IN MEMORIAM: Bill Reid (1920-1998)

Bill Reid, canoe-builder

"The elegant forms to be found in the artwork of the northwest coast peoples, both past and present, derive to a great extent from their maritime orientation.... Whether they were the bird-headed boats of the west coast of Vancouver Island with their clipper-ship bows, or the more dynamically designed northern canoes with long, ranking prows and high sterns, they were among the most beautiful craft that maritime man has ever devised."
Bill Reid from "Lootaas, 'wave-eater', The Voyage Home", (unpublished), June 1987

"The Haida canoe is as beautifully designed and decorated an open boat as the world has ever seen."
Bill Reid, quoted in Moire Johnston, "Homeland of the Haida," National Geographic, July 1987, p.109

The canoe had more significance to the Haida than just a mode of transportation; it was the means for the social interaction and ceremony that was at the core of Haida culture. Canoe building had been an important and profitable business for the Haida before the arrival of white men. Their canoes were in demand and could be traded for goods produced by other of the west coast peoples. After gasoline-powered boats were introduced to the residents of the Queen Charlotte Islands, in the early twentieth century, the traditional Haida seagoing canoes were burned or left to rot.

Reid's grandfather, Charles Gladstone, had been a fisherman, a carpenter, and an expert boat-builder -- a skill which increased the respect Reid had for him. This no doubt helped foster Reid's awe for the traditional Haida sea-going canoe, as an object combining functional perfection and visual elegance. He believed that the canoe was the single most important artifact used by the peoples of the Northwest coast and that the challenge of extracting the form of a canoe from a giant cedar played a key role in the evolution of Northwest Coast art. He was fascinated by one of the two surviving nineteenth century canoes, preserved in the National Museum of Man -- not least because Edenshaw had decorated it -- but deplored the fact that it was not on public display (something rectified when the museum moved to a new home as the Canadian Museum of Civilization). Although the knowledge of how to build such canoes had not been handed down to his own generation, he believed he could piece it back together from books, study of the old canoes, and above all from hands-on experience.

Expo 86 in Vancouver coincided with the obsession Bill Reid had developed for understanding the Haida canoe as a paradigm of Haida culture. Its pivotal role had been recognized by the Reverend William Collison, who titled his reminiscences of the first mission to the Haida "In the Wake of the War Canoe". Reid was commissioned to carve and paint a 15 metre war canoe from a red cedar log for the world's fair. He later agreed to recreate this canoe, which he named Lootaas, for the Canadian Museum of Civilization in fibreglass (to combat fluctuations in climactic conditions). Each new canoe was to be the alter ego of the other: one was to have primary formlines in black, the other in red. Consequently, one canoe became known as Black Eagle while the other was known as Red Raven.

The project to construct Lootaas for a display at Expo 86 of vessels from around the world was commissioned by the Bank of British Columbia. Designed by Reid and created under his supervision by young carvers of Skidegate, the canoe was one of his most challenging and absorbing ventures. But after its completion Reid considered it the greatest of his accomplishments.

He preceded it a 7.5 metre inshore canoe (itself based on a 2.5 metre canoe he created as model), as a means of gaining technical experience; it was fashioned after a canoe in the collection of the UBC Museum of Anthropology. This first canoe was launched in Vancouver's False Creek in October 1985, and met Reid's expectations in terms of appearance and functionality. Work had already begun on the full-size ocean-going canoe; Lootaas was constructed at Skidegate and had its trial run there in April 1986. Bow and stern were decorated with a Killer Whale design -- hence the canoe's name, "Loo Taas" meaning "Wave Eater".

Red Raven

Both the larger and the smaller canoes were put on display at Expo 86. The following summer Lootaas was paddled back to Skidegate -- the 600-mile voyage being something of a pilgrimage, since it followed old routes the Haida had used in trading ventures. Haida chiefs, elders and others stood on the beach in front of the village -- a beach that a century and a half earlier would have been covered with canoes -- to witness an event few alive had seen before. They officially welcomed Lootaas, the first new canoe in the traditional style to come ashore there that century. In 1989 Haida paddlers took Lootaas up the Seine from the sea to Paris, to be included among other of Bill Reid's works in an exhibition at the Museum of Man.

Reid's achievement went beyond creating a single canoe to fulfilling his original hope: the interest he had generated prompted other Haida craftsmen to turn their hand to canoe-building. Appropriately, it was in Lootaas that his ashes were carried to Tanu, to be scattered on the soil of his mother's ancestral village.