The Raven's Call

Bill Reid's journey


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.

Although Reid remembered visits from his mother’s relatives as he grew up, he never thought of them, or himself, as being Native. He remembered, however, his aunts wearing gold and silver bracelets engraved in the Native (Haida) style. Curious about his mother’s side of the family and his Aboriginal heritage, since his father was rarely there to talk about his, he began his own journey of discovery, to Haida Gwaii. This quest began when he was 23 years old and ended only when his ashes were scattered and interred, in 1998, in his grandmother’s village of Tanu.

All of Bill Reid’s relatives on his mother’s side were Haida. His mother, Sophie Gladstone, was born in Skidegate, in Haida Gwaii. Her mother, (Bill’s grandmother), Josephine, was born in Tanu, a small Haida village in the south of Haida Gwaii. His grandfather was Charles Gladstone (1878-1954) of Skidegate.

Traditional Haida people believe that their original ancestors were mythic characters, animals or supernatural humans. And, traditional Haida society was organized according to two main groups (or moieties): Ravens and Eagles. People were either Ravens or Eagles by birth. Ravens had to marry Eagles and vice versa.

Bill’s mother was a Raven. In Haida society, all her children would also be Raven. So, while talking about Bill Reid’s (collective) identity among the Haida people, he was a Raven. Being a Raven entitled him to wear certain crests and names associated with them, which were inherited through the female line. One of the crests of Bill Reid’s mother’s family was the Wolf. So, among the Haida people, Bill Reid was a Wolf from the Raven moiety.


1920-1928: (Birth to age 8)
Bill Reid’s father, William Ronald Reid, ran hotels in Smithers in northern BC, and later in Hyder, Alaska, while Sophie set up house in Victoria. She made a living as a talented dressmaker, designing fashionable clothes for upper-class families of the city. For some years the family moved back and forth between the two locations. Eventually Reid’s parents separated, and he had no contact with his father after the age of 14.

1932-1936: (age 12-16)
At the age of 12, out of boredom in school, he started to carve tiny objects out of blackboard chalk, such as totem poles, boats, and a tea set. (Tea, along with its etiquette, was a popular hallmark of Victorian society.)

These first carvings were the result of intense concentration, and showed his taste for miniatures and accuracy of detail as well as his sense of humour.

He loved to read. He spent many hours at the Carnegie library in Victoria, saying later that he had read all he could find, but more particularly, English and American novels and poetry

Young Man

1938-1940: (age 18-20)
Reid left school after completing one year at Victoria College. Gifted with a beautiful voice, he began working without pay as a radio announcer in Victoria, BC, and soon took a paid position in Kelowna, BC, followed by Kirkland Lake, ON, Rouyn, QC, and others.

1943: (age 23)
A year after his father’s death, Bill Reid made his first visit to Haida Gwaii since his early childhood. He was reunited with his Haida maternal grandfather, Charles Gladstone, who spoke little or no English.

He discovered that his grandfather, in addition to being a skilled boat builder, made jewelry and carved argillite, a black stone found only in Haida Gwaii. Gladstone had learned these traditional skills from his talented maternal uncle, the now well-known Haida carver and jeweler, Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920), whose tools he had inherited.

While in Skidegate in 1943, Bill Reid met Haida storytellers Solomon Wilson and Henry Young (c. 1871-1968), whose storytelling and oratory style deeply affected him. He later dedicated his book, The Raven Steals the Light (1984), to Young, the man who first told him the myths.

1944-1950: (age 24-30)
He married Mabel van Boyen and moved to Toronto, where he spent the next six years. At 28, he joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto as a radio broadcaster, the start of 16 years in broadcasting.

He enrolled shortly thereafter at the Ryerson Institute of Technology, Toronto, as a part-time student of jewelry making, with the desire to make Haida jewelry.

He frequently visited the Royal Ontario Museum to study the heraldic pole, originally from his maternal grandmother’s village of Tanu, and now displayed in the stairwell at the ROM.

