The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1997, Volume 43, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Haida Art. By George F. MacDonald. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. Photographs. Maps. Bibliography. xi + 242 pages. $60.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Mary Beth Shoning Klauer, artist and photographer.

George F. MacDonald, President of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, has served on NESCO’s drafting committee for protection of world cultural heritage and has published extensively on Northwest Coast native cultures. His dedication to this field of expertise is apparent in Haida Art. MacDonald utilizes over two hundred pages of beautifully photographed art and descriptive text to provide the reader with insights into the highly developed culture and rich variety of art work of the Haida people. MacDonald shows us not only the artwork but also brings us to an understanding of the history and evolution of the Haida society.

The author begins our journey from the pre-historic conditions of the land and peoples, providing a back drop for the progression of art and culture. As the Haida story unfolds, the society is nearly decimated by illnesses brought by European and American settlers.

Fortunately, the culture survives as does their rich style and forms of art. The text discusses social organization, symbols, and myths which help explain the stories told by the art. The wide variety of arts and crafts, with their varied materials and media, are displayed and discussed throughout the book. Items produced by this group varied from carvings of stone and ivory, silver adornments, copper shields, wood carvings, basketry, and, of course, the traditional totem and memorial poles.


The author informs us that totem poles, with which most people identify this culture, are only one way the Haida express their creativity. Masks, pottery, blankets, clothing, pipes and ceremonial items are also included in this volume. One of the most delightful photographs in the book is that of painted woven hats worn by the Haida and traded as souvenirs to the early settlers. Flat designs and heavy form lines are typical of Haida artwork whether on wood, cloth, or stone. The wide variety of skills with various media are depicted in different plates in the book giving a well-rounded view of Haida artistic ability. The photographic plates in the book are powerful. Items are isolated on the page, highlighting and defining brush strokes or the carver’s marks on wood.

MacDonald contrasts and compares Haida art with their neighbors, the Tsimshian and Tlingit, while pointing out that some borrowing of styles and materials did occur with the onset of traders. Early traders influenced Haida art by setting a demand for miniature totem poles and carvings. Argillite, a black stone used for carving, was found naturally near the Haida’s home. It became a major source of income for the Skidegate Haida. By the end of the century, tens of thousands of argillite carvings were disbursed as souvenirs.

The outside world influenced production, style and type of items produced. Not only in the demand and desires of outside traders, but also as related to war. Sea battles were fought to acquire slaves or objects which were in short supply. The Haida were feared along the coast due to their lightning raids and aggressive nature. Items produced which were related to war, such as shields, are depicted as objects of art in the book. The text also describes the typical Haida village, housing structures and household items which themselves were works of art. Mortuary boxes and poles, also art forms, are described and pictured in the book.

One of the most compelling features of this book is the blend of old and new both in text and photographs. Old sections of the text from journals and eyewitness accounts of early encounters with the Haida are woven into current descriptive text. In the same way, photographs from the 1800s are placed at strategic places in the book, highlighting the text and showing early designs and lifestyle, leaving the viewer with a sense of awe at this fascinating and highly developed culture. This technique lends visual credence to the narrative, helping validate the story.

MacDonald also covers the people and artists outlining a sort of genealogy of artists in the book from Chief Albert Edward Edenshaw to the modem artists such as gold worker Bill Reid and his apprentices Robert Davidson and Jim Hart. The cultural revival brought about by modem artists and supporters of Native American culture brings hope that the skills will continue to be passed down to another generation.

This book is all encompassing. Not only does it discuss art, but it portrays lifestyle, customs, and history of the Haida people. The only thing left is to actually visit the area. The book even discusses this explaining that permits to visit the abandoned villages are issued by an organization called Haida Gwaii Watchmen. Part of these lands are now a National Park and National Historic Site. MacDonald has given us a rich overview of Haida culture. This superb volume is a worthwhile means of expanding the reader’s knowledge of such a magnificent culture.

Buy this book from
You get Amazon’s low price and the
San Diego Historical Society
gets credit when you buy through this link.