Culture before Currency: Canada’s Treatment of Indigenous Art

History of Haida Art 

Art from Haida Gwaii (The Queen Charlotte Islands) is not only distinct in style but displays their rich cultures and traditions. In many cases, their art pieces act as a visual representation of a spiritual connection between the Haida people and their ancestors. Historically, such pieces  served  as “reminders of rights and prerogatives bestowed on their ancestors by spiritual beings.” The items created were oftentimes decorated with an image of an animal, which was not only pleasing to the eye but also helped to remind the people of the lessons their ancestors learned through mythic encounters with animals. 

“Art for art’s sake” means very little for the Haida. They are well-regarded amongst other indigenous groups for their craftsmanship and distinct style. Historically,  these two characteristics helped the Haida maintain status among neighbouring indigenous groups. Due to the lack of natural resources (e.g. mountain goats, major runs of eulachon fish, etc.), the Haida used their skills as craftsmen and traded goods with their neighbours. In return for the goods that they received, the Haida sent over a range of products. According to the Canadian Museum of Natural History, products traded included everything from canoes to carved and painted chests, to furnishings that would be used during potlatch feasts. 

Culture before Currency: Canada's Treatment of Indigenous Art

Haida carved & painted chest. (Image Source: Virtual Museum of Canada)

Currently, in an attempt to reclaim pieces of their history, the Haida Gwaii Museum has repatriated some of the artifacts that were otherwise stolen and/or sold off to individuals around the world. Many of the artifacts were “lost” in the mid 19th century when Haida Gwaii was hit with a terrible wave of smallpox. Thinking that the Haida would not survive the illness, white Canadians began stealing some Haida products, “in the name of science and the benefit of humanity”.

Jisgang Nika Collision, executive director and curator of the museum, and the granddaughter of Bill Reid, a Canadian artist tied to the Haida community, believes that the artifacts were stolen or sold off during the Potlatch Ban. This ban prohibited any “ceremonial distribution of property and gifts in Indigenous communities,” and created great social and economic strain on the community. However, it is through this repatriation that the Haida are reclaiming their voices and their mark on Canadian history. 

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation 

Over the past few years, “cultural appropriation” has been a point of discussion on blogs, think pieces, and in everyday discourse. In November of 2017, Victoria’s Secret was accused of culturally appropriating Native American culture during their annual Victoria’s Secret show.  During the “Nomadic Adventures” portion of the show, many of the models came out wearing lingerie that was clearly inspired by a generalized idea of Native American culture. One outfit worn by model Nadine Leopold drew on a lot of criticism as she walked down the catwalk wearing a feathered headdress. In many Native American cultures, the feathered headdress “is gifted to leaders who have earned the right to wear one. Receiving a headdress involves ceremony and protocols and is considered to be a sacred item.” 

Culture before Currency: Canada's Treatment of Indigenous Art

Nadine Leopold wearing a feathered headdress at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. (Image Source: Harper’s Bazaar

Cultural appropriation, by definition, occurs  when “someone takes elements from a culture not their own and remakes and reduces it into a meaningless pop-cultural item.” Oftentimes, appropriation utilizes and exploits harmful colonial stereotypes of the culture it is appropriating. The case of  Victoria’s Secret annual fashion show is a clear example of this. The designers were not properly informed of the significance of the cultural headdress in part because a large portion of white-run industries have a history of treating “marginalized cultures as free for the taking.” It is a violation of a culture that has been misused and mistreated since the beginning of colonial presence in North America.

In multicultural societies, it can be quite hard to decipher whether someone is culturally appropriating a marginalized culture or if they are trying to shine a light on cultural traditions and practices. Cultural appreciation pays homage to a specific culture, which means that a  person takes “the time to learn and interact, to gain an understanding of culture or cultures different from [their] own” before using the former’s resources. In this way, there are two distinct characteristics of cultural appreciation: mutual respect and consent from the concerned cultural group. As Rosanna Deerchild said, “If it is about us, it must include us.”

The Royal Canadian Mint’s decision to use Bill Reid’s work on the new toonie is a good example of this. Jisgang Nika Collision spoke to CBC about the process. She explained how the Royal Canadian Mint not only asked for her family’s permission at the start but continued to do so throughout the entire design process. This was more than a polite, respectful gesture as the company would ask to sit with the family and learn more about the Haida culture. It is these discussions that allowed the company to create a more informative and culturally sensitive collectors’ set.

Prior to these discussions, the YouTube Film the corporation was going to use to launch the toonie was to include a voiceover in either English or French. However, after meeting with the family, and specifically Collision’s Aunt GwaaGanad, the company decided to pair the video with a Haida voiceover and include English and French subtitles. These acts led to a culturally appreciative experience because it recognized the humanity of the Haida people and honoured them accordingly. 

