Robert Davidson

October 20, 2014

Robert Davidson’s directions to his studio in a small seaside community in southern British Columbia do not include a street number. Instead, the notes I scratched down when I spoke to him on the phone earlier instruct me to go past a church, park my car, cross a wooden footbridge, and look for a grey wooden building with two massive logs out front.

Two crows squawk noisily as I walk across the bridge, interrupting their efforts to retrieve a discarded orange rind. The path winds up a treed embankment and ends at a dirt road that is lined with a few worn, unpainted buildings. The air carries the moist, briny smell of low tide. Substitute ravens for crows, add a few more wooden houses, and imagine fishing boats instead of sailboats and this place could almost be Old Massett, the village on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) where Robert Davidson spent his childhood.

Haida artist Robert Davidson

The artist welcomes me into his studio with a warm, firm handshake, seemingly unconcerned that car trouble and vague directions have made me more than an hour late. He introduces me to his two apprentices who are quietly carving at their workbenches in the studio, then sits down in front of a wooden mask he has been working on. The unfinished mask is in the steel grip of a stand with a joint that allows it to be pivoted at any angle while Davidson works on it.

“I really have not had any other aspiration than to be an artist,” he says when I ask him if he has ever considered another career path. “Except for the time I wanted to be a truck driver.” He smiles at the thought. “It appealed to me when I was younger because someone in that profession drives a certain number of miles or hours a day, then they they get to shut off. I find myself continually going. My mind is always busy.”

Davidson was born in Hydaburg, Alaska in 1946 and his family moved to Old Massett the following year. His father, Claude Davidson, and his grandfather, Robert Davidson Sr., both carvers, began teaching him to carve wood and argillite when he was 13. Davidson had another inspiration in his family — his great-grandfather on his father’s side was Charles Edenshaw, considered the most significant carver of traditional Haida-style art in the 19th century. His works are coveted by museums and collectors around the globe.

“I learned a lot from my father and grandfather,” Davidson recalls fondly. “The quality of their work wasn’t on par with the old classic Haida style, but there was something there. They would show me, not so much by saying, ‘This line should go that way,’ but it was more by demonstration. For example, I would finish carving a totem pole and I’d put all this work into it and I’d feel good about it. Then I’d show it to my grandfather and he’d get his tools out and fix it all up.”

There were others who served as mentors and teachers for Davidson. “When I started apprenticing with Bill Reid, he gave me a lot of guidance. There were other people involved in my development, as well, like Bill Holm and Doug Cranmer. I was like a sponge when I was young.”

Robert Davidson in his studio.

There were other artists, both his own age and older, who left a lasting impression on Robert. “I got to know Pat McGuire, who was an artist from Skidegate. There was a real presence around him. He was very quiet, but I really liked his presence.”

Joe David, a Nuu-chah-nulth artist who is the same age as Davidson, became a close friend and colleague. “I was learning about our songs about the time I met Joe, and he really helped me understand it on a different level. Just the way he sang, and his understanding of it.” In 1981, Davidson adopted Joe at a potlatch he held in Old Massett.

Davidson’s formal art training included both apprenticing with master carvers and taking classes in drawing, silk-screening and jewelery design at the Vancouver School of Art. Relatively few West Coast artists undertake both apprenticeships and training at a contemporary art school. In 1968, when he was 22, he taught carving for a short time at the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art at ‘Ksan in Hazelton.

In 1972, Davidson spent two weeks in Bern, Switzerland, as part of an Air Canada sponsored carving demonstration. He toured Switzerland and Germany, viewing Haida art in museums and private collections. “We’d be invited to a castle and the owner would be very proud to show his collection. I saw some incredible things in Berlin. When I think about some people at home who might feel down about themselves, I wish they could see how these people are paying tribute to our ancestors. Even if every museum gave one piece back to Old Massett or Skidegate, we’d have a most incredible collection,” he adds. “Ninety percent of what some museums have is in storage.”

Davidson has spent countless hours in museums in British Columbia and elsewhere, studying their ethnology collections. “Every museum collection I had access to I used to learn from. I still use them.” In the 1996 calendar Retooling Haida Ideas, Davidson writes: “Haida art has become very addictive to me. I feel that its possibilities are limitless, and I’ve chosen to stay within the artform for that reason.”

