Charles Edenshaw: The Raven, The Sea Bear and Other Stories

Charles Edenshaw (attr.), Platter (How Raven gave Females Their Tsaw), pre-1894, argillite. The Field Museum, Chicago, 17952. Photo: © The Field Museum (#A114412_05d, John Weinstein)

A long time ago, women did not have a tsaw. All they had was a pee hole. The women asked Raven to help them, and he agreed to get tsaw from tsaw gwaayaay. But after only a few paddle strokes he—xaawlagihl—became sweet, collapsed and fell out of the canoe. The power of tsaw gwaayaay was too strong! 

(gid7ahl-gudsllay, lalaxaaygans, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, 2013)

This delightfully bawdy legend of how Raven gave females their tsaw is illustrated by 19th-century Haida artist Charles Edenshaw on a carved argillite platter, currently on display at the National Gallery. There, in the black stone, are Raven and his steersman, galaga snaanga (Fungus Man), paddling a canoe towards tsaw gwaayaay (Vagina Island). In the bow, Raven holds his spear, ready to seize the treasure. Behind him, the clown-faced steersman, also known as Ugly Biscuits, will prove to be the only man able to stay upright in the canoe against the powerful draw of such a landscape.

The platter is one of nearly 80 objects in Charles Edenshaw, a retrospective exhibition devoted to the master carver, who is regarded as one of the Northwest Coast's most accomplished and influential artists. Organized and circulated by the Vancouver Art Gallery—where it appeared to rave reviews this past winter—the exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see the full range of Edenshaw’s creative output over his entire career, from carved wooden boxes, engraved jewellery and silver spoons, to argillite platters, model poles, ivory-handled canes, and painted basketry. Each is decorated with bold, flowing designs featuring animals, birds, sea creatures and mythological beings rendered in distinctive Haida style.

For Edenshaw, the argillite platter was a favourite medium for passing on Haida stories, at a time when it was illegal to do so through the traditional potlatches. “Charles was embedding his cultural knowledge in the work of art,” says Robin K. Wright, co-curator of the exhibition, speaking from her home in Seattle, Washington. The story of how Raven gave females their sex was one of the most important origin stories, and Edenshaw illustrated it in at least three platters.

Each piece in the exhibition is proof of the artist’s mastery of Haida design, form and technique. Even visitors unfamiliar with Edenshaw’s name will recognize his signature style: the fluid, elegant lines; the balanced, interconnected forms; the single, double and triple U forms; the cross-hatched negative space—all elements of Haida design that have become iconic.

Charles Edenshaw, Sea Bear Bracelet, late 19th century, silver. McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Purchase 1974, 1981.108.1. Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

Among the exquisite gold and silver jewellery in the exhibition is Sea Bear Bracelet, a broad silver band depicting a supernatural creature—part bear, part killer whale. His largest known bracelet, it contains all of those characteristic Haida design elements. As Wright says, it is “classic Charles Edenshaw.”

At the same time, Sea Bear Bracelet, like all of his jewellery, is astoundingly modern and elegant. “His work is timeless,” said artist James Hart—Edenshaw’s great-great-grandson—in an interview with NGC Magazine from a foundry in Newburgh, New York.  “It will never be out of date.” 

Charles Edenshaw, Beaver Bracelet (c. 1900), gold. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of Michael and Sonja Koerner, 2008, 2008/49

Charles Edenshaw was born Da.a xiigang around 1839, in Haida Gwaii—an archipelago off the northern coast of British Columbia—to a high-ranking family of carvers. Following Haida custom, he was trained by his uncle Albert Edward Edenshaw, a skilled carver and metalsmith, and inherited from him the title of Chief 7Idansuu (pronounced "ee-dan-soo") of the Eagle Clan. Upon his marriage in 1873 to Qwii.aang, the Anglican priest gave them the names Charles and Isabella Edenshaw.

Isabella was herself a highly regarded artist, known for her intricate weaving of spruce root. The couple worked together, with Charles painting Isabella’s baskets and hats. Thunderbird Hat displays Isabella’s fine handiwork—especially the dragonfly weaving pattern she favoured, with its concentric diamonds. The red and black four-pointed star painted on the top of the hat is a characteristic marker of Charles Edenshaw’s work. 

An astute businessman, Edenshaw was able to live largely on income generated by his art, supplemented by his wife’s income. Although the Haida people had already occupied Haida Gwaii for over 17,000 years, and had thrived with the arrival of fur traders in the late 18th and early 19th  centuries, and then during the various gold rushes, contact had also brought devastating disease, especially smallpox. By the end of the 19th century, an estimated 90 per cent of the Haida had succumbed to the disease.

Charles and Isabella Edenshaw (attr.), Thunderbird Hat, c. 1890, spruce root, paint. Museum of Anthropology, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, A6390. Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery


“When smallpox hit, it knocked the wind out of people,” says Hart. “It became all about surviving.” Edenshaw succeeded largely by hard work: “Charles just carved and carved. That’s all he did every day.” Privilege and talent worked in his favour as well, according to Hart. His position within the Haida hierarchy opened certain doors, and allowed him to travel to sell his work. He also possessed legendary promotional skills, and interacted well with the many collectors and anthropologists who descended upon the region when it was thought that the Haida and other Indigenous peoples were on the brink of extinction.

Today, Edenshaw’s work continues to have an impact, especially on the many prominent West Coast artists who are related to him, notably Hart, Robert Davidson and Bill Reid, all of whom have works in the NGC collection.

Representing that powerful lineage in the exhibition are two contemporary works: Hart’s Raven Transformation Mask and Davidson’s Nangkilslas: he whose voice is obeyed. Both are striking, carved wooden masks adorned with fur and feathers, which the artists created in response to a work done by their ancestor. Edenshaw’s remarkable Transformation Mask, which was acquired by an Anglican missionary in the 1880s, remains at Oxford University in the U.K., too fragile to travel.

James Hart credits Charles Edenshaw for giving him the “fuel” to carry on his work. “Whenever you see his pieces, you’re going to school,” he says. “These old masters, I want to see exactly where they left off, and carry on where they were headed.”

Charles Edenshaw is curated by Daina Augaitis and Robin K. Wright, with Haida advisors James Hart and Robert Davidson. The exhibition, on view at the NGC from March 7 until May 25, 2014, is accompanied by a handsomely illustrated catalogue

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