Alaska Native Collections – Sharing Knowledge

 

Haida History and Art

Delores Churchill

Two chiefly voices describe the artistic pride and historical suffering of the Haida people, whose homeland—called Haida Gwaii—includes the Queen Charlotte Islands (British Columbia, Canada) and the southern part of the Alexander Archipelago in southeastern Alaska. Chief Wiah, the hereditary chief of Massett village, wrote in the introduction to S. W. A. Gunn’s, Haida Totems in Wood and Argillite(1967):

“From time immemorial my people have inhabited the Queen Charlotte Islands. From these shores has sprung a race the achievements of which fill every Haida with pride and every student of culture with amazement. But perhaps people in far away lands have come to know us best through our art and totems.”

On September 9, 1913, Alfred Adams, Chief Councilor in Massett, testified before the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia and the Canadian federal government:

“We welcome you to our largest and populated home of the Massett Band of the Haida Nation. On these islands our forefathers lived and died, and here we also expect to make our home until called away to join them in the great beyond... Since the coming of our White friends, we have been Wards of the government and the limits of our land have been drawn, giving to us an interest in six acres apiece of the many thousands over which we formerly roamed, and held against invaders. As you are aware, each of our separate tribes had places of their own and were governed by their Chiefs. The missionaries came among us and the government took charge of us. We were asked to centralize, to be Christianized and educated, and we came here, to Massett, to build our homes, returning now and then to our old homes, where we fished and where the bodies of our forefathers laid. At the mouth of every river and stream you will find our old camping grounds. All along the coast are our former hunting grounds and the places where we fished, hunted, and made our boats and canoes. These places are now covered by coal and timber licenses and occupied by preemptors. Year by year, the limits have been drawn, and we are now restricted to a small piece of land...”

Donny Edenshaw performs at Celebration '98 in Juneau.

Photo by Art Such, © Sealaska Heritage Center.

Mr. Adams died in 1946. Haidas did not receive Canadian citizenship until the 1960s, and the land claims issue is still not settled.

The North Coast art style of the Haida has similarities to that of the Tsimshian and Tlingit. The Haidas were famous for their gigantic totem poles, red cedar houses, canoes, woven spruce root hats, and carvings in wood, argillite (a black mineral) and ivory. There has been very little archaeological investigation in Haida Gwaii. This makes it difficult to know how long these art forms have existed. However, a beautifully carved bentwood box was found in a cave on Kuiu Island, Alaska, and found to be over 500 years old by radiocarbon dating.

In 1774, Commander Juan Perez of the Santiago was the first to meet the Haida people. Collections that he made, now at the Museo de America in Madrid, Spain, include an ivory seabird charm and spruce root hat that are both recognized as masterworks. In Haida Art (1989) Dr. George H. McDonald identified the second half of the 19th century as the Golden Age of Haida art, when Albert Edward Edenshaw, John Robson, and Charles Edenshaw were prominent. Charles Edenshaw was a great artist and a very humble man, who had been poor and sickly in his youth. None of the articles about him mention that his eyes were crossed and that he could only work for short periods of time.

There were many other artists to be remembered from this period—Ed Collison, Louie Collison, Charles Gladstone, George Gunya, William Dixon, Moses Jones, Paul Jones, Moses McKay, Henry Moody, Joseph Moody, Tom Price, William Russ, Joshu Work, George Young, and Dwight Wallace.

In the 20th century, there were many artists who continued carving and weaving. The carvers were Arthur Adams, Victor Adams, Andrew Brown, Isaac Chapman, Frank Charles, Claude Davidson, Robert Davidson, Sr., George Paul Hill, Fred Grant, Molly Jones, John Marks, Arthur Moody, Rufus Moody, Clarence Peele, Warren Peele, Robert Ridley, Luke Watson, Alex Yeltatzie, and Jones Yeltatzie. The weavers were Lydia Charles, Julia Davis, Amanda Edgars, Lucy Frank, Louisa Peele, Emily Thompson, Grace Wilson, Agnes Yeltatzie, and Lucy Young. Hannah Parnell made cedar bark rope and twine.

Selina Adams Peratrovich was instrumental in preserving the art of Haida weaving. She was the first weaver to use yellow cedar; there are no yellow cedar baskets in any early museum collection. She and Emily Thompson were the only weavers who remembered how to make the traditional spruce root hats, and only Selina knew how to weave the potlatch rings on top. She taught spruce root weaving at the Alaska State Museum, the Ketchikan Museum, Ketchikan Community College, the University of Alaska Southeast, and in communities from Massett to Bethel. She continued giving classes at the university until her death at age 95, in 1984.

Selina Peratrovich would be very proud of two of her students. In 2005, Isobel Adams Rorick was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. April Varnell had a basket displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Haida basketry will continue to be an important part of culture on Haida Gwaii due to the teaching of Holly Burns, April Varnell, and Evelyn Wylie, Selina’s grandchildren.

The contemporary artists of today are challenging and broadening the perception of Northwest Coast art. Charles Edenshaw paved the way for these young artists to be modern and experimental. He carved elephants, snakes, and even a sphinx. Every collector knows the work of Bill Reid, Robert Davidson, Jim Hart, Christian White, Frieda Deising, Don Yoemans, and Gujao.

The next generation of artists will continue to use the traditional skills that have been passed on from their ancestors, but will adapt to their modern culture—John Brent Bennett superimposing Haida designs on photographs and Don Varnell combining pop culture with Northwest Coast designs. Who knows what Justin Burns will create; he will be graduating from the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, NM in 2006 with his B.A. degree in Art.

Chief Wiah wrote, “I am confident that in the hands of our young artists we shall continue giving the world our unique form of art.”

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the museums who are caretakers of the objects that Haida artists created, so that Haida students will continue to learn from them now and in the future.

 

Delores Churchill is a well-known Haida artist, weaver, and basket maker who lives in Ketchikan, Alaska. She is the daughter of Selina Adams Peratrovich.

Top of page