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In ‘Haida Modern,’ the Story of the First Totem Pole Raised in Over a Century

We spoke to the remarkable artist who made it happen, and the creators of a new film about his life.

Dorothy Woodend 2 Jun

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

After winning multiple awards and screening around the world, Haida Modern, Charles Wilkinson’s documentary portrait of renowned Haida carver Robert Davidson, is airing on Knowledge Network.

Davidson started carving when he was 13 years old, but it wasn’t until he moved from Haida Gwaii to Vancouver to finish high school that he discovered the extent to which Haida culture had been systematically obliterated, at the behest of the Church.

After returning home to the Village of Masset, Davidson went door to door to ask people if they still had any cultural items. All he could find was a single bentwood box that had somehow survived the purge.

This utter devastation prompted the young artist’s decision to carve and raise the first totem pole in almost a century, and on a bright summer day in August 1969 the Bear Mother pole was raised in the old way, with members of the community working together.

As Robertson explains in the film: “The totem pole was actually a catalyst, to make a statement, ‘Hey! We’re alive and we want to be part of this world.’”

On the eve of the film’s broadcast, The Tyee posed some questions to director Charles Wilkinson and Robert Davidson about the current state of the world and what Haida culture can teach western culture. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The Tyee: Robert, when you made the decision to carve the first totem pole in almost a century, your grandmother suggested you talk to the Elders. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of realizing that knowledge of Haida culture hadn’t been entirely lost, but had been kept in the hearts and memories of an older generation?

Robert Davidson: When I decided to carve the totem pole in 1969, it came about from several visits with the Elders. Seeing the emptiness in their eyes, and emptiness in the village of the Art. My time in the city of Vancouver seeing the great Art of my ancestors in the museums opened my eyes to the high standards achieved by the Old Masters.

The emptiness I felt with the Elders and emptiness of Art inspired me to carve a totem pole for the village. The idea was to create a reason for the Elders to celebrate one more time in a way they knew how. My grandparents, nanii and tsinii opened their doors to invite the Elders to meet and talk about how to raise the totem pole. In doing so, they all collectively expressed the proper way for it to be raised. They had several meetings and after discussions they all sang and danced. Their spirits were raised through expressing their knowledge and the singing and dancing.

This experience opened my eyes on the depth the Art has on our culture. Before then I only knew about creating curios for sale. The knowledge held by my Elders was expressed through celebrating the raising of the totem pole. My learning from their actions could not have been learned by talking about it or being interviewed.

The raising of the Bear Mother pole in 1969 helped bring about a renaissance of Haida art and culture. How does it feel to have played such a pivotal role in bringing about this profound change?

Robert Davidson: It is exciting that this happened at the perfect time. There were enough Elders with this knowledge and willing to come together to express their knowledge. The support for the success of the totem pole raising came from my family, namely, my parents, my mother Vivian, father Claude, brother Reg who assisted me on the carving. My grandparents, nanii Florence, tsinii Robert, uncle Victor, uncle Alfred, uncle Sam, and all my aunties, Virginia Hunter, Myrtle Kerrigan, Primrose Adams, Agnes Davis, Merle Anderson, Emily Goertzen, and Clara Hugo. I’m excited how things transpired after the pole raising.

851px version of RobertDavidsonCarvingTotem.jpg
Robert Davidson at work. Image by Tina Schliessler.

Charles, can you talk about how your relationship as filmmaker and subject developed over the course of making the film?

Charles Wilkinson: Speaking for producer/filmmaker/partner Tina and myself, we approached working with Robert with caution. We both so admire and respect Robert as one of the great artists of the age. We didn’t want to get in his way, distract him from the work, or just generally get on his nerves. But Robert was so welcoming, patient and approachable with us, we soon developed a steady and comfortable work rhythm.

It went something like this: We’d film Robert at work for an hour or so. When something unusual in Robert’s workflow would come up, being an amateur woodworker myself and naturally very inquisitive I’d ask Robert why he was doing a certain thing. He’d generally respond with a friendly “just watch. You’ll see.” Which kind of reminded me of my dad who’d always answer any kind of why question with a that’s why. My dad drove me crazy with that. But gradually I realized Robert was totally right. He was encouraging me to slow down and pay attention to more than the words. That’s a valuable lesson, both for a woodworker and a filmmaker.

Was it difficult to revisit parts of Robert’s life and family history that were more challenging?

Charles Wilkinson: Very. Both Tina and I loathe reality shows where they’re always digging for the dirt, always looking for the pain and suffering and human weakness and packaging that as entertainment. So, we were very careful to just ask general questions about this or that time period in Robert’s life and then if he chose to share a personal detail that he felt was important to the narrative that was his choice.

I’ll add that there was a moment when Robert spoke about resolving things with his parents that quite understandably became emotional. We chose not to use that. We understand that emotional drama sells, but I think any decent person would agree that there are public moments and private moments.

What can western culture learn from Haida culture?

Charles Wilkinson: Lots. Respect for the natural world, an understanding that we share this planet with other species who have rights, honouring the wisdom of our Elders, taking time to listen to all points of view without talking over each other, how to plan a wonderful world for our great grandchildren, how to share good fortune with our community rather than hoard it individually, how to consistently win at basketball, and finally, how to develop a taste for oolichan grease. We’ve tried, no luck yet, which Robert thinks is pretty funny.

What do you envision as the possible result of this period of enforced stillness and contemplation brought about by the global pandemic?

Charles Wilkinson: Hopes and fears. Fears that the greedy and short-sighted among us will continue to expand their exploitation of this crisis to further aggravate the appalling inequality we see exploding all around us. Hope that we take the amazing opportunity this unprecedented quiet has given us to think, really think about what kind of world we want to “restart.”

When 9/11 happened, the world changed pretty dramatically, not for the better. COVID-19 is a much deeper shock to the system. Change is inevitable. What can each of us do each day to individually and through community contribute to a more just and sustainable future? Actually, a lot. We can grow.

'Haida Modern' airs on the Knowledge Network June 2 and 3 and streams for free here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Art, Media

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