In 1950, Reid completed his goldsmithing studies at Ryerson, began an apprenticeship with the Platinum Art Company, continued his work as a radio broadcaster for the CBC in Toronto, and became a father.

1951: (age 31)
He moved back to Vancouver, where he worked as a broadcaster for the CBC and made contemporary modern, western-style jewelry, such as the sterling and ruby brooch, in his basement workshop. He remained in Vancouver for the next 17 years.

1954: (age 34)
When his grandfather, Charles Gladstone died, Reid attended his funeral in Skidegate. During his visit he completed a Haida silver bracelet that Gladstone had left unfinished at his death.

After his grandfather’s death, Bill Reid inherited his great-great uncle Charles Edenshaw’s tools. Made of bone, some from recycled Victorian cutlery handles, they are decorated and carved with the representations of animal crest figures or supernatural creatures. He had seen and handled these tools on his visit to Skidegate 11 years earlier.

Bill Reid was introduced to the work of Charles Edenshaw. Two bracelets that were deeply carved made such an impression on him that he later said “life was not the same after that.” This encounter with Edenshaw’s bracelets changed the course of his career. Although no longer alive, Charles Edenshaw became his mentor and culture-hero.

In the summer of 1954, he joined anthropologist Wilson Duff of the Provincial Museum (now the Royal BC Museum) in Victoria, and Harry Hawthorn of the UBC Department of Anthropology, on an expedition to salvage ancient Haida sculptures from villages in southern Haida Gwaii.

He received his first Haida name, Iihljiwaas (“Princely One”), from his Haida relatives.

1955: (age 35)
Bill Reid and his wife adopted a son, Raymond Cross, born in 1953 to Haida and Nisga'a parents. Raymond later joined Reid in Montreal where they shared a jewelry workshop.

1957-1958: (age 37-38)
Reid worked for 10 days with Kwakwaka’wakw carver Mungo Martin (Naqap’ankam), on a Haida pole for the Provincial Museum (now the Royal BC Museum) in Victoria.

He also took part in a second expedition to salvage heraldic poles from southern Haida Gwaii.

In his quest to understand Haida visual representations and artistic style, he made frequent visits to the old BC Provincial Museum located in the basement of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria, looking for exceptional Northwest Coast art works.

At the Provincial Museum he would often pour over a rare book by Alice Ravenhill, studying Northwest Coast art images that later inspired him.

Middle Years

1958-1962: (age 38-42)
In 1958, Bill Reid left the CBC to accept an invitation from Harry Hawthorn to recreate a section of a Haida village on the UBC campus.

In 1962, with Kwakwaka’wakw assistant Douglas Cranmer, he completed two houses and seven poles for the Haida village project at UBC. During this time, he was briefly married to his second wife, Ella Gunn.

1966-68: (age 46-48)
In 1966, he completed a series of eight drawings for the book Raven’s Cry, by Christie Harris.

Reid was invited to collaborate as an Aboriginal consulting curator with Wilson Duff, Bill Holm and Doris Shadbolt, on “The Arts of the Raven,” a major Northwest Coast art exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, celebrating Canada’s centennial.

Responsible for material selection, he requested the 19th century bent corner box he had seen illustrated in Franz Boas’ Primitive Art (1927: 276, fig.287b), which had been painted with great virtuosity by an anonymous artist. He wanted to examine closely this “magnificent, monumental, challenging work.” (Reid, 2000: 158). A few years earlier he had made a small lidded silver chest and engraved it with the same designs (1964).

1968: (age 48)
Reid finished carving the laminated cedar screen now referred to as “The Farewell Screen,” before leaving BC for London, England on a senior Canada Council fellowship to study museum collections in Europe. The screen was commissioned by the BC Provincial Museum in Victoria.

He worked for a time at the Central School of Design, London, to refine his jewelry-making skills.

