Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian

Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian

by Maria Tippett

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Part biography, part art history -- a thoroughly engaging look at one man’s life and his phenomenal influence on the world of contemporary art.

Bill Reid was at the forefront of the modern-day renaissance of Northwest Coast Native art; but his art, and his life, was not without controversy. Like the raven -- the trickster and principal figure in countless


Part biography, part art history -- a thoroughly engaging look at one man’s life and his phenomenal influence on the world of contemporary art.

Bill Reid was at the forefront of the modern-day renaissance of Northwest Coast Native art; but his art, and his life, was not without controversy. Like the raven -- the trickster and principal figure in countless Haida myths -- Bill Reid reinvented himself several times over. Born to a partly Haida mother and a father of German and Scottish descent, his public persona as a Haida Indian seems to have been as much a product of journalists, art patrons, museum curators and others in the non-Native establishment as of Bill Reid himself. It is clear that Reid’s art arose from the tension that existed between his Native and white artistic perceptions.

Award-winning biographer and cultural historian Maria Tippett became intrigued by this enigmatic figure who referred to his own early works as “artefakes,” yet to this day continues to inspire new generations of Northwest Coast artists, including Robert Davidson and Jim Hart. But she questions whether Reid’s status as the architect of contemporary Native art is fair and accurate, given that artists such as Mungo Martin had been keeping the tradition alive since the beginning of the twentieth century. Most controversially, she explores how Reid brought a sensibility formed through his white heritage to the reinvention of Native art.

By asking difficult questions about Reid’s life and work, and by analyzing the works of other Native artists since the beginning of the twentieth century, Tippet gives the reader the defining portrait of Bill Reid -- one of Canada’s most enigmatic and beloved artists.

Bill Reid’s work can be found in private and public art galleries and museums all over the world. The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia houses the famous The Raven and The First Men and many smaller masterworks. The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, a monumental bronze sculpture over four metres high, is on display at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The British Museum, the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa also hold impressive examples of the work of this extraordinary and imaginative artist.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian, Tippett presents considerable evidence that Reid spent much of his life perplexed by who he was, never at ease as an Indian, but never quite satisfied to be an urbane white man either…. We know, thanks to Tippett’s dogged research for this book, that he did not single-handedly rescue Northwest coast art from oblivion. But what he did do was introduce the concept that native artists might command important commissions and consort with important patrons.”
The Vancouver Sun; Times-Colonist (Victoria)

“The book’s great strength is Tippett’s extensive archival research. She has found important family records, many of Reid’s letters, and an early radio documentary…. All of us are therefore in her debt.”
The National Post

“Tippett’s writing is exceptionally crisp, and she keeps an academic’s tight rein on the material, sticking with the facts of Reid’s life.”
Quill & Quire

"There is enough inherent melodrama in is story to render his creative-cultural saga brutally sentimental, but Tippett wisely avoids this temptation."
Quill and Quire, Dec 2003

“A scrupulously even-handed tight-wire act…. This is engaging, hard stuff, fairly asked and fairly considered.”
Toronto Star

Product Details

Random House of Canada, Limited
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt


The last time I saw Bill Reid was in 1994. My book, Between Two Cultures: A Photographer among the Inuit, had just been published and I was speaking to a group of businessmen on the top floor of the Hotel Vancouver. Accompanied by his wife Martine, Bill sat close to the lecture podium. I knew who Bill Reid was -- I had heard him give a lecture at the University of British Columbia in the late 1970s. During his talk, Bill had worn his knowledge of Haida art and culture lightly. I had been impressed by his modesty, manifested in his attempt to diminish the role he had played in what many people have called the revival of Northwest Coast Native art. Yet it was obvious to me that beneath his offhand manner lay a breadth of knowledge about and a commitment to Native art and culture. I did not see Bill Reid again until a mutual friend invited me to dine with him in the summer of 1990. By this time he had overseen the carving of Raven and the First Men, launched his canoe Loo Taas, and was in the midst of his largest commission, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.

Long before I embarked on my research for this book, I knew that Bill Reid was not the sole architect of the so-called renaissance of contemporary Native art. As a cultural historian, I suspected that his public persona as a Haida Indian was as much a product of journalists, art patrons, museum curators, and others associated with the non-Native establishment as of Bill Reid himself. At the same time, I had been bowled over by works like Raven and the First Men. What other sculpture in the history of public art in Vancouver has so excited schoolchildren that they shout, as they enter the Museum of Anthropology: “Where’s Bill Reid’s raven?” Or prompts adults to compare Raven and the First Men with Michelangelo’s Pietà, seen on their summer vacation in Rome?

