Grizzly Embracing the Berry Picker: Haida Artistic Expression in Argillite

Meghan Williams

In 1968, Erna Gunther wrote: “If a small museum in a remote spot has one piece of Northwest Coast art, it is more apt to be a piece of argillite than almost anything else” [1]. Argillite, or black slate, is the preserve of a group of Northwest Coast Aboriginals called the Haida, who live on the Queen Charlotte Islands, off of the coast of British Columbia. As Gunther’s quote implies, examples of argillite carvings abound. However, they are less known and less understood than other popular examples of Northwest Coast art. Often regarded as curios, argillite carvings have been deemed less valuable because they were created not for ceremonial purposes, but for sale to foreigners. An examination of argillite art, in particular Grizzly embracing the berry picker, exposes the importance of these objects as a means of Haida artistic expression.

Grizzly embracing the berry picker is a carving in the round made by an unknown Haida artist, and is dated to about 1880 (Fig. 1). The carving’s central focus is the figure of the woman, the berry picker. She wears a hat that drapes over her hair and down her back. A grizzly bear sits to her left, holding onto her arm, with his snout very close to her cheek. Another bear flanks the woman’s right side, with his back to her. A bird, possibly an eagle, is perched on the bear’s head. A cub’s head, wearing a skil (or potlatch rings) with six levels, is visible between the bear’s legs. The bear’s tongue is sticking out and frogs are coming out of his eyes. Visible on the reverse side of the sculpture is a small human figure, emerging from underneath the woman.

Although this carving was part of an art form created for foreigners, its design is an outgrowth of previously-established Haida art. Argillite carvings developed from both the sculptural and the two-dimensional Haida traditions. According to Peter Macnair and Alan Hoover, Haida sculptors used facial features as the primary distinguishing marks of the figures represented [2]. This is evident inGrizzly. While the bears are distinguished from the berry picker by the incisions representing fur, it is the facial features of all the figures that receive the most attention. According to Hilary Stewart, the defining characteristics of a bear in Northwest Coast visual language include ears, large flaring nostrils, a wide mouth with bared teeth (possibly including canines) and, often, a protruding tongue [3]. InGrizzly, the bear on the left has a wide mouth with a protruding tongue and the bear on the right has a wide mouth with visible teeth and canines. Both have small ears and flared nostrils. Stewart says that an eagle generally has a beak with a strong downward curve, an evident tongue, and ears [4]. The representation of the bird in Grizzly has a strong beak but no ears or tongue, which makes its classification unclear. Human faces, according to Stewart, generally have distinctive eyebrows, eyes that are not set in ovoids, and no ears [5]. The berry picker’s facial features do not match this description. However, in the story of the berry picker, she transformed into a bear, which explains why her facial features are closer to those a grizzly. Despite the unclear identification of the bird, the overall attention paid to the facial features of the figures in Grizzly indicates the link to the sculptural Haida art tradition outlined by Macnair and Hoover.

The second tradition that influenced argillite carving was two-dimensional art, particularly the flowing calligraphic line called the form line. The form line is a continuous flow of line that outlines the design. While a definite form line is not evident in Grizzly, the sculpture does have fluidity; all of the figures merge into one another. A continuous line can be traced around the sculpture, but it is not an evident or defined form line as in two-dimensional art. Macnair and Hoover call the effect of form line one of inherent tension, which is evident in Grizzly because the position of the figures creates a dynamic tension of push and pull. In addition, the artist used the ovoid—another element of two-dimensional art—to create eye sockets for several of the figures. For Macnair and Hoover, the integration of two- and three-dimensional elements in argillite carving is the mark of a truly accomplished artist. Not all of the carvings employ these two elements as successfully as Grizzly. Nevertheless, the attempts at integration indicate that argillite carvings should be understood not as lesser examples of Haida art but as a different means of expressing established traditions [6].

The Haida used these artistic traditions for new creative purposes. Argillite, the material that they used, was also new. The first argillite carvings are dated to the early 1800s. Popularly called “slate,” the only known quarry for this black shale is found on the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia. The quarry is located near the Haida village of Skidegate, on Slatechuck Creek. Since this is Haida territory, they are the only ones allowed to mine for argillite. In 1941, the quarry was designated Haida Reserve No. 11, and exclusive Haida access was ensured. What is particular about argillite is that it is soft enough to carve with woodworking tools, and it remains soft, though the common conception is that it hardens with exposure to air. The softness of the material made it easier to work with and allowed for efficient productivity [7].

