In 1998, the 15-metre canoe, Loo Taas, or Wave Eater, carried the ashes of Bill Reid to his grave on the island of Tanu in Haida Gwaii. This was fitting, for Reid had said,
“I got more satisfaction out of the building of Loo Taas than anything I’ve ever done.”
William (Bill) Ronald Reid, who was to become the most influential Native artist in Canada over the past half century, was born in 1920 in Victoria, British Columbia, to a Haida mother and an American father. His father abandoned the family when Reid was 12.
Bill visited Haida Gwaii in his twenties, met his grandfather and was impressed by his jewelry and argillite carvings as well as by Haida myths and stories. He embraced his Haida heritage and it became the primary inspiration for the rest of his life.
Reid began radio broadcast work in BC. He moved to Toronto, where he studied jewelry making, which was the beginning of his art career. Returning to Victoria, he began to immerse himself in Haida motifs and worked with Kwakwaka’wakw carver Mungo Martin on a Haida totem for the Royal BC Museum. He participated in two expeditions to salvage heraldic poles from Haida Gwaii.
As his career developed Reid lived in England and Montreal. He combined European jewelry-making techniques with classic Haida motifs to create unique designs. He applied his superb craftsmanship to many different materials and on many scales; he was not afraid to experiment, but always with a Haida foundation. As his career took flight, he produced many magnificent works including the boxwood carving, “The Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell.” He carved a pole for his mother’s village, where only one decaying old pole still stood.
His most famous work is the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, a large sculpture of a canoe overflowing with wondrous creatures. He made two of these, one in black is at the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC; a jade-green one is at the Vancouver International Airport, and is the most visited aboriginal art piece in North America.
Reid decided to resurrect the art of canoe making, an epic undertaking. The traditional dugout canoe, used for fishing, transportation, and waging war, was integral to the life of native communities. The biggest canoes, up to 20 metres in length, came from Haida Gwaii. Bold in appearance and sophisticated in design, these canoes had excellent speed, capacity, and seaworthiness. However, white man’s diseases and the campaign to destroy native culture led to the end of canoe making. The last great Haida canoe was built in 1908.
Reid studied, listened to oral histories, and enlisted the help of Haida carvers. A single, old-growth cedar was felled, and slowly Loo Taas, an elegant, beautifully painted, 50-foot canoe, emerged.
Loo Taas opened Vancouver’s Expo’86 to much praise. A 19-day trip from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii followed in 1987 with stops at many communities where most people had never seen such a craft. The coastal First Nations held celebratory feasts and rekindled pride in their canoe heritage. Andy Wilson, one of the Haida paddlers, reminisced, “Thanks to Bill … the people up and down the coast were able to reconnect because they had to learn their songs and their dances to welcome the Haida into their big houses. So it wasn’t just one group of people reconnecting with their past, but it was a whole coast. So it was a pretty spectacular time for us … And Bill was that vital, important connection for us in the present to our ancestors in the past.”
In 1989 Loo Taas went to France, where a team of Haida in regalia paddled it up the Seine River and made a dramatic entrance into Paris, where it was met by the mayor and other dignitaries. Today it rests in Haida Gwaii.
Reid created more than 1,500 works — many of them hugely significant —and received many honorary degrees and accolades. His work has been featured on Canadian stamps and also on the $20 bill. In 2008, the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art was opened in Vancouver and displays many of his works. His art can also be seen at the Haida Heritage Centre in Haida Gwaii.
Bill Reid died in Vancouver in 1998, at age 78, after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease. He left behind an enormous legacy of world-class art, but is favourite was Loo Taas.