I also knew that Bill Reid was not the only major figure in the history of post -- World War II Northwest Coast Native art. During the mid-1950s I had observed the Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mungo Martin (Nakapenkum) both restoring and creating totem poles in the carving shed adjacent to the Provincial Museum in Victoria. As an even younger child, I had attended a potlatch in the Coast Salish community house at Cowichan Bay on the southeast coast of Vancouver Island. The cedar-scented smoke, the masks and rattles, and the mournful song of the elders, who had beat out the steps for the dancers on their drums, had left no doubt in my childhood mind that Indian culture was very much alive.

These early experiences, along with my later contact, during the course of researching my biography of Emily Carr, with the Gitxsan and Nisga’a peoples living on the Nass and Skeena rivers, with the Nuu-chah-nulth in Ucluelet, and with the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands, made me question the prominent role that Bill occupied in the story of Northwest Coast art. I began to wonder if “revival” and “renaissance” were the right words to describe the process, and whether “continuation” would not have been a more accurate word when talking about what took place in British Columbia during the 1950s and 1960s.

I would like to have had Bill’s response to my lecture on Inuit photography that autumn day in 1994. After all, the central theme of my talk -- the ways in which photographic images of indigenous peoples have been used by non-Natives -- was of interest to Bill Reid. He did say something when, at the end of my lecture, I walked over to where he was sitting. I bent my head close to his, trying to understand. Bill repeated his effort. But it was no use. Whatever he was struggling to say was incomprehensible to me, as it was to Martine Reid. Parkinson’s is a cruel disease; it not only erodes mobility, it robs its victim of speech. The sonorous baritone voice that had brought the evening news to thousands of Canadians across the country had been reduced to a rasping, unintelligible whisper.

I did not think much about Bill Reid again until the spring of 1998. Opening my e-mail one morning in my college rooms at Cambridge University, I was confronted with a number of messages from friends. They all informed me that Bill Reid had succumbed to his long battle with Parkinson’s disease on March 13.

Three days after his death, Globe and Mail writer Miro Cernetig set the stage for the accolades that followed. Reid had saved “an artistic tradition that was in danger of being lost.” The Vancouver Sun told its readers how Reid had done this. He had transformed Vancouver’s public space by creating monumental sculptures like the Killer Whale at the Vancouver Aquarium, The Jade Canoe at the Vancouver Airport, and Raven and the First Men at the Museum of Anthropology. He had trained a host of younger Native artists, of whom Robert Davidson was the best known. And he had rescued Native art from extinction and thereby restored “a feeling of pride to Native communities up and down the Pacific coast.”

A week later, news of Bill’s death made it to the obituary pages of the New York Times. He was newsworthy in the American press because in the autumn of 1991, one of Bill’s best-known works, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, also known as The Black Canoe, had been installed at the entrance of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. In Britain, The Times took longer to acknowledge the artist’s death. But when it did on April 11, the editor of the “morgue” gave Reid the lion’s share of the obituary page. Four photographs accompanied a lengthy text that noted the salient features of Reid’s life: study at London’s Central School of Art and Design, salvaging and recreating Haida totem poles, and protesting against the logging of Lyell Island on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Few Canadians -- dead or alive -- have been given so much coverage in a British newspaper.

Reading the obituaries and the tributes made me feel increasingly uneasy about the reporting in the press. Much of it was inaccurate. Writing in the Globe and Mail, David Silcox mistakenly credited Bill with being the first artist within living memory to raise a large totem pole and to carve a dugout canoe. Virtually every other reporter ignored the earlier achievements of artists such as Mungo Martin and his wife, Abayah; Jimmy Seaweed; Ellen Neel; John Cross; Claude Davidson; and many others who were active long before Bill Reid appeared on the scene. The public was being given a skewed sense of the past.

Much was left unsaid. No one mentioned the extent to which Bill’s work drew on western aesthetics. No one adequately explained why Bill and his work meant so much to the Canadian people. Or how he came to play such a pivotal role in the Native art world. Or how he got to where he was by the end of his life. Or why he was not accepted into the Native and non-Native establishments earlier in his career. Or, finally, why his acceptance in and discovery by the Native and non-Native communities become a major theme in Bill Reid’s story of struggle.

Meet the Author

Dr. Maria Tippett is the author of many books on art, culture and history, most notably the Governor General’s Award–winning Emily Carr: A Biography. Having spent ten years as a Senior Research Fellow at Cambridge University, Dr. Tippett now lives with her husband, historian Peter Clarke, in British Columbia.

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