Collections & Research



Museum Hours
10:00 am - 4:30 pm
Tuesday to Saturday
Archives Hours
10:00 am - 4:30 pm
Tuesday to Friday
(limited access on Sat.)
3009 - 32nd Avenue
Vernon, BC
V1T 2L8
Tel: 250-542-3142


The Greater Vernon Museum and Archives has within its collections a group of seventy-five argillite carvings.  The carvings were amassed and subsequently donated to the museum by a former Vernon resident, Greg "Abe" Abraham.  Abe, who passed away in 2010 on Haida Gwaii, had spent most of his adult life living and working on the islands.  His donation of argillite carvings now form a unique study collection at the museum.  We are immensley proud to have these objects in our possession.  Images of selected pieces from the collection have been included in the following article.          


Compiled and written by Ron Candy, former Director/Curator
Greater Vernon Museum & Archives


Geologists estimate that between 200 million and 160 million years ago underwater basalts (volcanic rock) erupted from the floor of the ocean to form the shallow footings of Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands).  Later, during the Cretaceous Period (144-65 million years ago) silt and shale particles were slowly deposited on these footings.  A typical enough occurrence, but a certain band of shale became part of an evolving mountain that was to form the spine of the islands.  The shale was very special and made entirely of kaolin (a very fine clay) with little or none of the usual contaminates like quartz or feldspar, in a fine carbonaceous (charcoal like) matrix.  This shale layer was then heated by nearby volcanic activity some 70 million years ago and, because of this heating and cooling, its structure was altered enough to give it the perfect texture and hardness for carving.

The Haida have occupied Haida Gwaii, a cluster of more than 150 islands, for thousands of years.  In each village, homes were constructed from massive cedar trees used whole or split and hewn into planks.  The houses were heavily carved and decorated both inside and out. 

Their building tools consisted of no more than wooden wedges and hammers with axes and adzes made from polished nephrite (jade).  Nevertheless, their seemingly primitive tools combined with their love of art created homes that have been described as palatial works of art when compared with the log cabins and rustic homesteads of European settlers. 

The Haida love for art and decoration went well beyond ornamentation applied to their dwellings and household effects.  Their dress included luxurious cloaks made from sea otter pelts, skirts and wraps were adorned with bright feathers and exquisite jewellery was fashioned from such things as seashells and puffin beaks.

In 1791, the French explorer Etienne Marchand landed on the islands and wrote, “…architecture, sculpture, painting, and music are found united.”

There is documentation that suggests the early Haida valued black as a colour.  It served both as an integral part of their culture and their art.  For example, strong black is one of the primary colours used in Haida paintings on wood.  Thus, it is not difficult to understand how the colour and texture of argillite would have attracted the senses of the Haida, a people who were already gifted carvers of wood.

It is believed the Haida began carving argillite late in the 18th century when iron tools became more available through trade with European merchants. 

Argillite is worked much the same way as wood.  An early carver would begin by roughing out his piece from a raw slab or outcropping with a heavy adze.  The “grain” of the argillite would then be studied in order to determine what type of carving could be attempted.  Like wood, the design must conform to the grain of the material if the carver wants to avoid frustrating cuts.  Ideally, the carver wants his creation to be made from one solid piece of argillite.  Once the piece is roughed out, the carver can begin to define his creation with hand chisels and knives.

Carved argillite, particularly pipes, became a popular trade item with the Europeans in the early 19th century.  In fact, argillite pipes represent the earliest known examples of argillite carvings by the Haida.  The Haida grew a native tobacco.  However, this plant was chewed rather than smoked.  Consequently, these early carved pipes must have been the result of European influence.  Many argillite pipes from this period now rest in museums in Germany, Finland, and Switzerland.


To fully appreciate the origins and history of argillite carving by the Haida it is also important to understand the radical changes that were taking place to their traditions and culture at the same time; a culture that had endured for hundreds if not thousands of years prior to their initial contact with European visitors in the late 18th century.

It is believed that Russian traders may have made contact with the Haida early in the 18th century.  However, the first recorded contact took place in 1774 when the Spanish explorer, Juan Perez (1725-1775) was navigating his way up the West Coast.  A short time later, in 1778, British explorer, Captain James Cook (1728-1779) visited the islands on his third voyage of discovery.  Another British explorer, Captain George Dixon (1748-1796) found his way to the islands in 1787.  It was Dixon who named the Haida’s land the Queen Charlotte Islands in honour of Queen Charlotte, the wife of the reigning monarch at the time, King George III.  It also happened to be the name of his ship.  Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) made an appearance on the islands in 1792.

