“I don’t think you can take the design and the art without taking the people as well … I think when that is done … you have completely empty images conforming only to the formal aspects of the art, without any feeling for the emotion behind them.”
BILL REID, Haida artist, K’aadaas Gaah K’iigawaay clan, from “Curriculum Vitae 2” (1983)
IN OUR world, it is understood that you cannot separate the land and water; they depend on each other to make the whole. An ancient Haida saying, “everything depends on everything else,” drives this point home. In the same way, you cannot separate Haida art from our way of life, for without this context it has little meaning.
In today’s world, however, our art is often looked at as art for art’s sake without consideration of the history behind it. This is not a terrible thing, for Haida art deserves a thorough examination of its structure and composition, and, when skillfully executed, deserves enthusiastic appreciation. Yet there are many more things that should be understood to fully appreciate Haida art. Haida art is a part of Haida culture, introduced by the supernaturals and developed by our people over thousands of years. In its truest function, our art represents who we are and where we come from.
A long time ago, when the waters of the last great flood had settled and Raven was busy traveling, our ancestors found themselves separated from the mainland by a vast body of water. Thankfully their new home, Xaayda Gwaayaayl (Haida Gwaii), was bountiful, providing food, water, shelter, beauty and inspiration. With the help of their supernatural predecessors, the early Haida created a good life for themselves, fishing and hunting from shore, utilising the spruce and pine trees and other resources of their homeland, and building our history as a people.
Many years later, about six thousand years before today, the cedar tree arrived on Haida Gwaii and changed the course of Haida history. Our culture became dependent upon this tree, witch we used to create most of the things we needed to survive and prosper. Of these creations, the Haida canoe was the most important, for it allowed us to become a seafaring people. As well as permitting ocean travel between villages on Haida Gwaii and to offshore fishing grounds, these vessels gave the Haida access to the entire Pacific Northwest. This greatly advanced our economy, technology and knowledge as we began to visit and trade with other nations along the coast. As well, our oral histories say these canoes took our ancestors on much longer journeys, across the ocean to distant lands now believed to have been Japan and Hawaii.
Haida oral histories not only recount visits to foreign lands many centuries ago, they also tell of strangers who happened upon our own islands. The first documented contact between our ancestors and foreigners, however, took place a mere 200 years ago, in July of 1774, when the Haida encountered Juan Perez and his crew on the Spanish sailing vessel the Santiago off the northern coast of Haida Gwaii. The sailors records describe our ancestors features, clothing, adornment and some ceremonies, noting that we were already in possession of iron and copper and were well experienced in trade. But it wasn’t a fascination with our society or our material possessions that inspired these explorers-it was commerce.
In 1778, just four years after the crew of the Santiago met the Haida, Captain Cook arrived in the waters of the Pacific Northwest. He exchanged iron wares for the luxurious pelts of the sea otter and then set sail to Asia. When he reached China, he found that the furs were in great demand by the Chinese court. News of the sea otter fur market spread quickly, and so another great change in our history began. Over the next fifty years close to two hundred ships arrived on the shores of Haida Gwaii in search of animal pelts and, eventually, Haida art (then called “curios”), While this new economy brought quicker, greater wealth and greater access to iron and new forms of technology, it also brought great troubles. The sea otter was hunted to near extinction, our social structure was thrown out of whack, alcohol was introduced, and the antics of an American captain named John Kendrick and his crew-who greatly insulted the Haida chief, Koya, and then massacred almost fifty Haida in a trade argument-spurred distrust and disharmony between coastal nations and subsequent traders.
But it was foreign diseases, especially the smallpox epidemic of 1862, that were most damaging to our people. Epidemics ravaged the entire Northwest Coast and reduced the Haida population, estimated at that time to be between ten and thirty thousand, to less than six hundred on Haidet Gwaii by 1915. What our ancestors must have experienced during this time is more than one can bear to imagine. This near annihilation of our people, and the accompanying loss of unfathomable amounts of knowledge, history and tradition marked the beginning of the “silent years.”
In the wake of the epidemics, missionaries arrived with what they proclaimed to be good intentions. But they did not understand our way of life and almost succeeded in stripping away our peoples traditions and beliefs, and replacing them with Western ideals. A few years later, in 1884, the potlatch ban was passed, preventing the practice of the waahlGahl (potlatch), which is our Legal System and an essential part of the social, economic and political systems of all coastal First Nations. At the same time the residential school system further silenced what had already been stifled. Young children were shipped off to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native language. practice cultural traditions of interact with their relatives. Instead, many of them were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse by their “caretakers.”
Despite all that they faced, the survivors continued our Haida way of life. Quietly, under the guise of Christian ceremonies and by other means, they continued our cultural practices and kept speaking our language, preserving and passing on what they could to future generations. Because of this, the story of our people can still be told today, using our own words and art.
“Years ago, you could always tell Haida work.” remembers Hereditary Leader and SHIP language teacher Nils Wes, Ernie Wilson, of the Gak’yaaJs K’iigawaay cIan. “No matter where you saw it, you could always pick it out.” This is because Haida art stems from Haida life, past and present. Haida art is the visual companion to Haida language, both of which are born from our inextricable connection to the lands, waters and supernatural beings of Haida Gwaii. Together they represent who we are – they are our identity.
While Haida art fulfils many roles. it is this social function that is its truest responsibility; Whether painted, carved, tattooed. woven or appliquéd the “art of the clan” signifies lineage, rank and history through the depletion of crest and oral histories and through finely made objects. And so, to truly appreciate this art a general Introduction to our society is in order. It is important to remember, however, that there are always exceptions to the rule.
At one time They just used to carve, they never used to write. K’INWAS, JACKIE CASEY, Haida elder and SHIP language teacher, Juus Xaaydagaay clan.
Ours is an oral culture. from the time of our supernatural beginnings, formally trained oral historians have kept our extensive history and knowledge intact. When caned upon to recount a specific time in history, an oral historian can ate the event word for word, exactly as h learned it from his predecessors. These histories tell of times so old that there were no people, only supernatural beings. There was no land only water. It was both light and dark. There are histories that tell of our ocean origins, the ice age, major foods, the first tree and countless other historical events now verified by archaeological evidence, or maybe our oral histories are confirming these scientific theories.
Some time long ago, our ancestor’s chose to use a visual language to document these oral histories: Haida art. Like most things Haida. the origin of our art is credited to our predecessors the supernatural beings. There are stories of out ancestors discovering “the first carving” and witnessing the “first Haida pole”, both of which came from supernatural beings in the ocean. Weaving was also taught to our people by supernatural creatures. These art forms were further developed by our ancestors and became the visual representation of our history – everything from the beginning of time to the people of today.
The elders say, “We believe the hands are connected to the mind and heart and the artist has the ability to communicate their work through their hands from the heart and mind.”
The palms have human faces that represent creativity, healing and communication. Thus, the artist communicates these attributes through working with their hands. They represent the creative spirit within.