Who was Bill Reid?

Bill Reid's journey


Photo: Bill Reid carving Skidegate pole 1976

Bill Reid carving Skidegate pole
Skidegate, Haida Gwaii
Photo: Dr. Martine Reid

Photo: Bill Reid age 1 year with his mother 1921

Bill Reid and his mother
Hyder, Alaska
Courtesy Bill Reid Estate

Photo: Portrait of Bill Reid c. 1972, photographer unknown

Bill Reid
c. 1972
Photographer unknown
Courtesy Bill Reid Estate

Bill Reid is generally described as a Native Canadian artist, and more specifically, a Haida artist. What does that really mean? How can we define a Haida artist? Is it an artist who has Haida ancestry, or an artist who makes Haida art? Bill Reid was both types of artist.

William Ronald (Bill) Reid was born in 1920 in Victoria, BC, to a Haida mother, Sophie Gladstone Reid. His father, William Ronald Reid, was born in Michigan (USA) of German and Scottish parents and was an immigrant to the coast.

Sophie’s mother originated from the village of Tanu, on Tanu Island, in the southern part of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. Sophie was born in the village of what was then called Skidegate Mission in Haida Gwaii. At the age of 10, she was sent as a year-round student to an Anglican residential school on the mainland where she was forbidden to speak her Haida mother tongue, and where she learned to speak English and sew. She was an English teacher before her marriage, and spoke excellent English.

Shortly after William and Sophie married, William Reid, who ran a hotel in Smithers, in northern BC, transferred his hotel business to Hyder, Alaska. Sophie set up house in Victoria and made a living as a dressmaker, designing fashionable clothes for upper-class families of the city. For some years the family moved back and forth between the two locations.

As a result of this upbringing, Bill Reid grew up mostly in white communities. He received his education in a variety of schools in BC, where he acquired a taste for literature, poetry and classical music. He was not brought up within Haida culture. He was raised by his mother, whose life had been shaped during a period of intense disruption for Native people. She had assimilated and emulated western values, and so raised her children as “Whites.” Furthermore, according to Canadian law, she had lost her “Indian” status after having married a non-Native man.