Not surprisingly, the Haida’s pristine wilderness and complex society began to seriously alter a few decades after initial contact.  As well, in the early 19th century, Russian and European fur hunters had all but decimated the sea otter population around the region of Haida Gwaii and by 1834 the Hudson’s Bay Company were establishing fur trading posts all along the West Coast.  Young Haida males were adopting western style dress and others were leaving villages to work aboard trading ships. 

By the middle of the 19th century, the numbers of European and American visitors to Haida Gwaii was steadily increasing and their dominating influence was effectively dismantling the traditional Haida way of life.  Many Haida men and women were choosing to leave the islands altogether and live in white settlements, like Fort Victoria (established in 1843 by the H.B.C.) to the south.

Up to this point in time, Haida Gwaii was a land still unclaimed by anyone except the Haida.  Then, in 1846 the islands fell loosely under British jurisdiction following a division made between Britain and the U.S. (Oregon Treaty) whereby the Columbia River Region (a region now occupied by Washington, Oregon, and southern British Columbia) was split along the 49th parallel.  The northern sector above the line collectively became known as New Caledonia.
Miners searching for gold and coal had come to Haida Gwaii as early as 1851 and, even though the islands were considered British territory at this time, the threat of political domination of the region by the Americans was becoming all too real.

In response to the concern of a growing American presence, James Douglas of the Hudson’s Bay Company and governor of the colony of Vancouver Island (established in 1849) annexed Haida Gwaii in 1852.  The action effectively made the islands a dependency of Vancouver Island.

When the Fraser River gold rush of 1858 erupted it brought an initial influx of some 20,000 miners, primarily from the U.S., into the territory.  Many prospectors stopped for provisions at the tiny settlement of Fort Victoria and the sleepy trading post exploded from a population of about 300 to over 5,000 in less than a year.  The British Government quickly responded to the frenzy and, in order to protect British interests, created the mainland colony of British Columbia under the authority of governor James Douglas.  A short time later, in 1866, the colony of Vancouver Island was combined with the colony of British Columbia.  On July 20th 1871, British Columbia, with Haida Gwaii and the Haida in tow, entered into confederation and became part of the Dominion of Canada.

Politics and social upheaval weren’t the only major changes the Haida people faced during the 19th century.  Disease from the outside world would ultimately have the most devastating effect.  In 1836 a smallpox epidemic made its way through the villages of Haida Gwaii as well as the villages of other tribes along the coast including those of the Tlingit and Tsimshian.  In 1847 a measles outbreak occurred.  Then, in 1862 a second outbreak of smallpox took place.  The second outbreak began in Victoria and represented the most virulent form of the disease.  As before, Native people were very susceptible to the disease and the illness spread like wildfire through the Native encampments outside Victoria.  The government of the day soon forced Natives to leave the area and return to their villages, an action that merely spread the disease north.

In 1876, an Anglican mission was stationed at Old Massett on Haida Gwaii and missionaries began the assimilation of the Haida.  Soon, distinctive symbols of the Haida culture began to disappear.  Magnificent poles that represented family genealogy were taken down and destroyed, ceremonial dancing was forbidden, and many other Haida traditions were treated with scorn.     

Recent archaeological work on Haida Gwaii suggests that the number of Haida villages in existence at the time of European contact could have been as high as fifty.  In 1835 it was estimated the Haida nation alone had a population of about 7,000 people living in thirteen villages.  Fifty years later, around 1885, the population had plummeted to approximately 700 and to as few as 588 by 1915.  By 1890 many villages were abandoned and the remaining population consolidated themselves to the two primary Haida villages of today, Skidegate and Old Massett.


Two traditions characterize Haida art form: the sculptural and the two-dimensional.  Also, there are definite rules that govern the way in which planes are carved and painted lines flow. 

For instance, Haida sculpture, in its classical form, displays certain size ratios of head to body and specific ways of rendering anatomical elements such as eye sockets, eyelids, nostrils, etc.  Basic elements of flat design are handled in similar ways.  Peter Macnair, former Curator of Anthropology at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, describes the basis of Haida flat design as being a “flowing calligraphic line that is continuous throughout the design field.”   

With some understanding of Haida design elements, and the rules that govern them, Haida art can be distinguished from that of any other tribal group including their closest neighbours, the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Kwakiutl.

For most of us, the small totem pole epitomizes Haida argillite carving.  It is the one form that would appear to be the most prevalent today.  However, contrary to what we may think, the argillite totem was a relative latecomer to the art and seems to have originated sometime in the 1860’s.  In fact, the two earliest argillite poles currently known to exist are housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England.  The poles were donated to the museum in 1867 by pioneer photographer, Frederick Dally (1838-1914).

Although Dally travelled throughout British Columbia he never visited Haida Gwaii.  It is presumed he purchased his two poles from the Hudson’s Bay Company in Victoria.  The Dally poles are not very large and are likely miniature versions of house frontal poles or perhaps memorial poles that once graced a Haida village.

