The Canadian Art Database

John K. Grande

Bill Reid and the Spirit of the Haida Gawaii

From Balance: Art and Nature, Black Rose Books, Montréal, 1994.
New, updated edition now available from
[ 2,648 words ]

Looking like the last survivors from a great natural disaster or a motley crew of mythical expatriates embarked on a journey to who knows where, the profusion of half-human, half-animal characters that populate Bill Reid's The Black Canoe (1991) aren't the typical ones one would expect to meet up with in Washington D.C. Culled from the ancient Haida culture, this mysterious cast of redolent beings have all the intricacy of a jewellery box design scaled to one hundred times their usual size and woven in bronze. Part of the cosmology of Haida beliefs and customs, the heraldic and traditional motifs that adorn this canoe are outward expressions of a seafaring culture that thrived along the coastal bays and inlets of the Queen Charlotte Islands in northern British Columbia for some 8,000 years before they began their collision course with European economic expansionism.

It is typical of Bill Reid's resilient character that he did not see the placing of this massive bronze tribute to cultural self-sufficiency in the wasteland of America's bureaucratic and commercial empire as an act of cultural subjugation. In Reid's own words:

In considering the art for the building, it occurred to me that this was an appropriate opportunity to represent the kernel of the founding nations, which are really not acknowledged in any other way in Washington, except in museums. (1) 

Born of a Haida mother from Skidegate, B.C. and a Scottish-American father. Bill Reid is a native craftsman and a sculptor par excellence. He is as readily at home with European, as with native traditions in art. Often credited with single-handedly resurrecting the Haida language of formline painted relief carving and three dimensional carving, Reid revived a sophisticated cultural legacy that lay dormant for decades, in danger of extinction. He brought the formal traditions of Haida art back to life, transforming them into a truly contemporary art form. In part, it was because he had the liberty of knowing that no one was looking over his shoulder to tell him how to do it.

As a youth Bill Reid was relatively unaware of his native roots. His original interest was in American and British literature. He went up north in the forties to visit the Haida Gawaii and met his grandfather, Charles Gladstone, an argillite carver. That was when his curiosity about Haida customs, mythology, and carving traditions was aroused, but he remained an outsider looking in. While working as a CBC broadcaster in Toronto, he studied jewellery and engraving at Ryerson. By the fifties he was carving in both European and Haida styles back in Vancouver. While attending his grandfather's funeral in 1954, he discovered the sculpture of Charles Edenshaw. Edenshaw was one of the last great Haida carvers with direct links to the original craft traditions, still working at a time when the Haida culture proper had collapsed.

In 1957 Reid gained direct experience working with one of the last old time Haida carvers, Mungo Martin, recreating a Haida totem that had disintegrated at the Friendship Peace Park on the Canada-U.S. border in Blaine, Washington. Martin sang to the wood as he worked, as if evoking the ancestral spirits of long ago from the wood itself. He didn't speak much, simply pointing to a small human figure and signalling Reid to begin carving. A little later Reid asked, 'Mungo, where are the Band-Aids?' and was told, 'We don't use 'em,' the implication being that a native carver never cut himself. (2)  Reid went on to study goldsmithing at the Central School of Art and Design in London, England in 1968, furthering his already significant technical expertise. The numerous small scale carvings he has made over the years — boxes, jewellery and carved relief work in gold, silver and cedar — are now in many private and museum collections worldwide. He is one of few natives who have combined a sophisticated knowledge of traditional native imagery with advanced technical expertise based on years of formal training.

The Haida were a brash, sometimes violent seafaring culture, but in tune with the ecology of nature. The potlatch ceremonies that took place between opposing families of the Eagle and Raven lineages were an effective form of social, familial and economic exchange in a region with burgeoning natural resources. Any number of items: cedar boxes, masks, jewellery, utilitarian and decorative objects were given away in these feasts of reciprocal gift-giving. The notion of capital accumulation beyond basic necessity was simply not high on a Haida's list of priorities. In 1895, a colonial commenting on the potlatch activities of the Kwakiuti, the Haida's neighbours to the south, wrote that he was, 'told by the older men that they might as well die as give up the custom.' (3)  Douglas Cole, a cultural historian at Simon Fraser University states that, 'Instead of adopting the social values of their European employers and customers, they used their earnings to reinforce the most significant aspects of their social systems.' (4) 

Contact with white colonial culture catastrophically reduced the Haida population from 8,000 to a mere 600 people due to smallpox epidemics. Villages were abandoned and the remaining Haida regrouped to live in Skidegate and Masset. The carving and painting of war canoes, body painting, oral literary and dance traditions effectively died out, though artifacts were still made for collectors and visiting tourists.

