Something on the order of a million Canadians can trace their ancestry in whole or in part to the First Nations — people living in North America before the days of Leif Ericson, Christopher Columbus or Jacques Cartier. But intellectually, spiritually and materially, all Canadians are indebted to Canada’s aboriginal peoples and cultures.
Those cultures include, among many others, the Inuit whalers and fishermen of the Arctic; the Ottawa and Iroquois agriculturalists of the Great Lakes; the Cree and Chipewyan hunters of the northern forests; and the many communities of settled villagers fishing, hunting and trading on the Northwest Coast.
The Haida are one of Canada’s First Nations. Their ancestral territory — shown on current maps as the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of British Columbia — is known to most of those who live there now as the Islands of the People, Haida Gwaii.
For centuries before Europeans arrived on the west coast of North America, the Haida built beachfront villages of large, square wooden houses fronted by totem poles. As islanders, fishermen and active traders, they were also skilled in the making and handling of large, seagoing dugout canoes.
Haida artist Bill Reid, who was born in 1920 and died in 1998, made several of these traditional dugout canoes, carved some of the finest twentieth-century totem poles, and built several traditional Haida houses as well.
Throughout his career, Reid also worked in gold, silver, boxwood and other media using European tools and techniques. His work traverses cultural boundaries just as it spans the range from diminutive to monumental scale. The Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is proud to be the home of Reid’s largest and most complex work of sculpture: a Haida canoe carrying thirteen figures, cast in bronze. This massive piece of architectural jewelry is 6 m (20 ft) long, nearly 4 m (13 ft) high and weighs close to 5000 kg (11, 000 lb). Five years in the making, it was completed and installed in 1991. The title Reid gave it is The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.
Haida mythology is rich and complex, like the mythologies of ancient Greece and ancient Mexico. It is the subject of many books and has been the lifetime pursuit of a number of scholars. But as Bill Reid’s sculpture proves, it is not confined to books or to cultural history alone. A living web of stories clings to the creatures in this canoe.
Perched at the stem, holding the steering oar, is the Raven, who is the trickster of the Northwest Coast and the principal figure in countless Haida stories. Crouched under his tail is the Mouse Woman, the traditional guide and advisor of those who travel from the human world to the nonhuman realms of Haida myth.
In the bow of the boat, facing astern, is the Grizzly Bear. Near him, facing forward and paddling on the port side, is his human wife, the Bear Mother. Stories of the Woman Who Married the Bear, like stories of the Raven, are told not only in Haida Gwaii but in almost every native community in the Canadian subarctic and along the Northwest Coast. Between the Bear and his human wife are two other characters important in these stories: their children, the Two Cubs. Reid calls them Good Bear and Bad Bear, alluding not to Haida myth but to a children’s poem by A.A. Milne. (They are easily distinguished: Bad Bear’s ears point back and Good Bear’s forward.)
Behind the Bear Mother is the Beaver. He is one of Canada’s national symbols now, but in Haida mythology he is one of the Raven’s uncles, who in the early days of the world lived on the floor of the sea hoarding all the fresh water and fish in the world. Behind him is the Dogfish Woman, a shape-changing creature who is part human and part shark.
Across from the Bear Mother, on the starboard side, is the Eagle. Beneath him, perched on the gunwale, is the Frog. Arched across the centre of things is the Wolf, with his claws in the Beaver’s back and his teeth in the Eagle’s wing. Behind the shoulders of the Wolf and beneath the Raven’s massive head is a human paddler whom Reid calls the Ancient Reluctant Conscript. And at the centre of this menagerie stands another human being: the shaman, the chief, whose title in Haida is Kilstlaai. The robe he wears and the staff in his hand — a sculpture-within-a-sculpture, portraying the Seabear, the Raven and the Killer Whale — allude to further stories central to the Haida view of the world. Apart from their importance in Haida mythology, many of these figures are crucial to Haida heraldry as well. Raven and Eagle, for instance, are emblems of the two halves or sides of the Haida social order. And the Wolf is a crest of Reid’s own family or clan, the Qqaadasghu Qiighawaai of the Raven side.
The figures carved on Haida totem poles are often chosen for mythological reasons, often for heraldic ones. On some poles, the figures function in both terms at once. The same complexity of myth and social symbolism is evidently at work here in The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.
The canoe contains both Raven and Eagle, women and men, a rich man and a poorer man, and animals as well as human beings. Is it fair, then, to see in it an image not only of one culture but of the entire family of living things? Not all is peace and contentment in this crowded boat. There are nervous faces and tempers running high. But whatever their differences, they are paddling together, in one boat, headed in one direction. Wherever their journey takes them, let us wish them luck.
The Government of Canada gratefully acknowledges the generosity of Nabisco Brands Ltd. for its gift to the people of Canada of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.