The social and spiritual context in which Haida art has traditionally been created, however, did not exist when Davidson was a young artist. “I came onto the scene when there was little thought to ceremony. At that time we were very removed from our cultural values. In fact, I didn’t hear my first Haida song until I was 16.”

For many young West Coast artists who began art careers in the past 30 years, much of the information about art traditions in their nation had to be found in books or in collections held by museums. Although there has been a phenomenal revival of traditional culture and practices in the recent past, aboriginal people throughout Canada will never fully reclaim the culture that was lost through government and church assimilation efforts, or due to the inevitable march of progress and change.

A great deal of traditional knowledge held by individuals was irrevocably lost as the result of smallpox epidemics and other diseases in the 19th century. The population of Haida Gwaii was estimated to be close to 14,000 before European contact. By 1915, about 600 Haida were living in the two villages of Skidegate and Old Massett, having abandoned dozens of village sites after the epidemics.

Probably the most pervasive form of cultural assimilation in Canada was the federal Indian Act. Instituted in the mid-1800s, the Indian Act defined and governed every aspect of life and society on First Nations reserves in Canada. From 1882 to 1952 the act outlawed aboriginal ceremonies such as the potlatch, winter dance, and the sun dance. By making such ceremonies illegal, with jail sentences as punishment, the government and churches hoped to eliminate what they considered pagan rituals. Potlatches, though, are an intrinsic part of Northwest Coast traditional culture. The role of artists is particularly apparent at such ceremonies since the creation of masks and regalia for dances, totem poles, feast dishes and other items represents a significant component of the ritual.

…. Now, in Davidson’s studio, I ask him whether there is a fine line between contemporary and traditional art. “There is no fine line,” he responds without hesitation. “Fine art is traditional art. If you look at it from a Native point of view, there is no art. It’s everyday life, and everyday expression. I try to imagine myself in a Haida house, going outside and seeing this forest of totem poles. It must have been pretty powerful t have that experience every day. Now we wake up and go outside, and things have really changed.”

“It’s not so much that I want things back there. It’s more trying to get a grasp on that time, because art is an expression of culture. There is no historical documentation except the art and oral tradition. Art was the communication that crossed generations. People who lived in that time period knew that totem poles and masks and blankets were their storybook.”

We stop talking for a moment, and the only sound that can be heard in the studio is the quiet scraping of the carving tool’s metal blade on Davidson’s mask. Shavings of wood as transparent as the wings of insects are scattered on the floor of the studio. The lower edge of the mask’s lip is smooth and impossibly even beneath his hand.

“I don’t have a name for the mask yet,” he says, pausing to stare at the wide eyes and gasping mouth emerging from the soft wood. “I really believe that art is a subliminal expression. I feel that I’m connected to a higher power. Not just me, but we all are.” Davidson’s role in reclaiming the cultural legacy of the Haida Nation indeed seems to be influenced by a supernatural source.

After leaving Davidson’s studio, I cross the wooden bridge that leads back to my parked car. The sluggish water flowing beneath the bridge reminds me of a Haida story that Davidson often refers to – a canoe tips over during a fishing trip and the accident’s sole survivor is Gagiid. The homely, cod-eating supernatural being is said to be too strong to die. The most recognizable of Davidson’s interpretations of Gagiid appears on the cover of the companion book to Eagle of the Dawn. This version of Gagiid seems sinister, its green face made more ominous by red highlights around the eyes, nose, cheeks, ears and lips. Thick black brows arch over eyes that seem to invite a confrontation. It’s mouth turns up in a wicked grin, as if delighted that it has survived and been brought to life again at the hands of a Haida carver.

Thomas King

October 20, 2014

Thomas King came to Canada almost by accident. In 1980 he wanted to start a new life for himself and his nine-year old son after the breakup of his marriage. An old friend from Alberta called to tell him about a teaching position at the University of Lethbridge. he said no at first, but several phone calls later, he found himself driving north from Utah to Alberta.

