Raven Bringing Light to the World

When I was 11 years old, an American friend of my mother’s came to her and asked if she could borrow me. This may sound like an unusual request, but it was because her friend wanted to join a “peace mission” to the Soviet Union. This was during the time of the Cold War, and there was a group in the United States who wanted to strengthen relationships between the people in the US and people in the Soviet Union. The idea was that if Americans met Soviets, they would come to better understand the human connection that could exist between nations and thus be less fearful of one another. The group organizing the trip thought that the best way to change our thinking was to create an opportunity for parents and children to travel together to the Soviet Union to connect with as many Soviet people as possible. But my mother’s friend did not have a child, so she asked my mother to borrow me. 

When I learned of the opportunity, I was ecstatic. Though I had very little knowledge of what I was agreeing to, the thought of an adventure to a place on the other side of the world was thrilling (and I am sure also terrifying) to my eleven year-old self. However, the trip was going to be expensive, so in order to pay my way, we decided to do some fundraising. My father offered to help by creating a print and donating the proceeds from the sales toward my trip. 

Awhile later, he showed me the painting that would be used to create the print. It was a beautiful raven, but it had a blank circular hole at the centre. It was unlike his other designs, and I wondered why he would leave such a large empty space in the middle of the design. Then he informed me that he had left the blank area for me to finish, and he wanted me to design what would go in the centre and complete the painting.

I was terrified of ruining the beautiful art, but I also understood that I had to make a contribution to this fundraiser. Knowing the Haida story of Raven and the First People, and also being aware that the steadiness of my eleven year-old hand could not match that of a professional artist, I decided to use my father’s oval stencils to create a spiral of human faces to represent the First People who emerged from the clam shell. I also included a sun and a crescent moon to represent the light. 

My unpracticed hand resulted in shaky edges on the people in that painting. Their smiles were lopsided, but I was not too worried. I had seen my father create the silkscreens to make prints, and I knew it was possible to fix all of my hesitant lines during the cutting phase. But when the time came to create the silkscreens, my father directed the designer to make sure that every wobble and stray line was included. At the time, I was mortified. But now, I understand why my father wanted to capture the authenticity of our collaboration. 

Many of the prints sold, and the money was used to help pay for the trip. It took quite a while, but I think that eventually the edition sold out. I suspect that it took a bit of extra time because the market for such collaborations required an appreciation for different sort of art. 

Over the years, the prints have occasionally reemerged on eBay or in a gallery. Someone will see one somewhere and mention it to me in passing. I look at them more fondly now, as a daughter looks back on a time when she sat at her father’s real artist easel and painted on a real artist painting. I examine the lines on each print that I see and find myself smiling as I glimpse the uncertainty of my eleven year-old self.

More recently, my father’s part of the painting resurfaced on the arm of a well-known amateur boxer. In this rendition, the people at the centre of the design, had been replaced by a world, the boxer’s world, one that existed before he “Indigenized” it. At first, I did not give it much thought. Maybe the boxer did not know that tattoos are a significant cultural practice for the Haida people, maybe he did not know that it is disrespectful to use someone’s art without their permission, maybe he did not know that it is reprehensible to alter an artist’s design to suit his own personal needs, or maybe he just did not know that the story ceases to exist when the First People have been removed. 

Now, I am not so sure that the boxer can continue to benefit from my doubt.

But at the very least, I want him to know that in separating the Raven from the First People, he broke something apart that was supposed to remain intact, something that was created specifically to co-exist, something that was created by a daughter and a father.

Our designs are not commodities to be repurposed on a whim. They are connected to our identities, our stories, and our relationships. They represent our Clans, our Crests, and our Nations. To wear a Haida design communicates our commitment to conducting ourselves in a way that honours our ancestors. To wear a Haida design is to publicly promise to represent our Nation in a good way – and to wear a Haida tattoo is to add permanence to that promise.