1969: (age 49)
He moved to Montreal and established a jewelry workshop where he completed “The Milky Way,” the gold and diamond necklace which he had conceived and begun designing in London. He remained based in Montreal for four years.

1970: (age 50)
Bill Reid was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

His adopted son, Raymond Cross, joined him in Montreal, where they shared a studio. Before joining Reid in Montreal, Raymond had been trained as a jeweler by his uncle Gordon Cross in Skidegate. He apprenticed further with Reid for a few years and produced silver jewelry such as pendants and bracelets.

Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter commissioned Bill Reid to write the text for the book Out of the Silence (1971) with photographs by Adelaide de Menil.

He created his first boxwood carving, “The Raven Discovering Mankind in a Clam Shell.”

1973-1974: (age 53-54)
Reid returned to Vancouver, which he called home for the rest of his life. There he received his second Haida name, Kihlguulins (“The One with the Lovely Voice”), and designed his first series of Haida silkscreen prints.

1975: (age 55)
Bill Reid combined European jewelry-making skills and techniques with classic Haida designs to create a three-dimensional quality unseen in the older works. His superb craftsmanship was expressed in many different materials including precious metals, jewels, choice woods, glass and paper, and in many scales from exquisite miniatures to massive masterpieces in bronze and cedar. He lived the mantra, “Joy is a well-made object.”

1976-1978: (age 56-56)
Reid spent the two summers and falls of 1976 and 1977 carving a pole for Skidegate, his mother’s village, where only one decaying old pole, erected in 1882, still stood. He invited several artists to participate in the carving. Joe David carved the Bear cubs, Robert Davidson carved the inner ovoids in the Raven’s wing, and Gary Edenshaw, known as Guujaaw, remained Reid’s assistant for the entire project, carving one side of the pole.

Following Haida protocol, Reid gifted the pole to Chief Skidegate, who raised it, with the collaboration of the village people, in front of a traditional Haida house (the Band Council office in Skidegate) that had been built to receive it.

Bill Reid’s Haida name, Iihljiwaas (“Princely One”), first given to him in 1954, was publicly confirmed.

1979: (age 59)
He was awarded the Canadian Conference on the Arts Diplôme d'honneur, and received an honorary degree from the University of Victoria, the first of many academic honours.


1980: (age 60)
He completed the large yellow cedar sculpture “The Raven and the First Men,” for the UBC Museum of Anthropology, based on the small boxwood carving he made in Montreal in 1970.

1981-1983: (age 61-63)
Important life events for Bill Reid in the eighties included the death of his adopted son, Raymond Cross, the death of his mother, Sophie Gladstone, and in 1981, marriage to Martine de Widerspach-Thor, whom he had met in 1975.

In 1983, he created the drawings for George MacDonald’s book Haida Monumental Art (1983).

1984-1985: (age 64-65)
Reid maintained a lively studio on Granville Island for several years where he had frequent visitors.

In 1984, he completed a retelling of Haida stories with poet Robert Bringhurst and 10 pencil drawings to illustrate them, for their book The Raven Steals the Light (1984).

Reid undertook and completed the large bronze sculpture, “Chief of the Undersea World,” for the Vancouver Aquarium, the red cedar sculpture, “Phyllidula -- The Shape of Frogs to Come,” purchased by the Vancouver Art Gallery, and a 5.5-metre red cedar dugout canoe now at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.

Also in 1984, he completed the 20 metre bronze frieze, “Mythic Messengers,” which had been commissioned by Teleglobe Canada, and later owned by BCE, Inc. In 2008, it was installed in the Audain Great Hall at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, in Vancouver, after having been gifted to the Bill Reid Foundation by BCE, Inc. A second casting was commissioned by the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa, where it has been on display since 1985.

1985-1986: (age 65-66)
Reid completed the 15-metre red cedar dugout canoe, “Lootaas” (“Wave Eater”).

