This week in history 

Da.a xiigang (Charles Edenshaw) (c. 1839–1920)

Charles Edenshaw with a few of his works in Massett, British Columbia, c. 1890. © Canadian Museum of History, Fonds Marius Barbeau, item no. 88926. Reproduced with the permission of the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay.

For the week of May 27, 2024.

On May 27, 1971, the Government of Canada recognized Da.a xiigang (Charles Edenshaw) as a national historic person. He was a prolific artist from the archipelago of Haida Gwaii in the Pacific Northwest, whose works helped Haida culture persist when it was under threat.

He was born at HlGaagilda (Skidegate) around 1839. The first of many names he received in his lifetime was Da.a xiigang, meaning “noise in the housepit” in Xaayda kil (the Skidegate dialect). He was later known as Nang qwi.igee tlaa.ahls (“they gave ten potlaches for him”) for feasts his parents organized to honour him and raise his status within Haida society. His father was Tl’aajaang quuna, a skilled carver and canoe-builder of Raven lineage from Skidegate, and his mother was Q’àaw quunaa of the Saangga.ahl Sta’stas Eagles at Kiusta.

Haida society is matrilineal, which means that children follow their mother’s line, being born into, raised and educated by their mother’s clan. As a result, he spent much of his early life in the care of his mother’s brother. Gwaaygu 7anhlan (Albert Edward Edenshaw) was a Sta’stas clan chief and a major chief among many northern villages, holding the hereditary title of Chief 7idansuu. He helped Da.a xiigang’s artistic development by teaching him about Haida culture and history, and may have also, along with John Robson, passed on the skills of carving, engraving, and metal smithing. Da.a xiigang and Gwaaygu 7anhlan survived devastating epidemics in the 1860s and left K’iusta and Kang soon after, eventually moving to Gaaw (Old Masset). In 1883, Da.a xiigang (Charles) and his wife, Qwii.aang (Isabella), converted to Christianity and married the same day as Albert and his wife. In matrilineal Haida society, hereditary titles pass from the chief to his eldest sister’s first-born son, so when Albert died, Charles inherited his position as Chief 7idansuu in 1894. He did not potlatch or raise a memorial pole, as such ceremonies were outlawed.

Charles Edenshaw’s art conveys the deep roots of the Haida people on Haida Gwaii and their profound relationship to its lands and waters. He depicted Haida crests and elements of clan histories or K’ayga—narratives that cover the entire history of the Haida people from the time of supernatural beings. In this way, he helped Haida culture persist when it was under threat. The introduction of infectious diseases through contact with Europeans had devastating consequences for the Haida people. The Haida population went from about 20,000 in the late 18th century to less than 600 by the late 19th century. At the same time, Canada was working to suppress Indigenous cultures. Amendments to the Indian Act in 1885 banned the potlach and authorized the confiscation of ceremonial objects. This made it illegal for Edenshaw to produce such objects for Haida people, though he could sell them to non-Indigenous collectors.

Defining characteristics of Edenshaw’s style were fluid lines, interconnected forms, the play with negative space, and the creation of different textures using techniques like cross-hatching, single-lining, and grooving. He used a wide variety of media, including wood, metal, argillite, ivory, stone, and hide, and experimented with drawing, painting, carving, sculpture, and engraving and other art forms. On many occasions he collaborated with Qwii.aang, painting designs on intricately woven baskets, hats, and other objects she created from spruce root. Several of their descendants have followed in their footsteps to become prominent artists, including daughter Florence Edenshaw Davidson, great-great nephew Bill Reid, and great-grandsons Robert Davidson and James Hart. The latter inherited the Sta’stas chieftainship, becoming Chief 7idansuu in 1999.

 

A small ceremonial object made by Charles Edenshaw c. 1899. The materials include alder, cedar, abalone shell, flicker feather, vegetable fibre, spruce root, and metal. © Canadian Museum of History, artifact number VII-B-690. Reproduced with the permission of the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay.

Charles Edenshaw was designated a national historic person in 1971. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, persons, and events of national historic significance. Any member of the public can submit a subject to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

 

 

May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about the histories of Asian Canadian communities by exploring articles in our online archives about:

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