Haida ownership of the argillite quarry does not mean that they employed the slate for personal use. Bill Holm speculates that few argillite objects were used by Aboriginals but that the majority was produced primarily for non-Aboriginal use [8]. The exact origin of these carvings is unclear. Marius Barbeau tells the story of a Haida, who, while on a Boston whaler, learned to imitate a fellow-whaler who carved objects out of whales’ teeth and ivory [9]. While his story has been contested, we do know that the argillite curios produced by Haida artists were popular with “seamen, traders, missionaries, anthropologists, and tourists from the early years of the nineteenth century to the present day” [10]. The popularity of these early trade objects enabled the growth of the art form. In the days before Aboriginal objects were collected and accepted as art, the highly regarded argillite curios sold for more money than most other Northwest Coast objects. Yet, as collectors began to appreciate the intricacy of art from the coast, ceremonial objects gained preference, and argillite objects were dismissed as tourist objects and acculturative craft [11].

Despite selling to foreigners, the Haida used argillite carvings to create impressive and telling works that form a complex history. These were not simple tourist curios. Over time, the subject and form of argillite carvings evolved. There are at least sixteen types of objects that follow a recognized chronological sequence [12]. These types are also grouped into periods, which have different labels depending on the archaeologist. For Carol Sheehan, the first period, or “Haida non-sense,” 1800-1835, consists of unrecognizable distortions of crest figures or non-crest creatures. The second period, or “White man’s non-sense,” 1830-1865, consists of confused Haida responses to Euro-Americans. The third period, “Haida sense,” 1870-1910, consists of images with distinctly Haida motifs, like Grizzly. The fourth period, 1910 to the present, is marked by a decrease and then a rise in the quality of the art produced—mostly with Haida motifs [13].

A comparison between Grizzly and other argillite carvings reveals the development of the art form. Artists from the first period primarily made pipes. The first recorded argillite carvings are termed by Macnair and Hoover as, “ceremonial pipe forms” [14]. The form and design of these pipes appear to have closer ties to two-dimensional art than to the Grizzly figural group. Figure 2 shows an example of a ceremonial pipe. In terms of content, the pipe is an amalgamation of creatures or crests, while Grizzly is an illustration of a section of a myth. Further differences are evident in the sculptures’ forms. The pipe is carved in low relief, creating a flat surface. In the upper right of the pipe, the bird has large ears with a prominent split U-form. What appear to be wings are created using ovoids and U-forms. These components of two-dimensional art are not evident inGrizzly. Small lines, not ovoids and U-forms, are used on the bird to indicate feathers. Line is used to add detail and dimension to the form that is established by modelling. The basic shape of the eyes is similar in both works, but the later one has deeper relief to emphasize depth.

Ship panel pipes are a type of carving from the second period. They have more modelling than the early pipes, but are not as intricate as the Grizzly figural group. Figure 3 shows a pipe with three human figures on top of a bear or dog-like creature. As with other objects from this era, the Euro-American content is different from the traditional Haida content of period three. It is easier to identify the figures in this pipe than in the previous one because the negative space has been hollowed out. The juxtaposition of positive and negative space creates similarly identifiable figures in Grizzly. However, the figures on the ship panel pipe are still flatter. As in Grizzly, line in the ship panel pipe is used to indicate fur and costume. Line in Grizzly compliments the modelling of the figures, while, on the pipe, it is almost a replacement.

A comparison between Grizzly and another object from the same period shows commonalities in design but differences in form. Figure 4 shows a symmetrical figural group of a woman between two bears. The content is similar in Grizzly, as they both are representations of the Bear Mother myth. Both artists have used line to create a pattern of fur as well as the identifying facial features of bear and human. Therefore, both sculptures are more closely related to the sculptural than the two-dimensional tradition. However, the Grizzly artist has shown more skill in modelling and using positive and negative space. In Figure 4, an expanse of negative space between the bears and the woman has not been hollowed. In addition, the greater depth and modelling in Grizzly creates a more naturalistic composition than in the other figural group. Although the artist of the figural group was not as proficient as the one who carved Grizzly, the content and form of the carving indicate an evolution from the initial pipes to the figural groups. This can be seen as an indicator of the development of argillite carvings as a means of expression—beyond being tourist curios.

