British Columbia

Smiley faces Haida style: totem carver rolls out emojis for the digital age

A renowned Indigenous carver designs Haida emojis he hopes will flourish in the digital age.

Renowned artist wants the emojis to resonate with Haida youth

A renowned B.C. Indigenous artist said his children inspired him to design the Haida emojis, now available through app stores. (Contributed/Jaalen Edenshaw )

A renowned carver of monumental B.C. totem poles has turned his hand to the creation of tiny Haida emojis for the digital age.

Jaalen Edenshaw's traditional art, which includes masks, canoes, and red cedar totem poles 13 metres high, is on display in galleries around the world.

Now, his Haida emojis are available on the Apple app store, free to all.

"This felt good, to be able to bring some of our our traditional culture... through the digital culture," said Edenshaw, who said he scribbled his initial designs on a napkin before handing them off to his collaborator Geoff Horner for digitization. 

With millions of emojis in use, the icons are like a compressed shorthand for feelings and feedback on social media, texts and emails. Some experts say they're transforming communication, and even replacing words through expressive faces and signs.

In recent years, emojis have evolved to better reflect ethnic and cultural diversity. Last year, Australia rolled out Indigenous emojis for the first time, created by Indigenous youth in that country.

Jaalen Edenshaw's art includes masks, shields, prints, bentwood boxes, giant red cedar totems, and canoes. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Edenshaw admits he'd never used an emoji in his life. But he watched his children send standard emojis to family members and was inspired.

Inspired by 'ancient' art 

Now, his son's favourite emoji is a Haida word bubble, or juup,  which is the equivalent to a "poke" on social media. 

In addition to the emoji word bubbles, Edenshaw's new Haida sets include standard bright yellow faces typical of emoji expressions, only with "Haida eyes," he said.

Other expressive Haida emoji faces look like traditional masks.

The emojis also feature Haida words; Siijuu, meaning slick or cool, and K'w, which is an expression of displeasure.

In 2013, Jaalen Edenshaw helped carve the first totem pole erected in Gwaii Haanas in 130 years. He says he's spotted "little guys, like the emojis of today, in some of the Haida's ancient pieces." (CBC)

Edenshaw said some of his miniature icons draw on pre-existing Haida weaving and art. "I thought I'd seen a few little guys that look pretty much like the emojis of today in some of the ancient pieces," he said.

"And I think that might have been part of the spark as well."

From giant totems to tiny emojis

Edenshaw wants the emojis to resonate with Haida youth. But he's aware of the limits of digitization.

"I don't think that the emojis in themselves are going to a make a major change within Haida culture or anything," he said. "But it's keeping the stories and making them accessible. Keeping the language and the art in use and relevant to today."

Best known for his monumental totem poles, Jaalen Edenshaw turned his hand to the creation of tiny Haida emojis for the digital age. (Contributed/Jaalen Edenshaw )

Next, Edenshaw would like to see a Haida spell check for people learning the endangered Indigenous language.

For now, though, he's back to creating more traditional work. 

Right now, he's carving a 10-metre long dugout canoe for youth on Haida Gwaii.

with files from Carolina de Ryk