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Totem by Jim Hart will welcome visitors to Los Angeles museum

LOS ANGELES – A massive red cedar that once graced the towering forests of Haida Gwaii will attest to that island nation’s resilience and rich culture for years to come. Master artist Jim Hart has carved the tree into an interior house pole to be incorporated in the new Southwest Museum of the American Indian building that is scheduled to break ground in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park next year.

Hart was commissioned to create the piece in conjunction with the opening of “Totems to Turquoise,” on display through Aug. 20, at the Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West. The exhibit features traditional and contemporary works by Native artists from the southwestern United States and the Northwest coast.

Hart sliced shavings from the moist, aromatic cedar log at his makeshift workshop in the museum lobby as he greeted onlookers and answered questions.

“I thought of something interactive for the people here, and I figured a bear would be a nice thing to do,” he said.

The 435-year-old cedar was felled two winters ago, then floated across the inlet to his studio at Old Massett. The wind was raging and a freezing rain turned to snow as his helpers built a crate around the 1,600-pound log to prepare it for shipment to the mainland.

“There was snow on the ground and we were slipping all over,” he said. “When we were lifting it up and around, I got a chance to view it from the distance. It looked fine. I wasn’t making a big error anywhere. So, experience is starting to kick in nice.”

A hereditary chief of the Haida Nation and one of the Northwest Coast’s most accomplished artists, Hart is a descendant of Charles Edenshaw, who helped pioneer the development of silver engraving among the Haida.

Haida Gwaii – otherwise known as the Queen Charlotte Islands – means “Islands of the People.” Once dotted with Eagle and Raven family villages where more than 14,000 people thrived, smallpox decimated the population in the 1800s.

“We come from the land of big trees, big cedars like this one,” Hart said. “We used to make big canoes from one log, and they’re ocean-going canoes. There’s a story that we were so far down south with our canoes, there was a huge clam down there; and one of the Haidas dove down and his hand got stuck and [the clam] closed up on him. They couldn’t get him free, and he ended up drowning … and we were so far north that there were no trees.”

It was Hart’s great-aunts who first stressed the value of Haida art to him as a boy, but it didn’t sink in until he was in high school.

“When I discovered our art, my head was whirling,” he said. “It was so overwhelming, it scared me for a while.”

In 1980 he began to apprentice with renowned Haida carver Bill Reid and eventually supervised the construction of the Haida house exhibit in the Grand Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Now his pieces are represented in collections around the world.

Reid taught Hart more than carving; he tutored him in the practical skills needed when venturing away from home.

“I knew how to carve, but I didn’t know anything else,” Hart recalled, “He taught me how to survive in the city. I came down from the village there. It’s pretty small. But we come from a rich land, so we’re rich, but poor at the same time.”

He has carved more than 20 ancient cedars into totems, and counted 760 rings on the oldest tree.

“It has a lot of meanings,” he said while deftly working the cedar log, into which he had fashioned an entryway through the bear’s stomach. “It’s not just a doorway. This is a bear mother and it has the tongue hanging out, so as you’re going through the doorway it’s actually licking you: it expresses the mother instinct. The door also represents stepping back into the womb at night when you’re going back to safety, so that’s your center of the world. The next morning when you get up and you want to go out, you’re like reborn. There’s a lot to it, you know. Plus it’s defensive. You have to crouch down to go through, so if you’re a bad person going in there to do damage, somebody can wait for you on the other side and conk you on the head.”

Big trees like this are getting harder to come by, and the Haida Nation is taking steps to protect its resources, Hart said.

“We’re going to court. We’re throwing a lot of stuff on the line,” he said of the costly legal battle ahead. “We’re fighting for our forests, for our salmon. We want to have a bigger voice in how things are managed, you know. We don’t want to disappear.”