In 1998, the 50-foot canoe Loo Taas (Wave Eater) carried the ashes of Bill Reid to their final resting place on the island of Tanu in Haida Gwaii. This was a fitting end for Reid, the most influential Native artist in Canada over the past half-century, who once said, “I got more satisfaction out of the building of [Loo Taas] than anything I’ve ever done.”
Reid played a major role in gaining international respect for Haida Gwaii in the art world after discovering his heritage as a young man. Today, travelers come to this archipelago of more than 150 mist-enshrouded islands off the wild coast of northern British Columbia to explore the colorful culture of the Haida First Nation and the haunting beauty of the islands—the same spiritual depth that captivated Reid. It is a mystical place of legends, spirits and supernatural creatures.
Clambering aboard a Zodiac that then weaves around Louise Island, sometimes in mist, sometimes in rain, and even for a few fleeting moments of sunshine, one is entranced. Because of its isolation, Haida Gwaii developed unique flora and fauna and is often called the “Galapagos of the North.” This is an otherworldly realm, a place to connect with raw nature. The archipelago teems with grey, orca and humpback whales, plus salmon, seals, sea lions and marine birds.
It’s easy to see what drew Reid back here as a young man. He was born in 1920 in Victoria, British Columbia, to a Haida mother and an American father. His mother raised Reid as “white” because she had suffered through a residential school upbringing and was reluctant to raise him as an Indian. His father abandoned the family when Reid was 12.
A visit to Haida Gwaii in his twenties changed everything for Reid. He met his grandfather and was impressed by the elder’s jewelry and argillite carvings, as well as by the Haida myths and stories. Reid embraced his indigenous heritage, and it became the primary inspiration for the rest of his life.
Haida Gwaii consists of two main islands: Graham in the north and Moresby in the south. Graham Island is the main population center, with villages Masset, Old Masset, Queen Charlotte and Skidegate, plus several smaller hamlets. The landscape is happily devoid of traffic lights, shopping malls and coffee franchises.
Landing in a small cove, visitors follow a path into a primal, dark rainforest to pay homage to a venerable giant, a Sitka spruce 14 feet in diameter and more than 600 years old. One can almost glimpse trolls and orcs in the shadowy surrounding forest, and it’s easy to understand why the Haida believe in supernatural creatures.
The Haida history on these islands can be traced back at least 10,000 years. The first contact with Europeans came in 1774, and by 1911, due largely to smallpox, a population of about 14,000 had been reduced to 600. Dozens of villages became ghost towns. Today the Haida Nation comprises about half of the islands’ population of 5,000.
Back in the Zodiac, visitors enter a small bay where the village of Skedans once stood. A Haida Guardian stands in greeting.
“Welcome to Ḵ'uuna Llnagaay, or Skedans,” a sign reads. “This is a sacred place to our people, so please treat it with respect.”
A dozen or so skeletal totems are grim reminders of a long-ago vibrant community that once held 56 of them. Walking slowly among the fallen and leaning poles, now weathered to a dull grey showing only traces of the once-elaborate carvings, elicits a chill, for this is a spiritual place. Reid often visited here.
Farther south lies Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, consisting of Moresby and numerous smaller islands. The park was created in 1988 after the Haida Nation led a major protest against logging, which gained international attention. Reid participated in the protest.
At the same time, the Haida Watchmen program was created, where volunteers live during the summer at five abandoned Haida villages, including Skedans, acting as guardians. Today, Gwaii Haanas is considered one of the best national parks in North America.
Next stop is Old Masset at the northern end of Graham Island, one of two native villages (the other is Skidegate), past an Anglican church whose spire incongruously shares the sky with a nearby totem pole.
The Haida art scene is vibrant and flourishing, thanks in part to Reid, who inspired and worked with local artisans. A good display of their work is found at Sarah’s Art Shop, bursting with masks, silver and argillite jewelry, cedar hats and wood carvings featuring the bold ovoid designs of bears, ravens and thunderbirds.
Reid’s enormous pride in Haida culture was demonstrated by his resurrection of the art of canoe making. The traditional dugout canoe, used for fishing, transportation and waging war, was integral to the life of Native communities. The biggest canoes came from Haida Gwaii, up to 65 feet in length. These canoes were bold in appearance and sophisticated in design, with excellent speed, capacity and seaworthiness. However, disease and the European campaign to destroy Native culture led to the end of canoe making. The last great Haida canoe had been built in 1908.
Reid decided to reawaken the art, an epic undertaking. Working from Skidegate, he studied, listened to oral history and enlisted the help of Haida carvers. A 750-year-old red cedar was felled, and slowly carved into Loo Taas. The canoe opened Vancouver’s Expo ’86, to many accolades. A 19-day trip from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii followed in 1987, when it brought great joy to many Native communities—such a canoe had not been seen in most people’s memories. The coastal First Nations held celebratory feasts and rekindled pride in their canoe heritage.
“Thanks to Bill, the people up and down the coast were able to reconnect because they had to learn their songs and their dances to welcome the Haida into their big houses,” reminisced Andy Wilson, one of the Haida paddlers. “So it wasn’t just one group of people reconnecting with their past, it was a whole coast. So it was a pretty spectacular time for us. And Bill was that vital, important connection for us in the present to our ancestors in the past.”
The Haida Heritage Centre opened in 2008 in an emotional celebration that every Haida attended, bedecked in button blankets, cedar hats, ceremonial masks and traditional regalia. Dances and song filled the center, and canoes were launched. Fronted by six traditional totem poles, the center is impressive, and the biggest tourist draw in Haida Gwaii. It consists of five longhouses containing a museum, performance house, carving shed, canoe house, Bill Reid Teaching Centre, a spacious welcome area and restaurant. The center is also a symbol of the resurgence of a proud people.
A Bill Reid Gallery is in preparation at the Centre, which will contain Loo Taas and the Dogfish Pole. The latter was taken down recently to safeguard against storm damage. The Dogfish Pole was carved by Reid, with figures of a raven, frog, killer whale, dog fish and three watchmen. When raised in 1978 before a jubilant crowd of 1,500 in front of the Haida Language House, it was the first new pole in Skidegate in almost 100 years. Loo Taas captures both the spirit of both Haida Gwaii and Reid.
“The Centre and Museum are important for the Haida—they’re built and directed by the community,” said curator Nika Collinson. “They support our arts, culture, language and further reconciliation.”