Charles Edenshaw
argillitetotempoleattrtoEdenshaw.jpgArgillite totem pole (1879), Haida Gwaii; attributed to Charles Edenshaw.

Decorative carving was a pre-contact traditional practice of the Haida, but carving in the medium of argillite (shale) began in the 1800s. Trade with Europeans and non-Native North Americans brought the Haida considerable wealth in the first decades of the 19th century and new metal tools for carving. Increasing wealth increased the number and splendour of potlach (gift-giving) ceremonies which created a domestic market for carved and decorative items and, additionally, native art and craft was valued by some non-Native traders. Argillite carving was created principally for trade with Europeans and later for the tourist art market.
Charles Edenshaw [Eda’nsa] (1839-1920) was the most well-known Haida carver of his generation. Over the course of his lifetime, the Haida’s circumstances changed dramatically. A small pox epidemic exacted a heavy toll in the 1860s, but perhaps more damaging were the colonial, assimilationist, and missionary tactics of the growing non-Native population with the support of the Canadian government. Potlaches were banned in 1884 and were not legalized until 1951, allegedly to “teach” native peoples the value of private property. Edenshaw, who was trained by another well-known 19th century Haida carver John Robson, found his work in great demand from tourists and ethnologists at the same time that federal Indian agents and legislation were actively discouraging the continuation of traditional cultural practices.
Aside from argillite, Edenshaw carved in wood and may have been the first Haida carver to work in precious metals. He carved poles, masks, frontlets, chests, and feast dishes for Haida ceremonial use. His argillite carvings, of which this example is one of the earliest, were produced for sale to non-Natives. This model pole was collected by Israel W. Powell and now is in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Among late-19th and early 20th century Anthropologists, there was uniform enthusiasm about native art. Some, perhaps most, saw it as a great art of the past – a relic of a vanishing race that needed to be collected for posterity. For an anthropologist of this perspective, a carver such as Edenshaw was an anachronistic anomaly whose works echoed the “authentic” art of his ancestors. The greatness of west-coast native art, the Canadian National Museum’s Marius Barbeau wrote, “preceded [native peoples] final degeneration towards the end of the [19th] century.”

A few anthropologists, notably the American Franz Boas, saw evidence of a continuing native culture and protested against the Canadian government’s potlatch ban. Such protests went unheeded and, in spite of increasing evidence that the Native population was not, in fact, headed for extinction, by the time of Evenshaw’s death the Department of Indian Affairs was enforcing the ban enthusiastically. The director, Duncan Campbell Scott’s office was decorated with a selection of Kwakwaka’wakw carvings that had been confiscated from a potlatch in 1922.

Argillite carvings, including several by Edenshaw, were included in the exhibition of Canadian art in Paris at the Jeu de Paume gallery in 1927. The National Gallery was unenthusiastic about this inclusion – the exhibition was intended to enhance the international critical reputation of the Group of Seven – but eleven small works were added at the specific request of the Jeu de Paume gallery officials. In France, at the time, there was an enthusiasm for art forms considered to be “primitive,” including African carving, American jazz, and pre-Columbian Latin American artefacts. French critics praised the argillite carvings in this context. The paintings of the Group of Seven were received much less favourably. Plans by the National Gallery to publish a selection of reviews of the show for domestic publicity were quickly dropped.


David Penney notes that the term “totem pole” is a misnomer: “Crest creatures are not ‘totems’ even in the anthropological sense of the word. These monumental carvings are more accurately referred to as ‘memorial poles’ since a memorial potlatch to commemorate a deceased chief is the most common reason for their creation”(146).
Edenshaw's argillite carving would have been a miniature version of a memorial pole. A representation of a chief is at the top of Edenshaw’s carving. Below the chief is a crest of a shark and at the bottom is a grizzly. As is typical of Haida carving, the crests are highly stylized and simplified. They are not indented to portray a naturalistic image of the creature, but rather aspects of its spirit.


Leslie Dawn, National Visions, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identities in the 1920s (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006).

David W. Penney, North American Indian Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004).

Robin K. Wright, “Charles Edenshaw,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

“Haida Art,” Canadian Museum of Civilization online: