As amazing as the landscape and wildlife of Haida Gwaii are, the artwork created by the talented Haida artists is just as impressive. For decades the Haida art was surpressed by the Canadian government. In the 1960′s however, the government loosened controls on Haida culture and the result of the Haida Renaissance.
Today Haida artists have continued their work promoting Haida culture around the world.
Around 1860, the Haida ancestors suffered at the hand of outsiders, when small pox was brought from Victoria to the Queen Charlotte Islands. Ninety percent of the population was wiped out. In 1884 the Canadian Government outlawed the potlatch and along with it went the culture. Items associated with potlatches such as bowls, ladles, masks, headdresses and all dance regalia were no longer needed. Artists died without passing on their knowledge of the traditional style of carving on to the next generation. In 1951, the banning of the potlatch was repealed after a long struggle. The elders tried to remember what they could to help the next generation rebuild their histories.
After the 1960’s appreciation for the Art and traditions from the past interested many Haida. Just when the people were regaining their identities, the missionaries moved in and convinced the people to give up their old beliefs and traditions. Totem poles were burned for firewood and the children were placed in boarding schools, without their families. They were not to speak their own language and disciplined if they disobeyed. Regardless of all of the upheaval, the Haida’s have endured; they have persevered and learned to survive in the modern world.
To appreciate the Art, it is important to understand the structures of their social system. All Haida are born either “Ravens” or “Eagles”. The determination of moiety is established by the mother’s affiliation. Within the moiety are lineages; associations to these lineages are several crests, legends and Haida names. The legends associated with the Art may not be known, as it originates in the artist mind. It is of great importance to show the owner’s status and lineage affiliation with designs. The main crests are utilized for display, personal identity and ceremonial purposes. The Art symbols are earned in one’s lifetime, inherited or acquired by adoption. The ancestors had an impressive display of Art on their longhouses, totem poles, canoes, personal objects and household items. It was not unusual to find a design tattooed on a person’s entire body. When you are depicting Northwest Coast Art, the best method is to consider the symbols that are represented as animals, humans or objects of nature. The details will tell you what the design is. They include: head, ears, eyes, nose, mouth, teeth, tongues, hands, claws, feet or fins, depending upon what the Art object is. Within the body parts, most often faces are used to fill the spaces to make up the overall design. Details that are non-essential to the main body of the design are known as fillers. Broken designs are not quite so easy to depict and may be for the more experienced eye.