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Bill Reid in front of his sculpture of a Haida war canoe, in 1988.The Canadian Press

When Bill Reid came into adulthood in the middle of the last century, the culture of the great people he sprang from, the Haida, had dwindled to mere embers.

Smallpox and other diseases carried by European colonists to what were then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands had reduced their numbers from thousands to hundreds. Those who were left had long since abandoned the majestic villages scattered along the coast, fleeing like refugees to the bigger towns of Masset and Skidegate and leaving their totem poles to decay and collapse – a graphic image of what seemed a lost civilization.

The government had banned their greatest ceremony, the potlatch. Missionaries had converted many of them to Christianity, replacing the old beliefs and rich mythology of the past. Reid’s mother, Sophie Gladstone, was sent off, like countless others, to a residential school.

She married an American hotel keeper, William Ronald Reid, never speaking of her Haida roots. She dressed young Bill in a sailor suit and sent him to a private school in Victoria run by Alice Carr, sister of the artist Emily Carr. Reid once said that he was in his early teens before he “even became conscious of the fact that I was anything other than an average Caucasian North American.”

With his rich baritone and elegant use of language, Reid became a radio broadcaster, moving around the country plying his trade before joining the CBC in Toronto. He had always liked working with his hands, so he took a course on goldsmithing and became a skilled jeweller.

Soon he was turning to the arts of his mother’s people for inspiration. He spent hours at the Royal Ontario Museum studying the great totem pole that rises in the stairwell there. It came from his grandmother’s village on Haida Gwaii, as the Queen Charlottes are now known.

He became more and more interested in the formal design system of Haida art, which he called one of the “most refined and powerful in the world.” On a visit to Haida Gwaii for his grandfather’s funeral, he saw two exquisite gold bracelets crafted by his ancestor, the master artist Charles Edenshaw, “and the world was not the same after that.”

He turned out a wealth of gorgeous jewellery with Haida-inspired designs. He helped build a model Haida village at the University of British Columbia. He went back to Haida Gwaii to rescue and restore rotting poles.

Then came the monumental works for which he is best known: The Raven and the First Men, a 4.5-ton yellow cedar sculpture; The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, a sculpture in jade-coloured bronze at the Vancouver airport; and the 50-foot Haida war canoe, Loos Taas (Wave Eater), that he fashioned from the trunk of a great cedar.

I’ve been on Haida Gwaii this week and thinking a lot about Reid, who died in 1998. I was lucky enough to meet him briefly a couple of times and his life story has captivated me ever since.

It’s a story of transformation and self-discovery. It’s a story of late-blooming genius (though he would probably snort at the term). It’s a story of dedication and persistence. Reid was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his early fifties but kept on carving and drawing nearly till the end. Grasping his tools calmed the shaking of his hand.

Perhaps above all it’s a story of quiet but determined leadership. Though he never wanted to be seen as some kind of Haida sage or spokesman, he helped the world appreciate the marvels of their great culture. More important, he helped the Haida themselves rediscover their artistic heritage.

In the old times, he said in his book Out of the Silence, great works of art “told the people of the completeness of their culture, the continuing lineages of the great families, their closeness to the magic world of myth and legend.”

“Perhaps they told more, a story of little people, few in scattered numbers, in a huge dark world of enormous forests of absurdly large trees, and stormy coasts and wild waters beyond, where brief cool summers gave way forever to long black winters, and families round their fires, no matter how long their lineages, needed much assurance of their greatness.”

He did not pretend the modern Haida could recreate that world or shut out the new one. But by reminding them of the glories of their past, he helped restore their faith in themselves after generations of persecution and loss.

Young artists sprang up to follow his path. Communities raised new poles to replace the fallen ones. A huge area in the southern islands was declared a protected national park, Gwaii Haanas. A wonderful Haida Heritage Centre opened to visitors.

Though many others joined in this cultural renaissance, Bill Reid – a man who at first barely knew he was Haida – became its most public advocate. With trembling hands, he relit the torch.

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