Tied Like a String — Reflections on An Unbroken Line: Haida Art and Culture

January 05, 2021

Victoria Misewich
Student in INDG 222: “To Speak with a Golden Voice”: The Legacy of Bill Reid

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On December 8, the Bill Reid Gallery for Northwest Coast Art hosted An Unbroken Line: Haida Art and Culture, in partnership with SFU’s Department of Indigenous Studies and SFU Public Square, as part of their To Speak with a Golden Voice speaker series.Part of the gallery’s programming for their landmark exhibition To Speak with a Golden Voice, this lecture series also provided a series of guest speakers for an Indigenous Studies course at SFU by the same name.

In An Unbroken Line: Haida Art and Culture, Jisgang Nika Collison (executive director/curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum, and granddaughter of Haida artist Bill Reid) and Gwaai Edenshaw (artist and filmmaker, and Reid’s last apprentice) reflected on how Reid’s legacy through his artwork and reconnection to his community have brought recognition to Haida culture and Indigenous issues.

In listening to this presentation, it made me think just how much has changed in the 100 years since Reid was born. In 1920, his mother, Sophie, felt that the best thing she could do for her son was to bring him up with no connection or ties to his Haida heritage. Through cultural misappropriation and discriminatory laws, her connection to her Haida identity and community was lost. In 2020, Sophie Reid’s great-granddaughter, Nika Collison, was proudly speaking in Haida and asserting her birthright to her language and her ancestral belongings, and the Haida’s rights to their territory. It was colonization and racism that took Sophie Reid’s voice from her, and it is the Haida community’s incredible strength and resiliency that has fought to keep their language alive.

In school I was taught that Indigenous languages would not survive as there were too many different languages and not enough people that understood them. I grew up with friends from the Sixties Scoop who had lost their connection with their Indigenous culture. At the time, sentiment among settler communities was that this was the best thing for Indigenous children. Sadly, one of these friends took her life. I cannot forget the memories she shared with me of being taken from her family with her sister as a little girl. Others I know have gone on to reconnect with their Indigenous families and have written books. The truths we have learned in our course are hard topics. It was nice to see Collison and Edenshaw’s success reclaiming their language, their repatriation ties with Pitt Rivers Museum in the U.K., and having strong connections within their own community, and support for one another.

I really enjoyed hearing Edenshaw’s story of how he became Reid’s last apprentice. The ties of cultural connection enabled both Edenshaw and Reid to receive support from their community, although Edenshaw said that he grew up with a strong cultural identity being Haida, while Reid was just at the beginning of this journey when he received his carving tools from his grandfather and saw his aunties’ bracelets, which inspired him so profoundly. It dispelled the myth that Haida culture had disappeared and Reid had brought it back through his art. Rather, Reid was brought back to his Haida culture through his art.

I was reminded of the meaning of the unbroken line when asking the speakers a question about the possibility of new design elements being created in Haida art. Edenshaw answered that by understanding the continuity of the line, an infinite number of shapes were possible. Before this course, my thought was that most Indigenous art from coastal B.C. was quite similar. By seeing the unbroken line as a relationship between Haida art and community, it has given me more understanding to see the variations and creativity within Haida art and Indigenous people’s art more broadly. In addition, I have come to understand the function that Haida art plays in Haida society and its importance to Haida identity.

Bill Reid’s legacy is not only as an artist but also as a grandfather, a writer, a storyteller, and a member of the Haida Raven clan. His journey, as Collison said, is tied like a string to all of these connections and has brought a deeper meaning to the concept of Haida art.

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