The collections of Haida cultural heritage we see in many world class museums is relatively recent — less than 200 years old. The Haida did not believe in preservation of artifacts, but instead recreated them perpetually. They lived in a world of wood and water and did not go through the stone, bronze, and iron ages progression like the Europeans. As a result, we have little evidence of the golden age of their past, one that is every bit as complex as our own for its indigenous evolution and local variation. In The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of the Haida Gawaii, a book co-authored with Vancouver-based photographer Ulli Steltzer that documentes the five years that went into the making of The Black Canoe, Vancouver poet and writer Robert Bringhurst compares Reid's cultural heritage and craft with the traditions of Europe:

I think of another boat as well, that sits in a public space in front of another embassy in another major capital, yet seems to differ from this canoe in every way. It is Pietro Bernini's little vessel in Piazza di Spagna in Rome. The animal images it contains — the family's bees — are heraldry alone, with hardly a shred of mythology left, Bernini's boat is white instead of black, and full of ruminative sighs instead of embryonic speeches. And though the tourists crowd upon it by the thousands, it is resolutely empty: an abandoned ship, simultaneously melting and sinking into its pool. (5) 

In 1985, when he was asked by Arthur Erickson to create two welcome figures for the Chancery — the entrance court to the new Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. — it was already apparent that Bill Reid's plans for the project were decidedly more ambitious than that. He wanted to create more than a mere adjunct to Erickson's building, a sculptural calling card that would be humbled by the architecture. Reid decided that he would prefer to create a monumental sculpture that would recall the black argillite canoe carvings of the nineteenth century, replete with figures from Haida legends — a form he always appreciated intensely. The result was The Black Canoe, one of the most ambitious native sculptures to have been created in this century. George Rammell, his project manager, suggested that in stead of black granite, cast bronze patinated black would better suit the vicissitudes of long term outdoor exposure at the future site. Reid, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and required the help of assistants throughout, began work on the clay maquette in 1986. When funding for the project could not be found. Ray Johnson, the Winnipeg-born president of Nabisco foods, committed his company to supporting the project in its entirety.

In late 1986, after a bronze cast had already been made from the clay sketch, Reid halted work on the project, steadfastly refusing to work on anything destined for a federal government building. The reason was the long-standing Haida land claim, imminently threatened by commercial logging firms' plans to clear-cut sections of Lyell Island. When a deal was finally struck between the federal, provincial, and Haida governments, the blockades came down, and Gawaii Haanas (literally 'the Islands of Awe' in the Haida language) became the South Moresby National Park Reserve. Work on the construction of a full size clay prototype built over a complex web of welded steel and wire mesh armature resumed in 1988. Over one hundred interlocking positive sections were formed and cut from a plaster mould.

Continually critical of the work as it progressed 'from one end to the other,' Reid had sections taken apart and reassembled numerous times in order to rework details he was not satisfied with directly on plaster. Each piece of this three dimensional jigsaw puzzle was coated in white shellac to stabilize the plaster during shipment to the Tallix Foundry in Beacon, New York. The casting, welding, chasing and patinating of the final seventy-nine pieces was completed by February 1991, whereupon the entire piece was patinated with commercial black shoe polish to give it a dark, reflective patina as is done in contemporary Haida argillite carving. The foundry allowed Reid's celebrated ark to paddle on to its final resting place in Washington D.C. only after an additional payment of $250,000 was made (costs for the project, from start to finish, had escalated to $1.5 million). Owned by the Canadian Government, the 4,900 kg Black Canoe now stands in a pool of moving water at the entrance of the Canadian Embassy in Washington. A second casting of The Black Canoe has since been commissioned for the Vancouver International Airport.

