The Little Man Who Soared

On Haida Gwaii, indigenous artists carved portraits of the strange newcomers who landed on their shores.

Published August 5, 2016

“Can you see anything?” Henry Carter was asked in 1923 as he peered into King Tutankhamun’s tomb. “Yes,” he replied, “wonderful things.” This column explores other wonderful things—intriguing artifacts or technologies that give insight into coastal cultures.

To modern eyes, this carved man looks like a steampunk messenger from an earlier time. Flying through space like a Jules Verne character, he is part human, part automaton; part lord of the winds, part humble servant. But he is all masterpiece. His maker was a 19th-century artist from the islands of Haida Gwaii off the northwest coast of British Columbia. A carver of wood and ivory, this unknown Haida master had closely observed the European and American sailors he had encountered, right down to the seams of their sensible shoes.

Records show that a wealthy American businessman, Frederick Hastings Rindge, donated this remarkable pipe to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum in 1894. How Rindge acquired it is unknown. But his father, Samuel, worked for a Boston merchant house at a time when local ships regularly sailed to the northwest coast, and as an avid trader, one biographer notes, Samuel would often entrust trade goods of his own “to his sea-captain friends, who would make the exchange in foreign ports for [local] products of the country.” Perhaps the elder Rindge obtained this carving in one such exchange in Haida Gwaii or elsewhere, adding it to the family’s art collection.

The Peabody Museum dates this pipe to the 1840s, a timing that fits well with what we know. The Haida first encountered Europeans in 1774, when a Spanish ship suddenly materialized off the coast of Haida Gwaii and lingered briefly to trade. In the following decades, European, British, and American ships sailed there regularly to barter for sea otter furs, drawing its inhabitants into a global maritime trade. Some Haida men crewed on the foreign ships, and “often went to Hawai‘i and Canton and wintered over at those places,” notes George MacDonald, director emeritus at the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Art Studies in Burnaby, British Columbia.

But by the 1820s, the lucrative trade had declined due to overhunting and shifts in the global economy. So the people of Haida Gwaii searched for other goods to trade. Haida artists began carving shiny black argillite pipes to sell to visitors, and within a few decades, they were experimenting with portraiture, carving figurines of individual European and American men and women in solemn black attire, sometimes cradling a small child or dog in their arms. These figurines were a major departure from the artists’ traditional formline works.

“Obviously their art forms would have been influenced by exposure to European works, but they may have thought these new people and their world were too foreign to be captured by an art form derived from and for a Haida way of life,” says Nika Collison, curator at the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate.

The Peabody Museum pipe comes from this later period of figurines. And its Haida maker was no stranger to the commercial art world. While sailing to Hawai‘i and China during the fur trade era, Haida sailors tied up at docks crowded with European and American ships adorned with elaborately carved figureheads. Often these carvings were portrait busts of real people, rendered in loving detail, and for some Haida carvers, a walk along the docks must have seemed like a stroll through a European art gallery.

Certainly the maker of the Peabody pipe delighted in this nautical art. The carving, notes MacDonald, took some of its inspiration from the dockside, “to judge by the pose of the figure, [and] the treatment of the hair, typical of New England ship carving.”

Today, the little steampunk man, with his pale, ivory face and his pineapple-patterned pants, offers us a tantalizing glimpse of one Haida artist’s reaction to the strange new world that had washed up on Haida Gwaii. Playful, perhaps even satirical, the carving captures a vision of the curious newcomers before catastrophe struck on the islands, and the first major smallpox epidemic swept through Haida Gwaii, decimating its villages and its artists.