Just Doubling as a Loudspeaker Today: Robert Davidson’s Art, His Commitment, His Cultural Impact

Guud san glans “Eagle of the Dawn” Robert Davidson, Haida artist and force of nature.
(Courtesy http://www.robertdavidson.ca)

The handsome young fellow pictured above is Robert Davidson, renowned artist. Notice I didn’t say, “Massett artist,” “Haida artist,” “BC artist,” “First Nations artist,” or, for that matter, “Canadian artist”  He is all of those. But, he belongs to no one. He is the pre-eminent artist of his genre alive today. And his works belong in the canon of the Northern Northwest Coast art tradition, which had its roots millennia before the European invasion.

Thankfully,  from time to time the world gets a peek at how he expresses his experience of life. A tip of the cedar-bark hat to Mother Jones for bringing to our attention the news that this month will see the first major solo exhibition of his work in the United States. For those near to my neck of the woods, the exhibit opens November 16, 2013, at the Seattle Art Museum; it closes there on February 16, 2014. Next stop, I’m told, is in Manhattan. No dates yet.

Alan and Gillian McMillan in 1970. 
Alan does fieldwork in BC,
teaches and writes books
I hope neither minds that I’ve borrowed this 
lovely period piece from Gillian’s facebook page.

I was made aware of Mr. Davidson in 1970. A year after he and his brother, Reg, had erected their Bear Mother pole in the town of Massett, British Columbia. It was the first carved cedar pole erected at Massett since the middle of the nineteenth century. After the pole was raised, so was my consciousness [consciousness raising was really big back then]. My mentor at the time was Alan McMillan, and it was my first semester of college.

Dr. McMillan was truly inspiring. And I tried to follow in his footsteps as an academic. It was my great good fortune to last all of three years in the academy. But that’s another story, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with Alan or what he taught me! I was really green in 1970. This’ll tell you how green. My older sister had taken a university course on classical archaeology. I knew that much about the content. My future embarrassment arose because I heard my sis refer to the course as “Classical Studies” plus some number.

Like every good aspiring archaeologist before me I wanted to be a classical archaeologist and dig up mummies. So, in my first after-class interview with Al, he [of course] asked me what sort of coursework I’d be doing in the future. I responded, with utter confidence, that I wanted to do Classical Studies. Being the inspirational teacher that Al was, he started reeling of the sorts of classes I’d need to take when I finally fled my two-year college for the big leagues. After hearing Ancient Greek, and a nanosecond before Al could say “Latin,” I realized that I’d just used a term I didn’t know squat about, in error, in my first interaction with my first archaeology prof. I was already heading for the door. I couldn’t stay there red faced. Somehow or other—either Al forgot or forgave—I managed to salvage my self-respect, and became the disaffected, bitter, ex-archaeologist that you have come to know and love, here at The Subversive Archaeologist.

[I’ve been secretly wanting to use this next expression for ages. I realize that now would be a perfect time!]

But, I digress!

We were talking about Robert Davidson and the pole-raising at Massett in 1969. It’s called Bear Mother.

Carved cedar Bear Mother, by Robert and
Reg Davidson. Raised August 22, 1969,
in Massett, Haida Gwaii
(Photo from Mother Jones, and
courtesy of http://www.robertdavidson.ca)

Its iconography and style followed Haida tradition, a genre of meticulously rule-bound, stylized representational art that many say is the pinnacle of what Europeans have so erroneously called “primitive art.” Carved cedar poles like theirs lined the beaches at the traditional village sites, some standing alone, others attached to the front of the great, post and beam, and plank, cedar houses. Each is unique. Each tells a story that relates to the family of its carver, rights to ceremonial names and dances, and the clan to which they belong. Thus, they’re both social testament and incredibly beautiful works of art.  

I mentioned above that Robert Davidson is a force of nature. So was Bill Reid before him. And before Bill, there were the argillite “totem poles” made for the tourist trade and art market. The greatest historic Haida artist was Charles Edenshaw. These people have managed to keep a millenniae-old art tradition alive, despite smallpox, despite laws forbidding traditional ceremonies, despite the [again legal] sundering of families—where the kids were forcefully removed from their families, force to live in squalid residential “schools” run by corrupt church organizations who beat anybody who used their native language and sexually abused almost anybody, it would seem. Despite the deracination of generations, artists like Robert and Bill and Charles, and Reg have prevailed.

What’s more, these great artists have breathed life back into a society that 40 years ago had little hope and little to live for without a way to numb the pain. The Europeans didn’t just rip families apart, they ripped out the hearts of each and every “Indian” on Haida Gwaii and fed their hearts to them on a platter of feigned concern, neglect, and attempted genocide. That there were any hearts left in Massett or Skidegate still able to imagine bringing the past back to live with them, is perhaps the greatest victory for the spirit.

Perhaps that’s why in the National Gallery of Canada there stands a 3-m tall aluminum sculpture, The Supernatural Eye. It puts a twist on the ancient style that’s a metaphor for all his works [if anyone should ever ask me for my opinion].

