Seattle on the northeast side of Vancouver Island. 

In 1975, reacting to the first Seahawks logo, artist Marvin Oliver (Quinault/Isleta) who had studied with Bill Holm, offered a redesigned logo that he felt adhered more closely to the northern Northwest Coast “formline” design principles of northern design explained in Holm's book. (6)


Subsequent NFL redesigns of the logo have further streamlined the design, removing the eyelid lines, and giving the bird a more aggressive look.


Contemporary Coast Salish artist Shaun Peterson recently posted a video featuring his own rendition of the Seahawks logo using Coast Salish design elements.


Since Seattle is on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish, and is named for a prominent Duwamish/Suquamish (Coast Salish) leader, Chief Sealth, it might have been more appropriate for the NFL to have been inspired by a Coast Salish design.

Still, it's fascinating to learn of this Kwakwaka’wakw mask that could have inspired the original Seattle Seahawks logo, and I look forward to seeing what concepts other First Nations artists create in the future.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this blog post, the mask has been discovered in a museum in Maine. Read more in our more recent post.

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Dr. Robin K. Wright is the Curator of Native American Art and Director of the Bill Holm Center at the Burke Museum, University of Washington.

Edited by Cathy Britt, Digital Communications Manager

1: See Viola Garfield, The Seattle Totem Pole. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 1980, and Kate Duncan, 1001 Curious Things: 1001 Curious Things: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop and Native American Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 2000
2: Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, UW Press 1965
3: See Pauline Hillaire, Pauline, A Totem Pole History: The Work of Lummi Carver Joe Hillaire. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press; 2013
4: See Emmett O'Connell, The time when the King County Arts Commission complained about the cultural insensitivity of the Seahawks logo, Olympia Time, November 28, 2013, link to article.
5: Robert Bruce Inverarity, Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, University of California Press, 1950
6: Northwest Indian News, September 1975

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

The 1976 to 2001 version is more appealing to me because of the green on it. Shaun Peterson's version would be great with more green and a nostril on the beak as seen on the transformation mask.

steviepinhead said...

Thanks for this, Bill, Robin, and Shaun!
Perfect timing! Go Hawks!

Harold Alfred said...

Am an artist where the mask came from... did my own version of the 12th man... can be viewed at http://haroldalfred.com/ShowPage

Anonymous said...

Love this! Thank you, Dr. Wright. And Mr. Alfred, I love that too. I think it would look good on a t-shirt.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the person who liked the version from 1976-2001.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such an interesting insight on the logo design!! I love that the logo is based on a historic, cultural item of the Pacific NW but has been modernized. It has much more meaning and reflective of our regional culture. Go Hawks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! The Pacific Northwest has so much beautiful Native history..

ducktower said...

Dear Burke,
Love this!
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, looks like logo was stolen like soo much else!! Go Broncos!!!!1

colleen tandiama said...

It is such an honor to know that my 2nd cousin designed the orginam Seahawk logo! Thank you cousin Marven. If anyone knows how talented Marven Oliver, please share with us! In fact when we celebrated his fathers(Uncle Emmett Oliver) 100th birthday in December, Marven handmade paddle ornaments for all the guests. A true treasure to have. ( he even signed then too) Thank you Cousin Marven for sharing your talent with all of us in the Pacific North west! God Bless you cousin!

Big Nasty said...

The use of this logo was purchased by the Seattle Seahawks from Peninsula High School (Purdy, WA)....

Pastey Boy said...

I think the Seahawks purchased the team name from Peninsula High, but I think the logo was "designed" independently. I do hope you are correct that the logo design was properly acquired and not appropriated (literally stolen).

Harold Alfred said...

I wonder.... how would the Seattle Seahawks re-act if I printed my transformation Seahawks design onto shirts. A Kwakwaka'wakw native artist using a Kwakwaka'wakw transformation mask which inspired the Seattle Seahawks logo AND inspired my Kwakwaka'wakw Seahawks transformation design... revised design can be viewed at http://haroldalfred.com/ShowPage

Sarah L said...

I love this story, I agree that the earlier one is more authentic to the source. I question the change of expression in the newer version. Why take an aggressive stance? Can't we be proactive and decisive winners with out adding the meanness implied by a lowered brow?

Chris Taylor said...

The Hawks need to use a transformation mask with the logo at the games. When it opens up its pretty intimidating

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