“We hit an incredible hailstorm on the way up, just before the Alberta border,” he recalls. “The hailstones were so big that we had to park under an overpass and wait it out.” It was a dramatic welcome to a country where King would eventually settle permanently. He now laughs at his son’s reaction to the intensity of the storm. “My son looked at me and said, ‘Just so we get this straight Dad. This was your idea.’”

Years later Thomas King, now a Canadian citizen, lives a world away from the sudden summer squalls and edge-of-the-planet vastness of the Alberta prairie that he called home for a decade.

Outside the 1920s brick house he shares with his partner Helen and their two children in Guelph, Ontario, a cold spring rain slaps against the patio. Sitting at his kitchen table, cluttered with books, newspapers and photo albums, King tries to explain the hold the Prairies and the people he knew there still have on him. “All of my material, for the most part, is centred in that Albertan landscape and around that reserve life, that small-town life. For whatever reason, I found that stimulating, more so than I find the landscape of Southern Ontario, or in California, where I lived most of my youth. It feels as though you’re on the edge of almost a dangerous kind of place, on the edge of an anvil. It’s appealing. It’s as though you can see forever. If you go out past Edmonton, say, near the Yellowhead Tribal Council offices, you look out to the west and there are no signs of ownership. It’s not that there’s nothing. There’s everything.”

It was while King was living in Alberta that he began to write and publish short fiction in literary magazines. His first novel, Medicine River, appeared in 1990, followed by Green Grass, Running Water and a collection of short stories, One Good Story, That One, in 1993. Not that literature – and especially Native literature – was foreign to him before moving to Canada. For his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Utah, he explored Native oral tradition and contemporary fiction, and currently specializes in Native literature and creative writing as an associate professor at the University of Guelph.

His stories, organic in their movement between contemporary and aboriginal concepts of time and space, introduce the readers to the world of mythical animals from traditional aboriginal stories, trademark Native humour, and an aboriginal perspective on realism and values.

The coyote character inhabits many of King’s works, subverting plots and refusing to let the reader remain in the comfort zone of a chronologically paced and reality-based story. The creature’s mere presence in the story is disconcerting to first-time King readers. There are few contemporary fiction writers who veer off the course of their story lines to digress to a place at the beginning of time where Coyote reams and there are no humans in sight.

Coyote holds a place in the oral tradition of the North American Plains similar to the role Raven plays in West Coast stories. The trickster characters in King’s fiction have been icons of his literary and cultural sensibilities since he was a young man. Today, however, coyote runs loose in King’s poems and fiction, almost as if the clever marauder had been waiting all these generations for a writer to come along and allow him to get back to his tricks

When I asked him to account for his own prominence in Canadian literature, he answers without hesitation. “I think I just got lucky. The critics and publishers hadn’t seen this type of writing before. In five or 10 years, if I can’t keep it up, there will be a lot of young writers who will pass me.”…..

…..As my visit with King comes to an end, I look outside and notice that the spring rain has changed into a major squall. And although I am tempted to linger a bit longer, ask a few more questions, listen to a few more stories, I rationalize that driving down Highway 401 at rush hour in a storm during the waning daylight hours is not a good idea.

Still, it isn’t ever day that you find yourself swapping stories and anecdotes with one of Canada’s finest storytellers. But I am also aware that Thomas King has a novel to write, and I have taken up most of his afternoon. There is little chance, I realize, that he will share even one more story today without the intervention of Coyote himself.

My rental car is parked in the cul-de-sac, and as I sprint through the rain, I notice that the car’s deflated real tire is half submerged in a puddle of rainwater.

“Coyote,” I curse under my breath as I kick the flat tire.

Coyote replies with a grin, “Just one more story…?”

Can a Ballet Heal at Nation?

October 9, 2014

On Wednesday, October 1, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet premiered ‘Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation’ an original ballet about residential school history in Canada. I attended the ballet that day in many roles — as an Aboriginal person who has seen first hand the lingering impact on First Nations, Inuit and Metis families whose relatives attended residential school; as a mother who strongly empathizes with parents who were forced to send their young children to residential school; and finally, as a Canadian who shares the shame of this history with everyone in our country.