Culture before Currency: Canada's Treatment of Indigenous Art

Commemorative Bill Reid coins issued by Royal Canadian Mint. (Image Source: CBC News)

Haida Art: Ambiguity and Legacy 

Today, the art of the Haida people and culture remains and is created still, but its perception is often caught in a balancing act between being appreciated and appropriated. Artists such as the late Bill Reid have dedicated their lives to preserving and furthering the traditional art of Haida Gwaii. Born in 1920 and passing away in 1998, Reid spent a significant portion of his life reviving the Haida art tradition after learning of his own Haida ancestry. He has left a legacy through sculpture, jewelry, and other visual mediums. As was his mission, Reid’s art “built bridges between First Nations and other peoples,” as is especially apparent with his work The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, which today can be found in the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, as well as in the international terminal at the Vancouver International Airport.

In addition to these physical examples of Reid’s work, multiple commemorations exist honouring the late artist’s work. In 1996, Canada Post issued a stamp as part of a series honouring “Masterpieces of Canadian Art” which featured The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.  In 2004, the Royal Canadian Mint began issuing their Canadian Journey Series of banknotes, with the $20 note picturing a small collection of Reid’s work.  Recently, a new $2 coin has been issued by the Mint, which yet again commemorates Reid’s work, this time his Xuu.ajii, Haida Grizzly Bear.

Culture before Currency: Canada's Treatment of Indigenous Art

The Xuu.ajii commemorative coin (retrieved from the Royal Canadian Mint), The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (Jade Canoe) (retrieved from the Bill Reid Foundation), The Canadian Journey Series $20 note (Image Source: Bank of Canada Museum). 

This consistent effort by Crown corporations reads as Canada’s willingness, as a sovereign nation, to recognize the importance of Reid’s art, and of Haida art and culture, in an act of appreciation and dissemination. It is true that through its incorporation into a heavily exchanged item, such as a stamp or a piece of currency, Reid’s art loses some of its exclusivity as Haida art, as organizations, such as the Mint or Canada Post, which are not exclusively affiliated with the Haida Nation, become associated with it. However, what it gains in return is the ability to reach a wider, national audience and thus, national importance and recognition as Canadian art, by virtue of its new association with these larger organizations.

Nevertheless, the question of appropriation remains, as it pertains to contemporary Haida art. The argument falls quite flat in the cases of the Mint or  Canada Post, who are adamant that their use of Haida art is purely for the purposes of honouring the nation; emphasizing the importance of Haida culture and art to the national Canadian audience through these commemorations. Yet, arguments of appropriation permeate the discussions surrounding contemporary “Haida” artists and those who use Haida artistic and cultural motifs, while not being a member of the  First Nations.

While the use of Haida art for its commercial value is truly a part of the nation’s culture and history, the use of Haida motifs and visual style by non-Indigenous people, including artists such as Sue Coleman, can make the difference between appropriation and appreciation unclear. Working with the inspiration found in her study of and immersion in British Columbia’s First Nations groups, Coleman’s art, such as her Four Totems reflects the stylings of Haida Art while not being a recognized member of any First Nations group or culture, and originals can sell for $29,000 per set. 

Because of her not being affiliated with the First Nations group, whose culture she is adapting her subject matter and style from, her work steers dangerously towards appropriation. While not malicious in her use of these themes and motifs, the creation and profiting from Haida Art, outside the First Nations, can clutter the market for such artworks and thus, detract from indigenous artists who make their living by selling similar artworks. This, in turn, distances the art from its source and takes away from its significance as well as its marketability as Haida art by Haida artists.

Culture before Currency: Canada's Treatment of Indigenous Art

Spirit of the Orca (Image source: suecoleman.ca)

A similar stir was created when it came to light that Canada’s current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, adapted a tattoo on his bicep, formerly a globe, to feature a Raven in the style of Haida artist, Robert Davidson. Furthering the conversation on the appropriation of Haida art, Prime Minister Trudeau’s tattoo was received without consultation with Davidson, the original artist, creating a feeling of distance between the art and the culture from which it originated. Considering that Trudeau ran for office on a platform that put reconciliation with First Nations front and centre, the argument over appropriation is unwittingly furthered and made central by the alteration of his tattoo to feature an adaptation of indigenous art. In both cases, whether it be Coleman’s adopted artistic style echoing Haida Art or  Trudeau’s tattoo, a direct adaptation of existing artwork, the issue of appropriation is brought forward, but never truly resolved.

Culture before Currency: Canada's Treatment of Indigenous ArtPrime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Robert Davidson-inspired tattoo (Image Source: Macleans.ca)

Canada’s historical attempts to eliminate the history of not just the Haida but other Indigenous groups have led to a strenuous relationship between the two parties. As a result, the decision made by the Royal Canadian Mint to commemorate Bill Reid’s work can, and should, bring up the conversation of cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation. However, the steps the organization took should not only be applauded by other Canadians but be a benchmark for other companies for how to respectfully shine a light on an otherwise marginalized culture.

Any meaningful investigation into genuine Haida artists and their culture will reveal how desperate their situation was, and how their art form is only now getting back on its feet; the first steps in a long recovery. While the celebration of Haida art by government organizations is an important step in this recovery, it does not erase the hardships that the Haida people experienced to get here, nor does it lessen the possibility of their culture being appropriated by non-Haida people, an equally strenuous issue which remains prevalent to this day.


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Want to learn more about INKspire? Check out our organization's website.
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