An understanding of the period in which Grizzly was produced can help to explain the variations between the argillite carvings. By 1870, the destructive effects of European settlement and trade in North America was inescapable. Haida social cohesiveness was torn apart by European diseases that proved fatal and resulted in the near extinction of the population. This weakening eased the activities of the missionaries and the government, whose interventions could not be resisted. For example, the Indian Act of 1871 was amended in 1884 to include a ban on the potlatch. The strict enforcement of this law contributed to a native culture that was very different by the turn of the century. In addition, the amount of people who had ties to the cultural traditions was severely diminished because, by 1915, only 588 Haida remained in two villages, Old Masset and Skidegate [15].

Whereas in the earlier periods when sculptures used either Haida iconography in non-traditional ways or Euro-American imagery, argillite works of the third period employed traditional Haida motifs. These latter works, includingGrizzly, reflected the turmoil wrought by Haida contact with Europeans. Argillite carvings were one of the few art forms that had not declined. Despite the trauma of European settlement, Haida artists continued to create argillite art for the dominant non-native society. While the Haida were subject to colonial dominion, the argillite art of this period reflects strong Haida imagery. The Haida used their most prominent art form to record their vanishing culture and traditions. They recorded their traditional iconography, such as mythological narratives that previously had decorated ceremonial objects. In this way, though the objects left their society, the Haida were able to subvert European acculturation and keep their culture alive [16].

Of all the cultural aspects that the Haida urgently recorded in argillite, the most prominent subject was the Bear Mother myth. This myth was popular among not only the Haida, but also the Tsimshian and the Tlingit [17]. Barbeau outlines the basic premise of the myth. It tells the story of a princess who disrespected the spirit of the Grizzly Bear by cursing after she stepped on bear excrement. As retribution, she was taken captive, transformed into a bear, and made the wife of a young grizzly to whom she bore twins. These twins were semi-supernatural and could alternate between their human and bear forms. The princess was rescued by her brother who killed her husband and brought her back to her people. Her sons became the totems of her clan [18].

The exact narrative moment represented in Grizzly embracing the berry picker is not definite. Barbeau describes the carving as an illustration of the marital relations between the woman and the bear. This scene does not appear in the text, but it is implied that they have sexual relations after her entry into the bear den. He calls their position the “sacred cow and bull posture” in which the male approaches the female from behind, or from the side [19]. However, I find that there are several elements in the carving that make this reading problematic. I suggest that rather than an illustration of one particular scene, this carving represents an amalgamation of various parts of the narrative. The presence of the two adult bears could be representative of her two captors, and the cub and small human figure could represent the result of the marital relations, the twins that can change between bear and human form. Another explanation is that the woman could also be in the pangs of birth, with the result being the child who looks out from under her behind and the cub who peers out from under the bear.

Artists have chosen many different points in the narrative for their various representations of it. What is perhaps more relevant to an understanding of the sculpture are the themes behind the Bear Mother myth. “Kidnapping,” as well as “seduction, bestiality, mothering of half-human children, and murder,” were particularly appropriate for a people whose very existence was at the mercy of another, dominant group [20]. The myth of Bear Mother can thus be interpreted as an expression of the Haida’s anguish. The Bear Mother can be read as a representative of the Haida people, faced with an aggressor, represented by the bear.

There are several signifiers in the sculpture that indicate the appropriateness of this reading. Firstly, the berry picker is in a contorted pose. Her feet are flat on the ground and her knees are bent at a ninety-degree angle. Therefore, her weight is centered behind her feet, which is an uncomfortable pose. In addition, her shoulder appears to emerge from her chest and her arm is carved as if it is on backwards. Her unnatural pose could be an attempt at fight from her captor. It could also be an indication of the unnatural state of Haida culture under the influence of settlers. Her facial features also express discomfort. Her eyes and lips are exaggerated ovoids that stretch across her face. These features resemble those of the bears in the scene and could indicate only that she has been changed into a bear. However, the contortion of the features can also indicate sadness in the face of changes to Haida culture. In a slightly different metaphorical reading, the frogs can be seen as representative of a foreign aggressor. According to Stewart, frogs did not, until recently, inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands [21]. Therefore, their presence in the carving can be read as a representation of potentially culturally-threatening foreigners.