Copying a larger existing pole was the common practice among most argillite carvers up to the turn of the 19th century.  However, as early as 1880, some carvers chose to produce “theoretical poles” or poles that illustrated episodes from myths not elaborated upon in the larger wooden poles.

Early argillite poles were usually 20-40 cm in height.  By the 1880’s, measurements as high as 50 cm came into vogue.  The best documented collection of early poles over 60 cm in height belonged to journalist, schoolteacher, lawyer, judge, school superintendent, railroad promoter, ethnographer, and chronicler, James Gilchrist Swan (1818-1900) who came to British Columbia in 1879, gathering poles and other carvings from the Hudson’s Bay Company and on Haida Gwaii.  His collection is housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The tallest early pole in British Columbia dates to 1887 and can be found at theRoyal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. It measures 85.6 cm high (33 ¾ inches).

Round plates and oval platters made from argillite were, at one time, totally foreign to the traditional Haida shapes and forms for serving dishes.  Not to mention the easily breakable argillite was of no practical use to the Haida as a utilitarian material.  They preferred bowl shapes carved from wood.  Consequently, the argillite creations, inspired by European china seen on trade ships as early as the 1830’s, were made exclusively for trade.

In addition to acquisitionsmade by sailors on trade ships, many early argillite pieces were also collected by employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company who sent them to friends and museums in Britain, Europe, and eastern North America.  One such collector, William Fraser Tolmie (1812-1886) physician and surgeon for the H.B.C. beginning in 1833, sent a shipment to his Scottish mentor, Dr. John Scouler at the University of Glasgow, in 1839.  The shipment included pipes and dishes.  One of these dishes still survives today at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris and, to date, is the earliest evidence discovered for a Western style plate made from argillite.  The Smithsonian reportedly has an argillite plate dating to 1841.

Traditional Haida carvings in argillite have often been described as a “parade of crests.”  The Haida are a matriarchal society (lineage flows through the women).  Every Haida was, and still is, born into either the Eagle or Raven clan depending on the bloodline of the mother.  Journalist/historian, Leslie Drew, explains, “Each Raven or Eagle family owns and has the right to display certain crests.  The right to a crest could be earned, given by an elder, or inherited.  The crests themselves are figures of animals or legendary human beings, sometimes manifestations of nature.” 

Many Haida argillite carvings are decorated with crests that identify the moiety (Raven or Eagle) and often the lineage of the owner.  The mythology of the Haida is based on stories about the raven and his various exploits.  The Haida describe the raven as a “trickster” who liberates humankind from a clamshell then, in one story, sets the universe in order, only to threaten it with chaos in the next.

Although the raven is considered a greedy and mischievous creature by the Haida, they also believe the raven teaches them the formula for living a good life.  One of the greatest Haida carvers of all time, Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920), could recount several hundred different raven stories from memory.

On a more subtle level the placement of a small figure attached to a larger crest figure can refer to a specific myth involving that crest.  An example of this occurrence is the Edenshaw family's frequent use of the Butterfly image on the chestof the Raven, which refers to a series of myths in which the Butterfly is the Raven's travelling companion.

etails such as these make it a challenge to interpret the meaning on a carving without a thorough knowledge of the mythology.  To add to the difficulty, there is no one alive today who is completely familiar with the symbolism associated with the thousands of myths and stories recorded.

Needless to say, there are a number of famous late nineteenth century Haida carvers such asTom Price (Chief Ninstints), John Robson (Chief Giatlins) and John Cross, not to mention Charles Edenshaw (Chief Tahayghen), who produced magnificent carvings that now primarily reside in museums around the world.  Curiously however, carvers at this time were not in the habit of signing their works.  Consequently, museums have had to rely on the documentations of early collectors, who meticulously recorded their finds, in order to recognize each carver’s unique style.

The quarry site for argillite on Haida Gwaii (meaning islands of the people) is called the Slatechuck site.  Located just outside the village of Skidegate.  It is accessible only by foot and only by permission of theSkidegate band council.  There were attempts in 1906 by a Victoria company to stake the site as a source of slate for fireplace mantels.  Fortunately, Indian Affairsagent, Thomas Deasy (1857-1935) who was stationed at Masset, asserted protective control over the site (Deasy collected hundreds of works by many Masset carvers.  His collection was donated to the Florida State Museum in Gainesville).

By the 1920’s the Indian Affairs Department was determined to see that the Haida would never lose access to the site.  In 1941, a British Order-in-Council provided for the sale of the argillite deposit to the federal government who then turned the forty-four acre site over to the Haidain perpetuity.

Today, argillite continues to be carved exclusively by Haida artists both on Haida Gwaii and in the Vancouver and Victoria areas.