Nika Collison has seen the beautiful drum adorned with a grizzly bear at potlatches, protests, celebrations and negotiations.

“It has played throughout that history, and it’s recognized as such an important reminder of what we’ve been through, just even since the '80s,” she told CBC News.

The drum was created by Guujaaw in the mid-1970s. It was at his side during logging blockades on Lyle Island, and throughout his 12-year term as president of the Haida Nation. Now, it's been loaned to the Haida Gwaii Museum, as part of the upcoming exhibit Collison is curating.

Collison knew the drum was a powerful piece, but says the significance hit her when she saw it taken out of context, and put in the museum.

“In doing that, it actually allowed for that reflection of what does this drum say? It has the grizzly bear, which is Guujaaw’s crest, we know it’s Guujaaw’s drum, but that history that it has been through and participated in and that it invokes when you look at it is incredible,” she said.

'Each generation we are getting stronger and stronger. That’s something that any culture in the world should celebrate — a sense of being, a sense of self, a sense of place, and the ability to communicate this through cultural expression.' - Nika Collison, curator at the Haida Gwaii Museum

This spruce hat was woven by Haida weaver Isabel Rorick, and will be on display at the Haida Gwaii Museum. (Trevor Mills/Haida Gwaii Museum)

The exhibit is called Gina Suuda tl’l Xasii, which means “came to tell something” in the Haida language. Collison says it explores the role of art and of the artist in Haida culture by displaying 80 artifacts, each one with an important social function among the Haida.

Along with the drum are many other items that will be familiar to the Haida people, but unfamiliar to the museum setting. The items include Robert Davidson’s Eagle Spirit mask, Chief Jim Hart’s headdress, and a spruce-root contract hat that belongs to the family of Delores Churchill.

“These pieces are going to be on display for more than the fleeting moments that they are when used in ceremony, but the intent of these pieces and the personal stories attached to them are what allows them to be shown to the public longer than when they’re used in real life,” said Collison.

Other exhibit pieces are from the museum’s own collection or are on loan from UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. Collison says even items that can seem simple and utilitarian, like a bow and arrow, tell important stories about who the Haida are and where they come from.

“An artist is not limited to the aesthetic expression, they’ve got this responsibility of telling a story. They have a responsibility to know our Haida histories, understand our protocols, understand the strict rules of bringing our art forms together, and mastering those rules so they can play within the conventions.”


This horn spoon from the 1880s is one of the artifacts on display at the Haida Gwaii Museum. (Trevor Mills/ Haida Gwaii Museum)

While other exhibits showcasing Haida art have brought in Haida as consultants or advisers, this one was created by a team of Haida, who are able to tell their stories from their own perspective.

In many ways, the exhibit is aimed at an audience of Haida, offering them a new way to connect with their history, Collison said.

“Each generation we are getting stronger and stronger. That’s something that any culture in the world should celebrate — a sense of being, a sense of self, a sense of place, and the ability to communicate this through cultural expression,” she said.

The exhibit itself will bring in master artists, who will give workshops to a new generation of Haida artists, passing on traditional knowledge. Renowned weaver Delores Churchill is currently giving a course to intermediate and advanced weavers on traditional practices, many of which are now rarely used.

While that course is limited to Haida artists, Collison says there are a series of talks aimed at the general public. Churchill will hold a public lecture about Haida weaving. Another talk, held on Canada Day, will look at the politics behind Haida art.


A Naaxiin robe with the eagle crest by Haida artist Evelyn Vanderhoop. (Jerry McCollum/Haida Gwaii Museum)

Collison hopes the exhibit helps visitors, as well as the Haida better understand their own art, and the knowledge and efforts that go into creating it.

“I think it’s important that no matter who you are, we all need to know about our own personal histories and where we’re living. We need to know about each other, because that’s how we can build trust and appreciation of each other and the different worlds we come from.”

The exhibit opens at the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate on June 28th, 2014.