The spiritual beliefs behind the myth add another layer of meaning. They are tied to the entirety of the myth rather than to a single element of the narrative. According to Barbeau, the four basic motifs are: first, the mystical union between a spirit or a divinity and a human being to produce offspring that share their parents attributes; second, the self-sacrifice of a supernatural being for the benefit or salvation of a clan, a tribe, or of mankind; third, the communion or sacrament of the sacred flesh after the death of the supernatural being; and fourth, the atonement, through rituals and prayer, of members of human society for the powers above [22]. This understanding of the spiritual beliefs behind the myth adds a level of understanding to the sculpture that differs from the metaphorical interpretation. According to Barbeau’s schema, it is not the bear that is the aggressor, but rather a foreign other who is not pictured. The self-sacrifice of the Bear prince for the good of the human tribe, through his death and the gift of his sons, would help to strengthen humans against other enemies. The myth could have been important for the Haida artists who, by carving the narrative, might have been expressing hope for a saviour to strengthen their people against the colonial invader.

There is another way that the artist may have added information regarding themselves and their culture. When the carving is turned ninety degrees to the right, we see a side view that, in my opinion, looks distinctly like a totem pole. At the bottom is the cub wearing a skil; on top is the bear with the frogs emerging from his eyes; and at the apex is the eagle. According to Leslie Drew, totem poles were traditionally carved with “crest figures symbolic of lineage, status, and significant events” [23]. In a period of urgent recording of tradition, the incorporation of totem imagery into an argillite sculpture makes sense. By birth, every Haida is either a Raven or an Eagle. A person’s principal crest or crests, on the other hand, form the basis of his/her individual identity. They are used in ceremonies and in displays [24]. The Eagle at the apex of the sculpture could indicate that the artist was an Eagle and that the bear and the frog represented his important crests. Totem poles were a separate and popular form of argillite carving. Still, it is possible that the artist included a totem-like view in their work either as a signature or as reference to a traditional Haida expression.

Although argillite art was made for sale to foreigners, it should not be dismissed as tourist curios. Grizzly embracing the berry picker is an important piece of Haida historical and material culture. Through its relation to previously established two- and three-dimensional Haida art forms, it is thus situated in a long-standing artistic tradition. The emergence of traditional Haida imagery during the third period speaks of the Haida’s defiance in the face of imposed acculturation by Euro-Americans. The sculpture’s mythological content and its possible totemic reference preserve an aspect of Haida tradition that artists feared was being lost in the late nineteenth century. Lastly, the ties to spirituality represent a way of coping with an unfamiliar and devastating new world. Therefore, I think that, though they were sold to foreigners, the links to Haida tradition and culture in argillite art were a way of spreading, and then holding onto, a culture that was threatened. Ironically, the Haida sold to the Euro-Americans the cultural imagery that was being banned by the Church and the State. The sale of argillite to foreigners is not an indication of lesser artistic quality but a resourceful way of continuing Haida artistic practices and ensuring the preservation of their culture.

Appendix A: The Bear Mother Myth

From: Barbeau, Marius. Haida Myths Illustrated in Argillite Carvings. National Museum of Canada, Bulletin 127, Anthropological Series Bulletin 32. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1953. 88-102

