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Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian

by Maria Tippett

So many catalogues and coffee table books have been published on the art of Bill Reid that it is hard to believe that this scholarly text by Maria Tippett is the first complete biography on the Haida artist. Reid, who died in 1998, is recognized as one of – if not the – greatest artisans of contemporary native art. He played a huge role in bringing the practice of Haida carving back from the brink of extinction.

Of course he has been both loved and dismissed for breaking rules along the way, primarily for routinely incorporating non-traditional elements and western methods into his jewellery designs and carvings. He was also controversial for not being fully Haida when he sold his work and promoted himself as a native artist. Born to a Haida mother from Skidegate, B.C., and an American father, he was schooled and raised in a western manner. Any sign of his nativeness was squashed by his mother’s determination to fit in. It wasn’t until he picked up a jewellery course at Ryerson in Toronto while working for CBC Radio that Reid acknowledged his Haida roots by incorporating Northwest Coast native motifs into some of his early designs. Reid was by then in his late twenties.

This is the journey Tippett refers to in the title of her book: Reid’s discovery of his own heritage, which started from a point of denial and ended five decades later with the artist so completely Haida in mind, body, and spirit that the transformation likely shocked Reid himself. The internal conflict Reid experienced in resolving his bi-culturalism was also being played out on a bigger scale as native artists struggled to find acceptance for their work beyond a perception of it as either quaint artifacts or tourist trinkets.

Tippett’s writing is exceptionally crisp, and she keeps an academic’s tight rein on the material, sticking with the facts of Reid’s life. There is enough inherent melodrama in his story to render his creative-cultural saga brutally sentimental, but Tippett wisely avoids this temptation. The book’s photographs are interesting and well chosen, but it would have been great to have colour images to go with the text.