For the past three Wednesday evenings, I’ve attended George Macdonald’s lectures on Haida villages at the Bill Reid Gallery. It was time well-spent, and I only regret that the lectures stopped with three. Nobody is boring when talking about an area of expertise, and Macdonald, Director of the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Art Studies at Simon Fraser University and the author of Haida Monumental Art, was certainly in his element. Just as importantly, he combined knowledge with an informal and lively manner, which made for an absorbing scholarly trio of evenings.
Macdonald divided his subject matter into the southern villages centering on Skidegate, the central villages around Masset, and the northern or Kaigani villages of southern Alaska. Unsurprisingly, the second lecture was the most popular, with many Haida living in Vancouver coming out for it, including artists like Gwaai Edenshaw and Dorothy Grant, but the third was also popular, perhaps because the arbitrary border has resulted in few Canadians knowing much about the Kaigani villages. And the entire series was attended by a core of regulars, including me.
The first surprise in the lecture is how much photographic evidence exists from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because much of this evidence is not available to the general public, many people, I suspect, are like me and believe that it is very limited. However, Macdonald speaks in terms of thousands of photos (and I’m not sure that he didn’t talk of tens of thousands), to say nothing of sketches by anthropologists and navy officers, and works of art like Emily Carr’s. In fact, so much of this evidence exists that pieces can be cross-correlated, and the distinctive style of individual – if often anonymous – artists can be detected. Macdonald showed perhaps a few hundred slides of this evidence, but his lectures were enough to suggest the surprising wealth of material.
Another source of evidence is family tradition. In many Haida villages, memory or written records have preserved the names of many of the houses, as well as some of their history. For instance, at the third lecture, Dorothy Grant told her grandfather’s story of how his village was abandoned for a centralized, missionary-run new village of running water and electricity. During the burning of possessions that the missionaries insisted upon, her grandfather saved only the contents of the bentwood box in his hands.
Nearly four hours of lecture and audience participation is almost impossible to summarize. However, other topics in Macdonald’s lectures included the patterns of resettlement in the south as European diseases forced the survivors to regroup and, in many cases, regroup again; the use of palisades and hilltops during wars between lineages; the names and appearances of some of the great chiefs and carvers of a hundred and forty years ago; the question of whether Albert Edward Edenshaw was trying to bypass matrilineal inheritance by bestowing property on his son, and the characteristic designs of the graves of shamans. In many cases, too, the villages were illustrated by sketch maps or aerial photos.
Equally fascinating were Macdonald’s own stories of his experiences as an archaeologist in the field. They ranged from the careless destruction of one pole that survived into modern times in Prince Rupert, and the danger of bears while exploring villages. Macdonald also revealed in passing some of the professional issues and puzzles in the study of villages.
This was the first lecture series from the Bill Reid Gallery. The gallery is an ideal place for a small crowd, even if the monumental Mythic Messengers and the smell of cedar from Jim Hart’s work on his tribute pole to Bill Reid sometimes became distractions. But, on the whole, if it is an example of what these organizations plan to offer in the future, then future events deserve to be crowded. Like any good lectures, Macdonald’s have pushed back the boundaries of my ignorance a little while tantalizing me to find out more.