In brief, Rhpisunt, a maiden belonging to a Wolf clan of the up-river country, long ago was gathering huckleberries on the mountain with two other young women of her tribe. Instead of singing like the others to warn the bears of her presence there, as she should have done, she kept chatting and laughing while gathering the wild fruit. The Bears finally pricked up their ears and listened. “Why does she always babble as if she were mocking someone?” they asked each other. Perhaps she was mocking them. That is why they spied on her in the bush and followed her down the trail when she packed a large basket of fruit for the camp.
One evening all three young women, one after the other, followed the trail, stooping under their loads, which were held on their backs by packstraps from their foreheads. Rhpisunt, the babbler, was the last of the three, a short distance behind the others. Suddenly she slipped, nearly fell down, and looked at her feet. Then, bursting with angry laughter, she sneered, “Boo to Naæk-bear orphan! Here he has dropped his excrement!” She might just as well have said, “You bastard!” Her packstrap broke, and, while she tried to mend it, her sisters went on their way, leaving her far behind. Ill-tempered, she did not sing as she should have, but only scolded and groaned.
As it grew dark, she heard men’s voices in the bush behind her. Then two young men, looking like brothers, came toward her and said, “Sister, you are in trouble, with nobody to look after you. Come with us, we will carry your berries for you.”
Following them she noticed that they were wearing bear robes, and they were taking her up the mountain. After dark they came to a large house near a rockslide and entered with her. Around a small fire a number of people sat, looking at her, all of them dressed in bear robes. The white mouse Tseets -Grandmother came to her and pulled at her robe, which was now coated with long grey hair like a bear’s. And the mouse squeaked, “Grand-daughter, the Bears have taken you to their den; from now on you shall be one of them, bearing children.”
As she heard this, she grew frightened, the more so when one of the young Grizzlies approached her and said, “You shall live, if you agree to become my wife; if you refuse, you die.”
The princess, now the wife of the great chief’s nephew, soon became pregnant, while her husband lived in great fear his wife’s brothers would overtake and kill him. So he went to his uncle, saying, “I must go with her to my winter village up the rock-slide. Mæsk, their hunting dog, is now getting on to my tracks. There he will never be able to find us.”
The young Grizzly took the princess, now changed into a Bear, away with him up into the hills. Every night they made camp like husband and wife traveling together. He would take the devil’s club and scatter it all round as precaution against harm. Finally they came to a steep mountain and climbed up a rocky trail. Sometimes the man carried the princess, as she was now heavy with child and unable to travel over difficult ground. They came at last to a large cavern on the face of the hill, almost unapproachable. Here the young man and his wife now lived. Whenever he went away to gather food, he transformed himself into a bear, changing to human form when he returned. One day the woman became ill and gave birth to twin Bear Cubs. The father was happy.
The father soon became increasingly sad, as he returned from his daily errands. His wife was too busy with the care of her spirit children who were growing fast, to be much concerned, until one day their father returned more depressed than usual. “I am not destined to live much longer,” he said. “Your brothers are on my tracks; soon they will overtake me and kill me.” Each day his gloom grew worse and worse.
Meanwhile the princess’s father sent out the eldest son who was known as the foremost hunter. When he had been away for many days, he returned empty-handed, saying, “I have been unable to find Rhpisunt.” Again the father consulted his seers ( hallaits ), and all were in agreement that the daughter of the great chief was alive, in the hands of the Bear people.
The next eldest brother was then sent by the father to try and find the lost princess. Taking along the foremost hunters, he went into the valleys on the Skeena right up to the headwaters but found no trace of her. They even went to other tribes and enlisted the aid of the most famous seers to guide them; all agreed that the woman was alive and that she would be found. After the second brother had searched a long while, he also gave up.
The Bear prince always retreated to the cavern when he was hunted. As soon as the search was given up, he was relieved and immediately went out to look for food. He was happy for a time, but his wife did not give up hope of being rescued.
The father of the missing princess now called the third brother. He took his own hunters and searched new hunting-grounds. They were now getting close to the hiding-place, and the Bear prince, who knew just when each of the brothers set out, would go into hiding again. “They will never find me,” he said to his wife, “they will pass by; my powers are great enough.” And it was so. Although he came very close, the third brother and his searchers went right by, failing to detect any sign.
Now the princess had another brother who was not as yet a great hunter. This man accompanied others on big hunting trips as he was too young to go alone. Yet he was the favourite brother of the lost princess and had been her companion together with Mæsk.
When the third brother failed, the grief of the chief was great. “My daughter is now lost for good,” he thought.
It was then the younger brother said, “I will go and find my sister. Together with Mæsk, I will find her.”
The older brothers ridiculed the presumption of their puny brother. “How can a child who does not know his way in the mountains unaccompanied find his way? We will have to search for him, should he be lost,” they said. But the young brother was insistent, begging his father to permit him to go.
After a while the great chief agreed, “It is well that you should try and find your sister.”
The young man, quite pleased, prepared to leave with his sister’s dog. “Mæsk, we will find my sister, and you will help me,” he said, talking to the animal as if it were a human.
When this young man set out, the Bear prince grew sadder than ever. He knew by his supernatural powers that the youngest brother of his wife had now set out, and that he would, with the help of the princess’s dog, find her. He himself would be killed by his own brother-in-law. So he said to his wife and their two Bear children, “My brother-in-law has now set out to look for you. With him is your dog Mæsk. It is Mæsk whom all the Bears fear. This time your brother will find you. I will be killed.” Again he wept with grief.
The youngest brother was now on his way up Skeena River with many of the best hunters of his father. From the star they followed Mæsk, who by now had scented the princess and was going up the valley where she lived. They came to the foot of the high mountain where the cave was, and Mæsk kept barking up towards the cave. But the Bear prince had spread the devil’s club all round, smothering the scent, and again the young brother was on the point of turning away.
Just then the princess looked out from her hiding-place in the cave and, seeing her brother and Mæsk, became very happy. Taking some snow in her hand, she made a ball, and threw it down towards her brother. When the ball of snow rolled down to his feet, the young man saw marks of a human hand upon it. He held it to his dog, Mæsk, to see whether Mæsk would recognize it. He was glad when the dog began to bark furiously. He glanced up and saw something moving away up on the bare hillside.
The trail up the rockslide was almost impassable. After a long climb the young hunter and the dog Mæsk were able to reach the mountain ledge at the entrance to the cave.
The Bear prince knew that he was to be killed. He came out of the cave and called, “Wait awhile, my brother-in-law! I want first to sing the dirge which I will then pass on to my children. Then I will give my powers to them so that they may become great hunters, the greatest among the people.”
The youngest brother, seeing his sister and her two Bear children, did not know what to do, but his sister called out, “Do as he wishes you to do, my brother!”
The Bear prince sang his dirge, took his two Bear children, and pulled off their Bear garments, making them human beings. Then the Bear prince stood up and said to the two children, “You will now become the greatest hunters among your mother’s people.” He then turned to his brother-in-law, saying, “Now I want you to kill me.”
Although the young man was reluctant, the Bear prince insisted. “Come, be quick! Shoot me with your arrow,” he said. So the young man drew his bow and shot the Bear prince. The princess, now that her husband was dead, sang a dirge, and taking a knife, she cut off his head. Then she and her brother set off on the return journey to their village. Her children grew up as human beings and were the most famous hunters among the people. They had received their power from their father.