I attended the ballet, like everyone else in the audience, not knowing what to expect. Would the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a company with no Aboriginal dancers on its roster, miss the authenticity boat? Would it be a sentimental, apologetic performance that would feel only vaguely Aboriginal? Would the creators be too worried about social correctness to tell it like it really was for children at residential schools – disturbing, violent, agonizing? Would it even be possible for a Euro-centric dance style to adequately tell the story of two cultures colliding?

If you’ve read the reviews, the ballet was an unquestionable success. The Winnipeg Free Press said it “might well be the most important ballet produced by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 75 years.” The CBC’s reporter Robert Enright wrote, “I have never seen the RWB dance better.” The Globe and Mail said, “the music for ‘Going Home Star’ may be the best ballet composition ever created in Canada.”

The idea for an Aboriginal ballet was planted more than ten years ago by Mary Richards, an Anishnaabe Elder who regularly attended the company’s performances. She approached Andre Lewis, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s artistic director, and asked him to consider creating an Aboriginal ballet. In fact, the company had produced a ballet once before — the ‘The Ecstasy of Rita Joe’, a play by George Ryga. Many years later, ‘Going Home Star’ began its journey with a grant from the legacy fund of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Andre Lewis brought together a renowned team of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal writers, choreographers and composers to create what might well be the most challenging commission of their lives. A ballet that tells the story of the Aboriginal experience in Canada’s residential schools. The creative team is like a who’s who in the Canadian cultural world — author Joseph Boyden, composer Christos Hatzis, choreographer Mark Godden, musician Steve Wood, singer Tanya Tagaq, scene designer KC Adams, costume designer Paul Daigle, lighting designer Pierre Lavoie and projection designer Sean Nieuwenhuis. Navigating between the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Aboriginal community was Tina Keeper, the Associate Producer. This Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal team created a heart-wrenching and stunning ballet that is both true to its European dance form and respectful of the people and history it represents.

Justice Murray Sinclair, who chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, summed it up this way, “This is not only about the experience of those who were students in the school. This is also the story about Canada’s experience.”

Can a ballet help heal a Nation still haunted by the legacy of Canada’ s residential schools? I think everyone in the audience on opening night will agree. Absolutely.

Why Canada Needs a Feature Film about Métis History

June 14, 2013

On March 26, 1885, two shots rang out on a snow-covered hill near the settlement of Duck Lake, in what is now Saskatchewan. The man who fired those fateful shots was a volunteer recruit for the Canadian army named Joe McKay. The men who were struck by his bullets were a French Métis named Isadore Dumont and a Cree chief named Assiwiyin. They were carrying white flags, and had been sent by their general, Gabriel Dumont, to approach the small group of North West Mounted Police, led by police superintendent Lief Crozier. When the smoke cleared from the gunfire, Dumont and Assiwiyin were dead.

This unprovoked attack initiated the North West Rebellion, a civil war that would eventually pit a 5,000-man Canadian military and police force against 500 Métis and First Nations. The Métis had reached the limit of their patience after several years of asking the Canadian government to grant them title to the land they’d cleared, farmed and settled. With the aggressive westward expansion of the CPR railway and the growing number of European immigrants sweeping across the west and laying claim to land, the Métis felt compelled to ask an exiled Métis leader named Louis Riel to return to Canada to help them make their case. When even this radical act did not generate a positive response from John A. McDonald’s government, the Métis formed a provisional government and took up arms.

During the two months it took for the army and police force to quash the rebels, 60 Métis and First Nations and 58 Canadian soldiers and police officers lost their lives. In the aftermath of the uprising, Louis Riel would be tried for high treason, convicted and hanged. Six Cree warriors would be hanged, and two important chiefs, Poundmaker and Big Bear, would languish in a federal jail.

Three of the casualties in the North West Rebellion were my direct relatives – Isadore Dumont, my first cousin (three times removed) and uncles Auguste Laframboise and Ambroise Dumont. Although several generations separate me from these relatives, I have inherited a strong historic connection and sympathies for the French Métis, Cree and European settlers who joined together on the Métis side of this civil war. 

