When I reflect about the history of my people, and contemplate about the time between pre-colonization to now, I feel torn. While I feel rich to have such a connection to my culture and to the art form, at the same time I am struck and wounded by what has been lost. Haidas have lost all practices pertaining to specific dance societies, and most detail around the intricate workings of our potlatch system. A contrasting difference between Haidas and other tribes on the coast— such as the Kwakwakawakw for example, is not only did the Kwakwakawakw continue potlatching when other groups ceased to practice — their culture was thoroughly documented. Whereas the Haida had very little written works, film or photographs for future generations to draw from to reinvigorate such traditions.
Another contrast, is that Haidas were early adopters to the ways of white people. I imagine this as a reaction to every literal “survival mode” from population loss from the small pox epidemics. Village after village was wiped out. Along with them infinite amounts of cultural knowledge. One can only imagine what the loss of more than 90% of your peoples population within mere decades could do to the soul of the survivors. In hopes of living through this period of sweeping change, it is my assumption that Haida survivors were at a loss as to how to recover from such devastation. Without the ability to restore cultural traditions, they fell away.
The one thing that not only survived this period, but continued to proliferate was Haida art. This comes as no surprise. From the earliest contact, our art was sought after by explorers, settlers, wealthy travellers, and of course, both private and museum collectors. Haida artists have always been able to make a living from the art form. Like my ancestors, my primary income is from commercial fishing and hand-sculpted/engraved jewelry in precious metals and wood carving.
While engraved jewelry was a post-colonial invention, it was also born out of necessity of the times. Historically, Haida’s tattooed their clan and crests on their bodies. After being heavily missionized, Haida’s had to adapt to a method of showing their crests in a way that could be easily removed and concealed. Engraved bracelets in copper and silver became a prized and highly revered potlatch gift. Haida bracelets were disseminated up and down the coast, presumably through the potlatch system and intermarriage.
Traditionally, bracelet stacks were standard potlatch practice. Today, stacks of bracelets are incredibly rare and it comes down to economics. Not only do contemporary artists not have the ability financially to stockpile in such numbers, but Chiefs rarely have the means to pay artists to create such quantities either. And so I have created only one. The significance is to demonstrate the contrast to our history, and to indicate the economics of most contemporary artists, and their financial inability to “stockpile” for potlatch or even for sale.
Born in Prince Rupert, BC, Jesse Brillon is a visual artist whose interest in Haida Art began as a boy. While accompanying his grandfather on fishing excursions to the islands of Haida Gwaii, the mystical richness of the land unfolded to his creative and spiritual senses. He developed a love for the many unique islands and adopted an intense respect for the ocean. He was impressed by the ecological richness, the abundant fish and animal species and how they wove themselves into the cultural canvas of the Haida People.
Jesse was influenced strongly by his Haida-Cree heritage and many art books as well as his exploration of the works of master artists Bill Reid, Robert Davidson and Don Yeomans. Upon his graduation from school his family presented him with a repousse bracelet by Don Yeomans and this gift sparked the desire to learn to carve. Jesse met with Don Yeomans, in Vancouver, BC, and began a one-year apprenticeship. He Later, apprenticed under Gitksan master jeweler Phil Janze. It was from Janze that he learned the advanced techniques of chasing and repousse. Jesse’s pieces are individualized by their boldness and depth, which are techniques found in traditional Haida art.
Jesse has emerged to be one of the top jewelry carvers of his generation. He has achieved a mastery of silver and gold and one of his pieces was included in the popular exhibition in 2003 “Totems to Turquoise: Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest” curated by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Brillon continues in his art, and has applied his carving skills to working in wood as well.