1. Peter L. Macnair and Alan L. Hoover, The Magic Leaves: A History of Haida Argillite Carvings (Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 2002), p. 9.
2. Ibid., p. 14.
3. Hilary Stewart, Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1979), p. 43.
4. Ibid., p. 54.
5. Ibid., p. 88.
6. Macnair and Hoover, pp. 15-6.
7. Ibid., pp. 21, 11-2.
8. Bill Holm, The Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art (Seattle, Washington: Seattle Art Museum, University of Washington Press, 1983), p. 104.
9. Marius Barbeau, Haida Myths Illustrated in Argillite Carvings, National Museum of Canada, Bulletin 127, Anthropological Series Bulletin 32 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1953), p. 1.
10. Holm, p. 104.
11. Ibid.
12. Macnair and Hoover, p. 9.
13. Carol Sheehan quoted in Macnair and Hoover, p. 151.
14. Macnair and Hoover, p. 23.
15. Carol Sheehan, Pipes That Won’t Smoke; Coal That Won’t Burn: Haida Sculpture in Argillite (Calgary: Glenbow Museum, 1981), pp. 95-6.
16. Ibid., p. 96.
17. Ibid., p. 104.
18. Barbeau, p. 4. A full transcription of Barbeau’s retelling of the myth is available in Appendix A.
19. Ibid., pp. 92-4.
20. Sheehan, pp. 109-10.
21. Stewart, p. 68.
22. Barbeau, p. 104.
23. Leslie Drew, Haida: Their Art and Culture (Surrey, Blaine: Hancock House, 1982), p. 40.
24. Ibid., p. 76.