In 2010, while on a flight that took me on a direct path over Canada’s prairie provinces, I observed from 35,000 feet a vast landscape divided into the neatly defined square sections of land. This is the method of surveying that the Métis had so vehemently opposed in 1885. Their unheeded request to the government surveyors was to section the Northwest Territories using the French style of land division that featured narrow sections of land that each had river access and were designed to keep neighbours and family close to each other. That proposal had been rejected by the government in favour of the British method of land division. As my plane flew over my family’s ancestral lands — Pembina, Red River, Batoche —  it occurred to me that even before the Métis had asked for and been denied the right to divide their land the way they saw fit, the vast prairies had been home to my earlier ancestors. The Anishinabe, Cree and Tsuu T’ina women my European ancestors married had never been given an opportunity to determine how their territory would be divided. They had been forced to give up virtually every part of their ancestral lands, and been relegated by the Canadian government to pitifully small reserves that had the poorest quality of soil for farming and minimal access to fish and game resources.

From my vantage point in the plane, I suddenly felt a profound historic connection to my French Métis and Aboriginal ancestors. I imagined how extraordinary it would be if someone could bring the stories of their struggles and victories to life in the twenty-first century. The idea for a feature film called Crossing Gabriel was born, and I began to write down ideas for a story about Gabriel Dumont’s role in the North West Rebellion. I made a decision on that flight to write and produce a film about the Métis version of Canadian history. Not the history we learned in school, where John A. McDonald’s was the hero and Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont the villains in the birth of Canada.

In the 128 years since my cousins and uncles died in the North West Rebellion, the cultural dysfunction in our country has scarcely shifted. The Métis are still without land and acknowledgment for their influential role in the establishment of Canada; First Nations are still waiting for cultural and economic restitution for their land and resources and for suffering 150 years of human rights violations disguised as the Indian Act. And while Canada’s Francophone citizens have succeeded in maintaining their own cultural sovereignty, they wait patiently generation after generation for recognition and respect from the rest of Canada.

By telling the story of the North West Rebellion in the form of a feature film, Canadians will discover that our country’s historical provocateurs – the French, First Nations and Métis – are in fact the true heroes of our reluctant nation.

The Challenges of Adapting the Book “1491” into a TV Series

January 14, 2013

1491: A New History of the Americas, is a docu-drama series based on Charles C. Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

I’ve been working on adapting the book into an eight part series for more than a year. Tomorrow I’m delivering the 2nd draft of the script to APTN, the broadcaster that commissioned it.

It is without question the most demanding and challenging writing project I’ve ever worked on. Getting your head around 8 major themes that cover 40,000 years of history is hard enough. Making sure that the writing is respectful of the people whose history will be revealed, was my greatest concern.

As an Indigenous-driven production, it is important that the research, development and production respect and honour the intellectual and cultural property of the Indigenous nations whose stories are being told. The values that this project are committed to include:

  • Including Indigenous scholars, writers, directors, technicians and producers throughout the series.
  • Respecting the Nations whose stories will be interpreted in the series by following proper protocol in seeking and receiving permission to film in their territory.
  • Representing theories and case histories put forth by Mann in his book as they relate to Canada’s Indigenous people. While the series will be international in scope, it must include the stories of First Nations and Inuit societies in Canada prior to contact.

For those of you who are familiar with the book, “1491” presents an extraordinary thesis on Indigenous societies prior to contact. In his book, Charles C. Mann asks the question: “When does the history of the Americas begin?” For centuries, academics and historians have asserted that the beginning of “relevant” human history in the Americas began in the year 1492, with the arrival of a fleet of ships, captained by Christopher Columbus, on an island in the Caribbean. With primarily an oral history, a vast geographic domain, and profound diversity of language, culture and lifestyle, it isn’t surprising that western scholars offer Indigenous people only a brief mention in the timeline of human history in the Americas.

The rise of Indigenous academia in the past twenty-five years combined with the pursuit by some archaeologists to uncover physical evidence of significantly earlier migration (15,000 – 40,000 years) of Indigenous people than was previously accepted (10,000 – 15,000 years), has led to a ground-breaking shift in the way we perceive Indigenous civilization prior to European contact. Mann’s book demonstrates and substantiates that the Americas were populated by many highly sophisticated nations of people who developed advanced systems of agriculture, commerce, mathematics, astronomy, politics, language, art and spiritual beliefs.

