Quite a while before I went to Canada I read a book, Travelling to the Edge of the World by Kathleen Jones who travelled to the islands of Haida Gwaii, off the northernmost coastline of British Columbia. She went (and now I’m quoting the back of the book blurb) to talk to a nation who have lived in harmony with their environment for more than ten thousand years. They have a saying ‘everything is connected’ and their philosophy ‘Yah’Guudang’, is about “respect and responsibility, about knowing our place in the web of life and how the fate of our culture runs parallel with the fate of the ocean, sky and forest”.
But there is a darker side to Haida history. Kathleen Jones uncovers the story of how the British Colonial administration reduced the population from more than twenty thousand to just over five hundred by a policy that has been identified as ‘cultural genocide’. Haida artist Bill Reid, whose sculpture ‘Raven and the First Men’ appears on the cover, wrote that, “It is one of the world’s finest tributes to the strength of the human spirit that most of those who lived, and their children after them, remained sane and adapted”.
When I finished reading Travelling to the Edge of the World, the first thing I wanted to do was re-read it immediately. I also wanted to visit Haida Gwaii (previously known as Queen Charlotte Islands). I knew when I made my trip to Canada it wouldn’t be possible in the time I had to include a trip there – and I still want to go – but I was able to visit the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. There I was able to see some of the Haida carvings and totems as well as work by acclaimed Haida artist Bill Reid.
My cousin Grace and I went to the museum. Several galleries showcase thousands of objects from all around the world. As well as exhibits on display other objects are in drawers beneath the s cases which you can open to explore even more artefacts.
Outside are examples of Haida houses and Musqueam house posts which are fascinating.
Inside, the Great Hall, with its displays of totem poles and carvings, is truly spectacular. Spellbinding. Light pours in from the floor to ceiling glass walls highlighting the totems, which are so much more than I expected. Taller, so much taller, and so intricately carved.
One of the highlights was seeing Bill Reid’s sculpture of Raven and the First Men, which depicts the story of human creation. Carved from a giant block of laminated yellow cedar, it took two years to complete. Bill Reid, goldsmith, carver, sculptor, writer and one of Canada’s greatest artists was born in 1920. His mother, Sophie, was Haida but was sent away to school on the mainland where she was not allowed to speak her native language. She became an English teacher before she married Bill’s father who was of German Scottish descent. Bill was raised as ‘white’ by a mother who had assimilated western ways. On a visit to Haida Gwaii in 1954 Bill came across some carved bracelets by his great-great-uncle, carver Charles Edenshaw and the world changed for him.
In Haida culture, the Raven is the most powerful of mythical creatures. His appetites include lust, curiosity, and an irrepressible desire to interfere and change things, and to play tricks on the world and its creatures. According to Haida legend, the Raven was alone on Rose Spit beach in Haida Gwaii when he saw a clamshell inside which were small humans. The Raven coaxed them to leave the shell to join him in his world. Although hesitant at first, the humans did come out of the clamshell and became the first Haida.
Several First Nations carvers also worked on the project, including Reggie Davidson, Jim Hart, and Gary Edenshaw. Sculptor George Rammell worked on the emerging little humans, and Bill Reid did most of the finishing carving.
One day I might actually get to Haida Gwaii but at least, in the meantime, I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the fabulous work and learn a little more about the culture of a people I first read about in Kathleen Jones’ book.
Another piece of Bill Reid’s fabulous art is in the International Terminal at Vancouver Airport: The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. The Jade Canoe, a traditional six metre long Haida cedar dugout canoe in green-coloured bronze represents the Aboriginal heritage of Haida Gwaii.
The canoe carries the following passengers: Raven, the trickster, holding the steering oar; Mouse Woman, crouched under Raven’s tail; Grizzly Bear, sitting at the bow and staring toward Raven; Bear Mother, Grizzly’s human wife; their cubs, Good Bear (ears pointed forward) and Bad Bear (ears pointed back); Beaver, Raven’s uncle; Dogfish Woman; Eagle; Frog; Wolf, claws imbedded in Beaver’s back and teeth in Eagle’s wing; a small human paddler in Haida garb known as the Ancient Reluctant Conscript; and, at the sculpture’s focal point, the human Shaman (Kilstlaai in Haida), who wears the Haida cloak and woven spruce root hat and holds a tall staff carved with images of Seabear, Raven, and Killer Whale.
The variety and interdependence of the canoe’s occupants represents the natural environment on which the ancient Haida relied for their survival: the passengers are diverse, and don’t always get along, but they must depend on one another to live.
I like that. I like the acknowledgement that we may not always live in harmony but we are dependent on each other. The sooner we accept this truth, the better for our world!