Bill Reid and the Haida Canoe
November 4, 2013
Review By Maria Tippett
Most people identify Northwest Coast Aboriginal culture with the totem pole, most notably with the dramatic Thunderbird-winged carvings of the Kwakwaka’wakw Peoples. In Bill Reid and the Haida Canoe, Martine Reid and co-authors James Raffan and Michael Robinson set out to put the canoe, not the totem pole, at the forefront of Northwest Coast Native culture. The canoe was not, of course, only a means of transportation. It could form part of a dowry. It was a tool in warfare. It represented the owner’s wealth and abundance. And, among many other things, it was a vehicle for connecting Aboriginal Peoples to their myths and rituals.
The book’s editor and principal author, Martine Reid, begins her story in 7000 BCE when archaeological evidence suggests that Northwest Coast Peoples built sea-faring vessels. Reid does not indicate when the western red cedar dugout canoe became a part of Native culture. She does, however, use visual and written evidence from eighteenth century European explorers, along with models of canoes to show that the curved bow, vertical stern and the painted imagery that we associate with the twenty-first century dug-out canoe was in place long before Contact. Moreover, if anyone wonders if the numerous diseases which decimated Native Peoples from the late eighteenth century on put an end to canoe building, Reid offers nineteenth century photographs of canoe strewn West Coast villages to show that canoe-making was evident during that century. This was not the case, however, in the next century. While the Peters family of the Ditdaht Peoples, the Davidson family in Haida Gwaii and the Hunt family in Victoria continued to make canoes during the first half of the twentieth century, the canoes they made were less for their own use than for sale to private and public collections.
Martine Reid’s introductory essays sets the stage for her discussion of Bill Reid’s now famous canoe, the Lootaas. More than fifty feet in length, the Lootaas was made during the mid-1980s in the village of Skidegate on Haida Gwaii. The Lootaas had its debut at Expo ’86. Three years later it was paddled up the Seine from Rouen to Paris to honour the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the French Revolution. In 1998 it carried Reid’s ashes to his mother’s village of Tanu. And today the Lootaas is stored in a boathouse in Skidegate.
Martine Reid offers several photographs of Reid, adze in hand, carving the Lootaas. Sadly Reid, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, performed a largely supervisory role. The author also insists that for Bill Reid the ovoid, which was derived from the shape of a canoe, formed the basis of Aboriginal art. This does not take into account the artist’s long-held view that the form line not the ovoid was the dominant element in Northwest Coast art.
More generally, Martin Reid and her co-authors fail to address the difficulties that the former CBC announcer had being accepted into the Haida community. Part of the problem, as I argue in my own biography of Bill Reid, was that Reid was clearly seen as an outsider. Moreover he employed non-Aboriginal artists to carve the Lootaas. (This prompted the Haida carver Garry Edenshaw (Guujaaw) to leave the project in a huff). Things did not improve when Bill Reid told a Globe and Mail reporter that “Haida time is nobody giving a damn about anything” (29 March 1986).
As Bill Reid well knew, works such as the Lootaas were created as a result of the tensions that existed between his Aboriginal and White sensibility, and between the White and the Aboriginal worlds. Any discussion of his work and life should surely take this into account if it wishes to give an objective account of the context in which his finest work was created.
Maria Tippett, Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian (Toronto: Random House, 2003)
Bill Reid and the Haida Canoe
Martine J. Reid, ed.
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2011. 152 pp. $29.95