By reconnecting with his Haida roots, Bill Reid catalyzed a cultural reclamation that continues today
Reid adapted Haida worldviews to his times, creating a body of work about power, resilience and strength
This excerpt is adapted from Iljuwas Bill Reid: Life & Work, the latest edition in the Art Canada Institute's Canadian Online Art Book Project.
In 1979 I had the privilege of meeting Bill Reid (1920–1998), a community activist, mentor, writer, and prolific artist who created more than one thousand original works and wrote dozens of texts that gave voice to his vision and cultural questions. Graciously Bill allowed me to interview him, following the conference of young Indigenous artists I had organized. He was the most senior of all of us. In retrospect, I'm even more impressed that he came out to Regina to meet with us all. I was both young and nervous. Over the next 20 years, until his death in 1998, our paths would cross several times, though my first encounter had been fortuitous and left a lasting impression.
While there have been many great Canadian artists, the works of Reid — whose centenary we celebrate this year — stand out because they were the catalysts for the reclamation of a culture. At its core, Reid's art asks: how, in an ever more complex global dynamic, do we come to see, know, and understand ourselves and each other? This question was born out of Reid's complicated background and his assessment of his Indigenous identity.
Although Reid belonged to Raven-Wolf Clan of the Haida Nation, he did not grow up knowing his Haida heritage. Reid's mother, Sophie Gladstone, was born on Haida Gwaii, B.C., where she grew up in Skidegate, one of the few Haida villages that remained after disease decimated many West Coast First Nations communities during the 19th century. At the age of 10 she was forcibly removed from her home and sent to a Methodist-run residential school near Chilliwack, where she was forced to speak English and was taught skills such as sewing, which were intended to assimilate her into mainstream Canadian society.
Sophie's marriage to a non-Native man meant that while she could in theory retain her Haida identity, her "Indian" status was legally revoked and, by extension, she lost the right to live in her village of Skidegate. Consequently, Reid did not learn the Haida language or culture from his mother, who chose to ignore or hide her Haida-ness, believing that being "Indian" would not benefit her children. What she did carry instead was determination, inventiveness and pride — qualities that she passed on to her son.
Toward a renaissance
In the 1950s, while working as a radio broadcaster for the CBC, Reid established a highly regarded practice as a jeweller; he later became a sculptor of large-scale public works, all while discovering his Haida heritage through the art of his ancestors. As Reid emerged as an artist, he used his unique position as a highly skilled speaker, artist, and activist of mixed ancestry to play a pivotal role in asserting the importance of Northwest Coast art in ways both audible and visible to Native and non-Native alike.
Reid was able to discern the tragedy that had befallen his mother and her people through the ban of the potlatch, a ceremony that is essential to creative practices and cultural integrity among the Haida and other Northwest Coast First Nations. Ironically, while the potlatch ban forbade Indigenous artistry, other colonialist initiatives continued to promote Native arts and crafts with assimilationist and commercial objectives in mind. Conflicting agendas were in play, and the B.C. Indian Arts and Welfare Society worked in collaboration with the residential school system and the churches to encourage students to produce Indigenous-style arts and crafts in ways that were detached from their traditional culture.
Pleas for reform came from many, including the Kwakwaka'wakw artist and woodcarver Ellen Neel, who stated, "If the art of my people is to take its rightful place alongside other Canadian art, it must be a living medium of expression. We, the Indian artists, must be allowed to create!" By 1951 an amendment to the Indian Act lifted the potlatch ban. Traditional ceremony and artistic expression could continue anew. But how could it do so? How does one move forward in the wake of such adversity — after practices have been forced to a virtual halt, after hope has been all but erased?
Commenting on this reality, Reid wrote and recorded a monologue for CBC Radio arguing that modern-day attempts to create authentic Haida art were essentially impossible and therefore needed new paradigms. The task was not easy nor clear. Up to this point, the field of art history viewed Indigenous output as "primitive art" and the study of it as little more than an ethnological endeavour. Within the framework of Western art, a language for understanding art through an Indigenous lens had not yet been developed and, by extension, Indigenous makers were not recognized as artists.
And so, at first Reid started small, with works like his famed Haida Myth of Bear Mother Dish, a vessel forged with contemporary techniques and styling and adorned with a mythic scene of a time when humans and animals lived together harmoniously. Before long, such diminutive creations became the inspiration for Reid's major sculptural works, the monuments from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that he is best known for today. His prodigious output included Skidegate Dogfish Pole (1978), a house-front pole that he created as a gift to the Skidegate community ― his own way of giving back. It was raised in conjunction with the opening of the new Skidegate Band Council Office longhouse in Kay Llnagaay (Sea Lion Town), Haida Gwaii, and at this moment, Reid's Haida name "Iljuwas" (Princely One or Manly One) was publicly confirmed.
As well, during this time Reid created The Raven and the First Men (1980) at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver and later the Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Black Canoe (1991) at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. With such works, Reid's art, different from yet in homage to his ancestors, spoke to new audiences.
He was a catalyst for new ways of thinking. A language for addressing Indigenous art gradually developed, and the voice of Haida artists and their ever-evolving artworks began to be seen and heard by people across Canada.
Creating in community
While Reid was reaching the apex of his profession, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He relied on many others to see his visions through to the end, mentoring them in the process. But possibly, in a mysterious way, what weakened him physically strengthened the impact of his artistic legacy.
Artmaking in Haida society depends upon community participation. Reid experienced this above all with the carving and launching that brought to life his late masterwork Loo Taas, a 15.2-metre-long red cedar ocean-going canoe commissioned for Vancouver's Expo 86 and completed in Skidegate, his mother's village. The work, created by many in conjunction with Reid, resulted in a kind of artistic potlatching. It was an artistic gifting that afforded others the opportunity to be involved, to learn, to remember, and to enact in the present Haida knowledge and ways of being.
Despite growing up far removed from the culture and traditions of his maternal family, through his sculptures Reid succeeded in taking up traditional Haida ways of seeing to offer a new outlook. His works continue to capture our imagination today because they reflect our contemporary reality — an entanglement of people from many nations inhabiting Turtle Island, otherwise known as North America — in search of a better future while remembering the past.