Commissioned by the Bank of BC, for Expo 86 in Vancouver, “Lootaas” was carved in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, with a team of Haida assistants. “Lootaas” is owned by the Haida people and is kept at the Kaay Centre where it is used regularly for ceremonies and special occasions.

In 1985, when the Parliament of Canada amended the Indian Act to allow so-called "non-status Indians" to become legal members of Canada's First Nations, Reid applied for legal Indian status (and received it in 1988).

Bill Reid became heavily involved, as a fund-raiser and advocate, in the Haida campaign to halt the clear-cut logging of Gwaii Haanas (South Moresby) in southern Haida Gwaii. He participated in blockades of logging roads and at one point stopped work on “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” the very sculpture destined to represent Canada in the US, to protest the destruction of the forests of Haida Gwaii.

At different times throughout his life, Bill Reid spoke about questions of identity. In 1985, in a five-page statement he delivered before the Wilderness Advisory Committee that had been appointed by the BC Minister for the Environment, in Vancouver, BC, regarding the preservation of South Moresby, he said, “I have spent most of my life with a feeling of identity with the Haida people—always, of course, at a safe distance in some urban location.”

A portion of his statement was published in Shadbolt, 1986: 177-179.

In 1986, Bill Reid was given the name Yaahl Sghwaansing (“The Only Raven”) by Florence Davidson.

1989: (age 69)
In 1989, at the invitation of the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris, France, Bill Reid and a group of Haida paddled up the Seine River in “Lootaas” to celebrate the exhibition “Les Amériques de Claude Lévi-Strauss.” The goal was to exhibit Haida art as a living art form. Reid was the first living artist to be exhibited in this museum.

He completed “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii” (“The Black Canoe”), the 5,000 kg bronze sculpture for the Canadian Embassy, Washington, DC, with his Vancouver assistants, and its twin casting “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii” (“The Jade Canoe”), installed at the Vancouver international Airport in 1996.

1994: (age 74)
In his lifetime Bill Reid received nine honorary degrees from Canadian universities, and many awards, among them: Molson Award (1976); Diplôme d’ Honneur for Services to the Arts (1979); Ryerson Fellowship (1985); Bronfman Award for Excellence in Crafts (1986); Vancouver Lifetime Achievement Award, Freeman of the City of Vancouver (1988); and the Royal Bank Award (1990).

In 1994, he was the first recipient of the National Aboriginal Lifetime Achievement Award. He also received the Royal Architectural institute of Canada’s Allied Arts Medal, and the Order of British Columbia. In 1998, he was awarded the Bill Mason Award, Canadian River Heritage System.

1998: (age 78)
Bill Reid died in Vancouver, on March 13, at age 78, after a courageous 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Over a thousand people attended an eight-hour service in UBC’s Museum of Anthropology to pay tribute to Bill Reid. In a stately procession, his ashes were carried to the front of the Great Hall, in his early prototype canoe for “Lootaas.”

Following his last wishes, his ashes were transported by friends and relatives to Tanu in “Lootaas,” (a two-day paddle from Skidegate), and partly scattered and interred in Tanu.


Anthropologists and art historians have described Bill Reid as a “bridge” between the new generation of Northwest Coast artists and the Haida masters of the past, or as a bringer of change, or as a “culture broker”. Others have described him as a Raven, the Trickster who makes things happen unintentionally and inadvertently.

In 2004, several years after his death, “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii” and three other of Bill Reid’s works were chosen to represent arts and culture in Canada on the Canadian twenty-dollar banknote. Twenty-five million banknotes were issued.

In 2008, the Bill Reid Foundation opened The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver, to “preserve the art and perpetuate the legacy” of Bill Reid. Many of his works, as well as those of contemporary Northwest Coast artists, are on display there.

Many of Bill Reid’s works are also on display at the Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, which also includes a Bill Reid Teaching Centre, Canoe House, and Carving Shed, where several canoes have been carved since Bill Reid died.