Carving as an act of resistance

Sculptor George Rammell reflects on Gidansda’s lifelong fusion of art and politics.

By George Rammell

I first heard of the Haida in my Grade 4 classes at Saint Peter’s School in New Westminster in 1963. My teacher was Sister Ann Marie, and she was informing us about the ‘Indian’ tribes on the northwest coast. She spoke of the fierce warring Haida and how they raided other tribes for slaves. She didn’t talk about Haida culture, Haida humour, or the historic papal wars waged against anyone who wasn’t Christian.

I never could have imagined as a kid that 15 years later, in 1979, Bill Reid would come to my warehouse studio space in east Vancouver and ask me to join his crew to carve The Raven and the First Men at UBC. I arrived at the carving shed at the arranged time, but the only person carving was Gidansda, then known as “Gary.” He was sitting on top of the raven’s shoulders knifing down on its wings.

I watched for a long time waiting for the maestro to arrive. Eventually a silver Rolls Royce pulled up and Bill Reid stepped out in a white shirt and sunglasses looking like the late Andy Warhol. He walked straight for the scaffold and climbed up to assess the planes of the wing when Gary said, “I hope you’re not going to mess it up again!”

I was shocked he was so lippy with the esteemed Bill Reid, but Bill chuckled — he was humoured by Gary’s banter and knew his attitude was an asset. Gary was adamant that Bill should hire Haida apprentices to produce his sculpture. While I didn’t appreciate his position at the time, I’ve come to see his youthful affirmative action as a noble initiative that is consistent with his life’s goal of cultural resurgence. As the seasons went by and the work progressed, I met the young Jim Hart who Bill recruited to knife the layered surfaces. Bill later described Jim’s knifing as the drum-tight skin that holds the whole piece together. He said Jim’s knifing is as important to the success of the work as Arthur Erickson’s circular rotunda where the piece sits in the Museum of Anthropology.

At that time, I had no idea these two young carvers would become important chiefs hosting extravagant Eagle and Raven potlatches, raising the bar of potlatch culture to new levels. Bill often spoke of the potlatch as the equivalent of the Western courts, where all ownership and rights were established in elaborate ceremony. Bill’s life’s work was like a potlatch in itself. Through his autonomous and innovative work, he took Haida art to the world stage. But traditional potlatching wasn’t part of his practice. From my perspective as a studio sculptor working on his monuments, his work appeared to function in a transient place between its Haida source and its urban destinations.

I was honoured to have been invited to Gidansda’s potlatch, where I witnessed the dynamics of the three-day event: a multi-disciplinary, community collaboration that builds indigenous nationhood in its ancestral locale. At the core of Gidansda’s potlatch was the carving of his pole. During the final days his crew worked through the night, each team member carving in unison with the guild to create the defining column of declaration. The authority of the Gidansda naming rite was proclaimed by this totemic monument, and its masks, dances, songs and speeches. If the contemporary potlatch is a celebration of Haida resurgence, then the act of carving is an essential act of resistance against the forces that tried to extinguish them.

The revival of the Haidas’ social stability is a massive accomplishment, achieved through the energy of all its activists. Gidansda made the sacrifice to shift his focus from art to politics, a field that can be an arduous vocation. But problem-solving and negotiating skills are no less creative than art making. Over the past decades he and Miles Richardson took on the lion’s share of responsibility to force government to recognize Haida title to lands and resources. Gidansda holistically integrated politics with Haida art throughout his career as both disciplines are needed to establish land title.

I don’t know of any non-Aboriginal politicians who are as holistic as Gidansda, carving monumental cedars, making prints and performing songs in a revived language. He recently toured the province sharing successful political strategies with other First Nations.

Gidansda’s potlatch arrived while he’s making the shift from politics back to the artistic roots from where he came. His return to sculpture is gradual, his multi-tasking continues with his Skyped meetings to save the herring while he models his new large raven-rattle in clay, and tells stories rooted in a cosmology of ancestral legacies and lived experiences.

George Rammell is a long-time sculptor who worked on many projects with the late Bill Reid, including The Raven and the First Men and The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

“We have to make a call out to address this now so our people don’t have to feel fearful,” said Tribal Chief Mina Holmes. (Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Facebook photo)
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council seeks Indigenous-led task force in northern B.C. hospitals

Request made in an open letter to federal minister Carolyn Bennett

NDP headquarters on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
ELECTION 2020: Live blog from B.C. party headquarters

BC NDP projected to win majority government – but celebrations will look different this election

Jennifer Rice BC NDP North Coast Incumbent was re-elected for a third according to the preliminary results on election night, Oct. 24, 2020. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Jennifer Rice is North Coast MLA for third term

Preliminary election results show NDP Majority government

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

A woman wears a face mask and plastic gloves while browsing books as a sticker on the floor indicates a one-way direction of travel between shelves of books at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, after it and four other branches reopened with limited services, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
B.C. reports 234 new COVID cases, 1 death of senior who had attended small birthday party

Roughly 5,700 people are isolating due to being exposed to a confirmed case

Burnaby RCMP responded to a dine-and-dash suspect who fell through a ceiling in March 2020. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Suspected dine-and-dasher falls through ceiling of Burnaby restaurant

A woman believed to be dashing on her restaurant bill fell through the kitchen ceiling

A can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale is shown in Toronto on Thursday Oct. 29, 2020. The maker of Canada Dry Ginger Ale has agreed to pay over $200,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit launched by a B.C. man who alleged he was misled by marketing suggesting the soda had medicinal benefits. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joseph O’Connal
B.C. man’s lawsuit over marketing of Canada Dry ginger ale settled for $200K

Soda’s maker, Canada Dry Mott’s Inc., denied the allegations and any liability

Vancouver Island-based Wilson’s Transportation has expanded to fill some of the routes left unserviced by Greyhound as of Nov. 1, 2018. (Black Press files)
B.C. bus companies say they need help to survive COVID-19

Like airlines, motor coaches have lost most of their revenue

A deer was spotted in October 2020 in Prince Rupert, B.C., with a bright pink yoga ball stuck in its antlers. (Kayla Vickers/Chronicles Of Hammy The Deer Official Page)
Hammy 2.0? Prince Rupert deer spotted with bright pink yoga ball stuck in antlers

The BC Conservation Officer Service is aware of the deer roaming around the city

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Kelowna Mountie hit with 2nd lawsuit in 2 months for alleged assault

Const. Julius Prommer is accused of breaking a woman’s knee during while responding to a noise complaint

Hirdeypal Batth, 24, has been charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement in relation to an incident in August 2020. (VPD handout)
Man, 24, charged with sex assault after allegedly posing as Uber driver in Vancouver

Investigators believe there could be more victims outside of the Vancouver area

B.C. Premier John Horgan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee arrive for annual Cascadia conference in Vancouver, Oct. 10, 2018. They have agreed to coordinate the permanent switch to daylight saving time. (B.C. government)
B.C. still awaiting U.S. approval to eliminate daylight saving time

Clocks going back one hour Nov. 1 in Washington too

Most Read