The last time I saw Bill Reid was in 1994. My book, Between Two Cultures: A Photographer among the Inuit
, had just been published and I was speaking to a group of businessmen on the top floor of the Hotel Vancouver. Accompanied by his wife Martine, Bill sat close to the lecture podium. I knew who Bill Reid was -- I had heard him give a lecture at the University of British Columbia in the late 1970s. During his talk, Bill had worn his knowledge of Haida art and culture lightly. I had been impressed by his modesty, manifested in his attempt to diminish the role he had played in what many people have called the revival of Northwest Coast Native art. Yet it was obvious to me that beneath his offhand manner lay a breadth of knowledge about and a commitment to Native art and culture. I did not see Bill Reid again until a mutual friend invited me to dine with him in the summer of 1990. By this time he had overseen the carving of Raven and the First Men
, launched his canoe Loo Taas
, and was in the midst of his largest commission, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii
Long before I embarked on my research for this book, I knew that Bill Reid was not the sole architect of the so-called renaissance of contemporary Native art. As a cultural historian, I suspected that his public persona as a Haida Indian was as much a product of journalists, art patrons, museum curators, and others associated with the non-Native establishment as of Bill Reid himself. At the same time, I had been bowled over by works like Raven and the First Men
. What other sculpture in the history of public art in Vancouver has so excited schoolchildren that they shout, as they enter the Museum of Anthropology: “Where’s Bill Reid’s raven?” Or prompts adults to compare Raven and the First Men
with Michelangelo’s Pietà, seen on their summer vacation in Rome?
I also knew that Bill Reid was not the only major figure in the history of post -- World War II Northwest Coast Native art. During the mid-1950s I had observed the Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mungo Martin (Nakapenkum) both restoring and creating totem poles in the carving shed adjacent to the Provincial Museum in Victoria. As an even younger child, I had attended a potlatch in the Coast Salish community house at Cowichan Bay on the southeast coast of Vancouver Island. The cedar-scented smoke, the masks and rattles, and the mournful song of the elders, who had beat out the steps for the dancers on their drums, had left no doubt in my childhood mind that Indian culture was very much alive.
These early experiences, along with my later contact, during the course of researching my biography of Emily Carr, with the Gitxsan and Nisga’a peoples living on the Nass and Skeena rivers, with the Nuu-chah-nulth in Ucluelet, and with the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands, made me question the prominent role that Bill occupied in the story of Northwest Coast art. I began to wonder if “revival” and “renaissance” were the right words to describe the process, and whether “continuation” would not have been a more accurate word when talking about what took place in British Columbia during the 1950s and 1960s.
I would like to have had Bill’s response to my lecture on Inuit photography that autumn day in 1994. After all, the central theme of my talk -- the ways in which photographic images of indigenous peoples have been used by non-Natives -- was of interest to Bill Reid. He did say something when, at the end of my lecture, I walked over to where he was sitting. I bent my head close to his, trying to understand. Bill repeated his effort. But it was no use. Whatever he was struggling to say was incomprehensible to me, as it was to Martine Reid. Parkinson’s is a cruel disease; it not only erodes mobility, it robs its victim of speech. The sonorous baritone voice that had brought the evening news to thousands of Canadians across the country had been reduced to a rasping, unintelligible whisper.
I did not think much about Bill Reid again until the spring of 1998. Opening my e-mail one morning in my college rooms at Cambridge University, I was confronted with a number of messages from friends. They all informed me that Bill Reid had succumbed to his long battle with Parkinson’s disease on March 13.
Three days after his death, Globe and Mail
writer Miro Cernetig set the stage for the accolades that followed. Reid had saved “an artistic tradition that was in danger of being lost.” The Vancouver Sun
told its readers how Reid had done this. He had transformed Vancouver’s public space by creating monumental sculptures like the Killer Whale
at the Vancouver Aquarium, The Jade Canoe
at the Vancouver Airport, and Raven and the First Men
at the Museum of Anthropology. He had trained a host of younger Native artists, of whom Robert Davidson was the best known. And he had rescued Native art from extinction and thereby restored “a feeling of pride to Native communities up and down the Pacific coast.”
A week later, news of Bill’s death made it to the obituary pages of the New York Times
. He was newsworthy in the American press because in the autumn of 1991, one of Bill’s best-known works, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii
, also known as The Black Canoe
, had been installed at the entrance of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. In Britain, The Times
took longer to acknowledge the artist’s death. But when it did on April 11, the editor of the “morgue” gave Reid the lion’s share of the obituary page. Four photographs accompanied a lengthy text that noted the salient features of Reid’s life: study at London’s Central School of Art and Design, salvaging and recreating Haida totem poles, and protesting against the logging of Lyell Island on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Few Canadians -- dead or alive -- have been given so much coverage in a British newspaper.
Reading the obituaries and the tributes made me feel increasingly uneasy about the reporting in the press. Much of it was inaccurate. Writing in the Globe and Mail
, David Silcox mistakenly credited Bill with being the first artist within living memory to raise a large totem pole and to carve a dugout canoe. Virtually every other reporter ignored the earlier achievements of artists such as Mungo Martin and his wife, Abayah; Jimmy Seaweed; Ellen Neel; John Cross; Claude Davidson; and many others who were active long before Bill Reid appeared on the scene. The public was being given a skewed sense of the past.
Much was left unsaid. No one mentioned the extent to which Bill’s work drew on western aesthetics. No one adequately explained why Bill and his work meant so much to the Canadian people. Or how he came to play such a pivotal role in the Native art world. Or how he got to where he was by the end of his life. Or why he was not accepted into the Native and non-Native establishments earlier in his career. Or, finally, why his acceptance in and discovery by the Native and non-Native communities become a major theme in Bill Reid’s story of struggle.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Bill Reid by Maria Tippett. Copyright © 2003 by Maria Tippett. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.