Located in the centre of all the benign symbols and powers that make up The Black Canoe's overall composition, stands the resolute figure of the chieftain who is the undoubted leader of this self-contained voyage into the dark heart of Haida mythology. Each figure seems to exist in relation to all the others by necessity, not choice. We get the feeling that this boat is not truly a seafaring vessel at all, but instead a powerful emblem of cultural survival on the periphery. The whole complex matrix of the piece, its unfamiliar equations, suggest that spiritual wholeness has nothing to do with mankind's conception of itself as the conscious centre of the universe, but with how we realize our connectedness to all other forms of life. After all, it is the ubiquitous Raven, not the tribal chieftain who is actually steering the canoe with his wings and tail, determining the direction of this voyage. He is the trickster of Haida mythology, an omnipresent character, greedy, curious and timeless as the universe. Nestled under one of his wings we see the tiny figure of the bewhiskered Mouse Woman, the meekest and wisest of all the characters in Haida legend.

The staff held in the hand of the chief is an actual reconstruction of a staff purported to have belonged to chief Xana from Masset, in storage at the Smithsonian Museum for over one hundred years. Reid commissioned Don Yeomans, a young native sculptor, to recreate its original figures of a Raven with human hands and the Snag (a power who lives at the bottom of the sea) in the form of a grizzly bear with finned arms and a killer whale's tail. By reclaiming the symbolic imagery on the original staff Reid has, in a sense, liberated it from its permanent museological imprisonment. As we look at the rich visual and cultural symbols that the staff represents, it becomes a sculpture within a sculpture, a key to the past whose ancient motifs are intact, encoded in its sculptural form.

At the opposite end of the canoe sit a group of figures consisting of Bear, Bear-Woman and her two cubs. Haida legend tells us that Bear-Woman once made a wicked comment about the bears which annoyed them. A man guided her beyond the mountains to a village inhabited entirely by bears, who when they went indoors, took off their skins and became people. Bear-Woman won the bears' confidence by leaving pieces of her copper jewellery around. She married the village chief's son, raising two bear cubs for children — transformers who had the power to adjust the balance of the world. This internal grouping of four figures (Reid named the two bears Good Bear and Bad Bear after A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh) communicates a message of overall harmony through their succinct sculptural interrelation. The Dogfish Woman with her beak-like nose is a more austere, unsettling figure. She is lost somewhere between the human and other-than-human undersea world. The Frog (land crab in Haida) is a female transformation figure, a child of the Raven's wife who symbolizes wealth and migrates between the two distinct realms of the sea and the land. This segment bears resemblance to Phyllidula, the Shape of Frogs to Come, a yellow cedar carving made by Reid in 1984. Other figures on the canoe include Beaver, Wolf, Eagle and The Ancient Reluctant Conscript. Named after a poem by Carl Sandburg, the tatter alludes to Reid the creator of the work, a rare occurrence in Haida art of any kind. He is paddling and wears a cedar bark cape and plain woven spruce root hat, traditionally crafted by Haida women.

These composite figures are not a modern-day theatre of the absurd, but a concrete representation of the multiplicity of forms the human spirit can take in Haida culture. The worldliness of Haida wisdom lies in its implicit realization that any physical relation to the beyond relies on our recognizing that which is within everything. More than mere symbols — what philosophers would now call an ecology of the mind — the balancing and interchangeability of human and animal imagery in these complex, near abstract figures is part of the entropic cosmology of the universe. Their function parallels symbolic animal representations in all distinct cultural traditions. As Aniela Jaffé commented in her essay, 'Symbolism in the Visual Arts,'

[They] show how vital it is for men to integrate into their lives the symbol's psychic content — instinct. In itself, an animal is neither good nor evil; it is a piece of nature. To put this another way, it obeys its instincts. These instincts often seem mysterious to us, but they have a parallel in human life: The foundation of human nature is instinct. (6) 

The creatures that inhabit Bill Reid's The Black Canoe are not in a race with time, but are a composite expression of the fact that when mystery is attributed to apparently ordinary things, they give wholeness and form to everything we experience.

From Balance: Art and Nature, Black Rose Books, Montréal, 1994.
New, updated edition now available from

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.

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