Interpreting Cultural Sources – Stage 1 Haida Totem

Research into Haida totems.

I have been in contact with Leslie Johnson of the Gowgaia Institute, Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), Canada, regarding totem carvings of the Haida.

Excellent information about these people is available on the net and the on-line Encyclopedia Britannica is fairly comprehensive with links to follow for in-depth info on particular aspects.

The Haida are an indigenous people who mainly reside on the archipelago of Haida Gwaii in northern British Columbia but also live in south-east Alaska.  Traditionally, as they settle close to water – hence the islands and the coastal regions they inhabit – their economy came from fishing and hunting and they were known for their seamanship.  Some similarities exist between Haida and Australian Aboriginals in the form of story-telling, carvings and reverence for, and connection to, land and sea creatures.

The Haida focus much of their art on carving and the creative embellishment of wood, in essence, totems, masks and other statues.  Their totems fall mainly into 7 categories which are detailed here with some good pictures.  I am looking at one totem in particular.

The Carvers: Guujaaw, Wayne Edenshaw, Gwaii Edenshaw.


Getting startedThere are many more step by step photos on the site but here are a few to give the idea of scale.  All the tools except one knife have been hand-made.

Carved imagesThe images are first drawn on the wood but there is opportunity to make changes as the work progresses.  There are some interesting photos of the bear paws as they are designed and then modified.  Above from left I am showing carvings at various stages of the bear, bear cub, the thunderbird and the whale.

This may seem like it has nothing to do with textiles but the planning, sizing, proportions, provisional markings, working the piece in layers and final embellishment tread the same path.

Finished totemHere is the finished totem.  The colours used to embellish it are minimal but sufficient to enhance particular features to stand out, such as the eyes.

Outlineof Eagle totem

I found a totem drawing tutorial so here is my first attempt.  Yes, it took an age but it was fun.

I marked the proportions out first to get the animals in the right places and the sizing for each one correct.  I’m not 100% sure exactly what each part is supposed to represent (after all, it isn’t my own design) but it looked less complicated once it was coloured.Coloured totem

The brown parts indicate where the natural wood would be left unpainted.  With the additional black around the eyes it starts to seem quite ferocious, a bit menacing really.

Drawing inthe garden

Whilst working on this drawing sitting in the garden surrounded by my beagles I was lucky to spot a visitor trying to slip past unnoticed.

Baby GoannaA baby goanna.  What a beauty.  Goannas and geckos are prominently depicted in Australian Aboriginal art and he is worth considering being included somewhere within my own.

Goanna climbingNot being terribly impressed by 3 beagles nearby he decided to clamber out of their reach.Goanna on roof  Not a bad idea really except he was then stuck on a corrugated roof in the blazing sun for a bit.  At least I got some good photos showing his patterning and colouring.

Reproduced photographs with permission from: Lesley Johnson, Gowgaia Institute, Queen Charlotte, BC, VOT 1SO

About Claire B

I'm a passionate printmaker, paper-maker and a poor sketcher (which I'm working to improve). I've stitched from early childhood and am a perpetual student, loving learning and participating in everything creative.
This entry was posted in Assignment 1: Cultural Fusion, Textiles 1: Exploring Ideas and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Interpreting Cultural Sources – Stage 1 Haida Totem

  1. penmcam says:

    This post has made me homesick for Canada – I spent 30 years in British Columbia where the totems of the Haida people are part of the everyday landscape.

    • Claire B says:

      Hi Penny, I’ve found the spruceroots website fascinating and I’ve learned so much about Canada and Alsaka and the culture there. It’s like a whole different world to me. There is a brilliant section showcasing one of their exhibitions from 2003 which centres on bears. Some great textile work as well as carvings and paintings. Not 100% sure what made me pick totems but I’m glad I did.
      I keep chacking out your blog but can’t see your finished tumbling down brick quilt yet. How are you going with that?

  2. Pingback: Exploring Ideas: Assignment 1 Cultural Fusion – Addendum | TactualTextiles

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