Portals & Sentinels

One of the great things about looking at art is that sometimes there is no explanation, so you get a chance to find meaning for yourself outside the context of cultural identity.

Last fall I visited the Cathlapotle Plankhouse at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge in Washington -- a full-scale replica based on archaeological evidence of a Chinookan town that Lewis and Clark visited during their Pacific Coast expedition.

I took pictures of the painted figure over the doorway thinking that I would do some research on the symbols. I never found a decent explanation, so I decided to just think about what these symbols might mean in my own life.

In my head I've nicknamed him "fish-man" because I connect Northwest Native Americans with salmon, and there was something about his shape and exposed ribs that reminded me of a decaying fish.

I particularly like the two arms that end in these snake-like heads that seem to be devouring the doorway. The yellow dots remind me of seeds or water, and then the yellow stripes over his head look like modern day traffic markings that say something like halt, proceed with caution, or take notice.

For me, the best part of this structure is the round doorway, the portal from outside to inside, and when once entered through I'm assuming the community encounters different experiences and responsibilities.

In life we have portals. Sometimes these portals appear to us in the physical world like opening your front door to greet someone. Other times these portals are intangible like moving from way of thinking to another. I've come to imagine that my "fish-man" is like a sentinel, asking you to stay awake and pay attention when you crawl through the hole into the void because something important is about to happen. 

I'd love to hear what you think about this figure or if you have any information about these Chinook symbols.


  1. What a unique piece of artwork. I love the symbolism, altough we do not really know what it is! Your interpretation makes sense. One of my favorite expressions in life is closing a door and opening a new one. It is all about growing as an individual! ~Val

  2. Nice post! I'm an Art History teacher....traditionally, Pacific NW Native American doorways like these symbolize "birth" and the passageway from the womb. So in going through the portal, you are symbolically birthed from one station in life (family member) to another (community member.) A constant reminder to be part of something bigger than yourself. It is interesting on this door, because the rest of the art appears very male.

  3. Val, thank you for reminding me of that beautiful symbology!

    Also, thank you for providing more information about Pacific NW American doorways. Wow this is really neat information about symbolically being birthed from one station to another! I love this part about how it helps you keep the greater whole in perspective. I wonder if we have anything in modern society that can do this for us or if it is something we could use in our community rituals. Now that you mention it that does seem odd that the door is very masculine. Fun to connect over this and I thank you for your expertise.


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