The Supernatural Eye, by Robert Davidson.

I hope some of you’ll be able to attend the Seattle exhibition. It is the moment’s cap for a lifetime of Davidson’s creativity. I know I’ll be there. On opening day there’ll be a performance of traditional and contemporary music and dance, courtesy of the Rainbow Creek Dancers, a group that Robert Davidson co-founded. You ought not to miss it!


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Tlingit and Haida Genetics and the Peopling of the Americas

Listen up, you North American archaeologists! Here’s one for you! This news is at least a week old, but I’ve seen nothing else about this on the intertubes. So, why not share? It’s an article about the University of Pennsylvania’s Genographic Project, and it highlights two recently published studies on northern North America’s indigenous peoples. Both support and extend earlier linguistic studies hypothesizing the timing of entry onto the NA continent. One, in particular, interests me because it apparently demonstrates a distinct genetic makeup for the two culturally similar Northwest Coast groups, the Haida and Tlingit
     The two, while outwardly similar in their material and other cultural appurtenances bear genomes distinct from one another. The Haida language is also distinct, not only from Tlingit, but from all of the rest of the Americas. It’s what’s called a ‘language isolate,’ a language for which there is no apparent linguistic relative in the world. Although such languages are not definitive evidence of a language’s antiquity, the circumstances that obtain on Haida Gwaii suggest that, at a minimum, the Haida language had evolved in isolation from the languages of all the other indigenous people of North America. 
     The genetic results thus parallel the linguistic evidence, and make me want to connect them with some natural curiosities having to do with Haida Gwaii, the island archipelago traditionally inhabited by the Haida people (the island chain was formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) [and is the land where I was born–see below for some photos of the unassuming little town of Sandspit, where my family lived,  across the saltchuck from the Haida village of Skidegate and the interlopers’ town of Queen Charlotte]. 
     First of these curiosities that I want to mention is the importance of Haida Gwaii in Knut Fladmark’s famous paper, ‘Routes: Alternate Migration Corridors for Early Man in North America.’ One of the points Knut makes in this paper is that the coastal route for peopling of the Americas would have been open even while the proposed ‘ice-free corridor’ to the unglaciated parts of North America was closed. The ice-free corridor, you’ll remember, is a long-hotly-debated ice-free north-south route between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets. Fladmark and others have always maintained that, even if it had been ice-free for some warmer periods during the last glaciation the way would have been forbidding to the point of impassibility with permanent pro-glacial lakes and outwash plains devoid of fauna or flora.

This sketch of the ice-free corridor is a might optimistic. This is prolly what it looked like at the height of the deglaciation at around 12.5 ka. 

     So, Fladmark and others have long pointed to Haida Gwaii as having been a Pleistocene biotic refugium–where a community of plants and animals would have lived through the rigours of the last ice age. There are numerous endemic species on the islands, and recent excavation in a cave site has revealed skeletal bear remains dating to about 14.5 ka, just on the cusp of the final glacial meltdown and the end of the Pleistocene. Moreover, Haida legends talk of their earliest ancestors living in areas that are now inundated, but that would have been exposed during the Pleistocene.
     Thus, for lots of reasons it’s very tempting to see the Haida people as potentially the earliest to live south of the Arctic Circle in North America, at a time when sea levels were much lower than they are today, and that they might have reached this southerly perch by making use of refugia on the shelf as stepping stones between Beringia and Haida Gwaii. By the time the post-Pleistocene marine transgression had taken its toll on waterfront property in that region, there was a 180 km stretch of Hecate Strait to navigate to reach the mainland. Although they were clearly some of the mightiest seafarers ever to eat the waves anywhere in the world, even the Haida might have chosen to make such crossings rarely, thus ensuring their continued genetic and linguistic isolation from the rest of North America.
     Let me know what you think.

Here follows a series of increasingly larger scale satellite photos of the area of my birth–Haida Gwaii.

Aleutians through the Gulf of Alaska to Haida Gwaii, the pie-shaped archipelago near the bottom.
Haida Gwaii and the mainland opposite. Hecate Strait in between.
Skidegate Inlet opens to the northeast. Sandspit is visible in the mid-upper right, and in the closeup below. I was actually born in Queen Charlotte, which had the only hospital at the time, and is a ferry ride away across the inlet to the west of Sandspit.
Sandspit, on Haida Gwaii. Note the raised shorelines marching uphill to the south and west due to continuous and ongoing post-Pleistocene isostatic rebound.
Sandspit, looking a little as it always has…like a town on the edge of nowhere. My dad operated the company store here in the early 1950s. Shortly after I was born we moved back to the mainland, to what was then the Municipality of Richmond, where I grew up. As an indication of how closely tied to England much of Canada was for a very long time, the elected head of the Municipal Council was still called a Reeve until the 1970s, when the term Mayor was adopted in keeping with Richmond’s emergence from mostly rural to mostly suburban.

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