Thirty years ago, famed Canadian artist Bill Reid created what he considered his greatest work.
From a single cedar log, Reid carved a 50-foot war canoe, the Loo Taas or Wave Eater. It was first of its kind in the northwest coast in about a century, sparking a renaissance of the canoe culture of indigenous people that continues to this day.
On Wednesday (October 21), a fibre glass replica, which Reid fashioned and named the Black Eagle, was installed in solemn ceremonies at the Burnaby Mountain campus of SFU.
With fresh cedar bows, Black Eagle was blessed with water in its new home as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the university.
SFU president Andrew Peter said in his remarks at the well-attended event that the installation of the Black Eagle gives the university an added reason to celebrate.
“This canoe represents the resilience, the creativity, the vibrancy, and the vitality of northwest coast canoe cultures,” Peter told the assembly. “It’s a symbol of knowledge of community and cultural regeneration, and these themes are hugely important to us at Simon Fraser University.”
“We’ve been working very hard in recent years not only to recognize the traditional peoples of these territories, but to really honour the culture and presence of indigenous peoples, to make this campus a place in which students of indigenous background feel welcome, and to ensure that we are a university that is trying to do our part to address the needs of indigenous communities and indigenous students,” the SFU president explained.
The Black Eagle was one of 112 works by Reid gifted to SFU by the Bill Reid Foundation in 2011. The foundation operates the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Downtown Vancouver, which is also the home of SFU’s Bill Reid collection.
Herb Auerbach, founding director of the Bill Reid Foundation, related at the event that Reid, who was born to a Haida mother and a father of European ancestry, learned of his indigenous heritage when he was in his 20’s.
Trained in western design, the renowned goldsmith, carver, and sculptor embraced his Haida legacy in the many artworks he created.
But it was the canoe, according to Auerbach, that “really captured Bill’s imagination and his attention”.
“And in his words,” Auerbach recalled, “he said, ‘Western art starts with the figure. But northwest coast art starts with the canoe’.”
With the help of other Haida artists, including the legendary Guujaaw, Loo Taas was dug out from a nearly century-old cedar, and made a triumphant entry in the world event for which it was commissioned for, Expo 86 in Vancouver.
Reid and other Haida paddlers took the Loo Taas up the Seine River in Paris in 1989 during a world exposition on aboriginal art.
It was the Loo Taas that carried the ashes of Reid in 1998 to his final resting place in the Haida Gwaii.
Auerbach related that the Black Eagle was one of four fiber glass replicas Reid made under commission by George MacDonald, then director of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
“Bill called these four fiber glass canoes his Tupperware fleet,” Auerbach said, generating laughter in the crowd.
The Black Eagle was acquired by the Bill Reid Foundation with the support of benefactors Charles and Gayle Pancerzewski. The replica canoe’s relocation to SFU from the Van Dusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver was also made possible with the help of the Pancerzewski couple.
Christopher Lewis, a councillor of the Squamish Nation on the North Shore, said in his talk that Reid has a “spiritual connection” to the Squamish people.
“He was one of the first leaders to come to our community, and offer one of his canoes to help us train as our canoe culture was getting revitalized,” Lewis recalled.
According to Lewis, the Squamish people now have a number of canoes that participate in tribal journeys and other activities.
Rudy Reimer, an assistant professor at SUF’s department of First Nations studies and archeology, led and emceed the installation of the Black Eagle. Reimer is also Squamish.
Reid’s granddaughter Nika Collison narrated that the Loo Taas was a life-changing experience for many people, including her.
The dugout canoe was present in protests against clear-cut logging and unsustainable sport fishery, races, and many ceremonies.
Collison was brought to the Skidegate village in the Haida Gwaii on the Loo Taas to marry her husband.
Loo Taas now rests at the Haida Heritage Centre, where Collison works as curator. Joining Loo Taas is one replica named by Reid as the Loo Plex.
According to Collison, another replica is under the care of the First Nations House of Learning at UBC. The fourth copy, which Reid called the Red Raven, is at the Canadian Museum of History.
Speaking about the Loo Taas, Collison said: “It demonstrates our inextricable relationship with the natural, [and] supernatural. This canoe explains the great extent of our ancestors’ and current day artists’ knowledge of physics, engineering, navigation, weather, among many other things.”