Bill Reid’s Skidegate Pole

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Bill Reid.

1920-1998.

Bill was born to William Ronald Reid and Sophie Gladstone Reid.

Bill’s mother Sophie attended residential school and as a result she lost her connection to Haida Culture.

Bill grew up in white communities without a strong attachment to his Haida culture.

At the age of 23 Bill Reid took a trip to Haida Gwaii.

33 years later at the age of 56, Bill began carving a pole for Skidegate.

Joe David and Robert Davidson carved on the pole.

Guujaw was Bill’s assistant through the entire project.

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Photo: Ulli Steltzer

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Photo: Dr. George MacDonald

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From my earliest memory of trips home to Haida Gwaii the Bill Reid pole has stood in front of Skidegate.

It has welcomed us as we drove off the ferry and down front street.

The pole was raised in front of a longhouse that at the time housed the Skidegate Band Council and later the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program or S.H.I.P.

Bill Reid’s pole was the only one standing until the 6 totem poles were raised in front of the Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay in 2001.

I moved home in March and on beach walks with my dog I would stop to look at the pole. I was always aware of its presence. I moved to a house with a clear view of the pole. I would step out on my porch in the morning to beautiful summer sunrises illuminating the pole and two eagles atop their perch.

Pieces had fallen off in a storm and concerns over safety led to the pole being taken down. I had heard of the rumblings in the village. I knew it was coming down soon but I didn’t know when.

I was puttering around my house and I heard commotion outside. I looked out the front window to see the big truck and crew preparing to take it down.

News travels fast in a town this size. Within a few minutes a small crowd had gathered.

Emotions ran high, cameras were out and I went out for a hike.

For some unexplainable reason I could not watch it be taken down. I did not want to take photos of the process or see it laying flat on the ground. When I came back from my hike it was gone. From the beach where I stood playing with my dog I could no longer see a pole. The braces that once secured it against the longhouse were visible and an imprint of where the pole once stood was cast on the cedar wall.

 I love Haida art and I believe it should be preserved so that generations to come can study these pieces. Given its beachside location the pole had weathered and was visibly decaying. The longhouse that the Skidegate pole stood against houses the Skidegate Haida Language Program where our Elders go to record the Haida language. For their safety and for the safety of the Village in general, the pole was taken down.

 I contradict myself in that I believe Haida art should go back into the earth.

I think of how we treat the poles in ancient village sites in Gwaii Haanas.

We preserve them and support them, until it is their time to lay down to rest on the lush moss of Haida Gwaii.

As we visit them over the years their carvings are less obvious.

But when we get up close to these pieces we can see the lines carved so long ago.

We compare the poles to old photographs and can imagine how they looked standing.

I understand and have come to terms as to the pole being taken down for safety

and to preserve the art of Bill Reid for future generations to study.

But I will always miss its presence.

The pole was moved to the carving shed at the Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay.

The Haida Gwaii Museum plans on preserving the pole and having it stand tall once again in the pole gallery for locals and visitors to see.

After it was taken down I knew where the pole was and I saw it as I passed by the Heritage Centre.

But I couldn’t bring myself to get up close with it for a couple of days.

The first time I did go look at it I became overwhelmed with sadness.

Tears were in my eyes as I saw something that had stood tall my entire life lying flat on the ground.

It is not like my connection to it was that unbelievably strong, but it was a part of Skidegate.

A part of my home.

Something that had always been so big and tall now lay on the ground in front of me,

I decided I would examine it more closely another day.

Two weeks ago I decided I would finally take these photos and write this blog.

I went to the Heritage Centre with my camera equipment.

I walked the length of the pole examining each figure and looking at the brilliance of Reid’s carving up close.

It is a beautiful pole. It still has life to it, you just have to look a little closer.

I have wanted to write this blog for a while now. I didn’t know which approach to take.

Should I talk about Bill Reid’s life? Or what the pole meant to Skidegate? Or should I do as I want to do and state my opinion, wrong or right, for people to judge and question.

It is always scary stating what you truly believe.

Opinions are just opinions. I am not a Haida artist or an expert on Haida art. Opinions can change and evolve.

I think that in the end the Village of Skidegate did what they thought was best and I am happy that the pole will be housed in the Haida Gwaii Museum.

I can still visit it and I will always remember it standing in front of our village.

Here is the Skidegate Pole, through my lens:

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Bill carved life into his pieces. He carved deeply, intricately and masterfully. Each line has meaning, each figure tells a story.

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br10When I walk by the longhouse I miss its presence.

As I look out my window the Eagles are back to their telephone pole perches.

It is sad, the passing of time.

The changes that happen over a lifetime.

I will always remember those sunrises.

The pole was a major part of the resurgence of Haida Culture.

My hope is that someday soon poles line our village again

and we can all go visit the Skidegate Pole at the Haida Gwaii Museum.