The Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands tell the story of how the first people emerged from an enormous clamshell found on the beach by Raven, the trickster deity responsible for creating the land and heavens. Hearing faint sounds coming from the shell, ever-curious Raven peered closer and saw it was full of tiny, two-legged creatures.
Terrified by gigantic Raven and the vastness of the world, the creatures refused to leave the clamshell. But then, in the words of Haida artist Bill Reid, "the Raven leaned his great head close to the shell and with the smooth trickster’s tongue…he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful, shiny, new world."
Entering the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia transports me into the realm of the First Nations, a complex world peopled by shape-shifting creatures and ancestral spirits. The Great Hall of the museum is filled with totem poles and monumental figures from cultures I’ve never heard of: Kwagiutl and Gitxsan, Saanich, and Tsartlip. I feel I’m slipping sideways as I contemplate these foreign, enigmatic objects.
One piece emerges as my North Star, helping me get my bearings in this terra incognita. That piece is Bill Reid’s "Raven and the First Men," a compelling sculpture that dominates the museum’s rotunda. Reid describes Raven as a self-centered, incorrigible catalyst of cosmic change. He creates not through intent, but because he simply can’t help himself. Foremost among his many appetites is curiosity.
Now looking at other pieces throughout the museum, both ancient and modern, I perceive a continuity, the same underlying playfulness and lyric flow. What strikes me is how resilient these cultures are, how well they adapt to conflicting realities of the modern world, and how they transform themselves effortlessly, much like Raven, who assumes various shapes as he investigates or gets out of trouble.
There is too much to take in on one visit, including a stunning exhibit of abstract paintings by Haida artist Robert Davidson, a mind-boggling collection of artifacts housed in a vast open storage system, and, unexpectedly, an excellent collection of European ceramics. Each merits a separate visit, but today I focus chiefly on the Raven in his myriad forms.
Before leaving the museum, I stop by the bookstore and buy a collection of old Haida tales, The Raven Steals the Light. Each night in my hotel room I read these tales, chuckling over the mishaps of the First Men and the antics of that perennial troublemaker, Raven. By the time I leave Vancouver, the totem images I see everywhere seem less cryptic. Now, rather than elegantly stylized abstractions, I see Raven and Eagle, Beaver and Killer Whale, Wolf, and Sea Serpent – creatures from a time when humans and animals had not gone their separate ways.
And it seems to me that we’ve suffered from making the distinction.