He also reveals new theories on the ways that humans arrived and migrated throughout the Americas, and that their population in 1491 may well have numbered over 100 million inhabitants. Within decades of the arrival of Europeans, the culturally rich societies with their advanced technology and science, began to change dramatically as the result of introduced epidemics and campaigns of foreign-sponsored genocide.

As a writer, I knew that this would be a challenging project and it required extensive research beyond the pages of the book itself. Thankfully, I had an exceptional researcher, Cindy Carleton, working with me again.  As a former museum professional (I spent five years as the Aboriginal Liaison at the Royal BC Museum), I was interested in discovering how Mann wove indigenous oral history, historical records and archeological evidence to create a compelling picture of pre-contact Americas. As an Aboriginal television producer, I am looking forward to forging meaningful relationships with the many nations whose ancestors will be depicted in this ground-breaking series.

Barabara Hager

Launch of “Alliance of Aboriginal Media Producers”

February 9, 2011

Today marks the creation of the “Alliance of Aboriginal Media Producers,” a new television, film and media industry group for First Nations, Inuit and Metis producers in Canada. The group was established following a year-long consultation with Aboriginal producers, directors and writers, as well as with senior administrators at the CMF, Telefilm, NFB, APTN and CBC. It’s clear that Aboriginal producers will benefit from working collectively towards the growth and sustainability of our production community in the constantly changing media landscape in Canada.

There are a significant number of issues that affect our companies and our ability to get our productions made and distributed that need to be addressed as a unified group of producers. We have already seen some successes in the past year when we approached APTN and CMF as a group, rather than as individual producers.

To ensure a confidential environment to discuss our shared concerns and opportunities, we are asking that producers who want to take part in the Alliance take a short survey, which will put you on a mailing list for future communications from the group. Your responses will be kept confidential and used by the group’s organizers to determine priorities and establish a membership list.

To take the survey and participate in this alliance, go to:

Where are all the Aboriginal movies?

November 23, 2010

In his award-winning documentary Reel Injun, Neil Diamond takes a humorous and insightful look at Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Aboriginal people. The B&W film clips of non-native actors with brown make-up playing Indians in fictional stories created by writers and directors who have probably never known Aboriginal people are reminders that all is not right in movie-land. Even with the recent Hollywood trend towards films with multi-dimensional, sympathetic Aboriginal characters (Dances With Wolves, Flags of our Fathers) it is still evident that American filmmakers believe they are doing Aboriginal people a favour by giving us bigger talking roles. The mythical Indian is still alive and well in Hollywood (see the “Twilight” films for proof).

By the end of the 20th century it was evident that if someone was going to change the way the mainstream film industry portrayed Aboriginal people on screen, it would take a real Indian to do it. The breakthrough came with Smoke Signalswritten by Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie and directed by Cheyanne/Arapaho Chris Eyre. Since that time, there have been only a handful of theatrical releases written or directed by Aboriginals — Whalerider (based on a book by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera), Boy (written and directed by Maori Taika Waititi and New Zealand’s biggest grossing film in history) and Atanarjuat (written and directed by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk).  Atanarjuat was the highest grossing non-French film in Canada in 2002 and won the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s time for broadcasters and distributors to get behind more Aboriginal written and directed feature films in Canada. It’s clear from films like Whale Rider and Atanarjuat that there is an enthusiastic international audience for indigenous stories. We clearly need some champions within the industry to get our films financed, made and into the mainstream film market.

Welcome to Aboriginal Producer in Canada

October 17, 2010

Tansi. For the past ten years I’ve produced, directed and written Aboriginal-focused television programming in Canada. This sector of the larger Canadian television industry continues to grow, but there are few avenues to share our ideas, concerns, news and opinions. Bookmark this page and come back every week if you would like to keep up on funding programs, broadcaster and producer news and the latest on Aboriginal film and television production in Canada. All the best, Barbara Hager.