Emojis aren’t Jaalen Edenshaw’s usual medium, but when the Haida artist received an emailed request from Twitter Canada five or six months ago, he couldn’t turn it down.
The social media giant asked him to design the official emoji for the National Indigenous Peoples Day and National Indigenous History Month hashtags.
It was a new challenge for Edenshaw, who doesn’t use Twitter and is best-known for his monumental red cedar sculptures, including the Jasper, Cormorant and Gwaii Haanas Legacy totem poles.
“It is sort of a departure of what I normally do,” he said. “I had to learn the computer designing side of things and work with Geoff Horner, who helped me to digitize the sketches.”
The Naaxiin graphic produced is the final product of many sketches over several months. He said he chose a design that would be culturally familiar to many First Nations along the B.C. coast, rather than something specific to the Haida Nation alone.
“I wanted to come up with something that’s still sort of a West Coast design but it represents more of the trade and shared similarities between our cultures,” he explained.
The Naaxiin face comes from a shared weaving design, Edenshaw added, made from many materials the Haida Nation would trade for with other nations.
It isn’t the first emoji the multidisciplinary artist has designed. In 2020, Edenshaw undertook a project with Horner to create a set of Haida emojis, now available as a sticker set for iPhones.
He is still learning the Haida language himself, but said the nation’s youth pick it up more quickly, and he wanted them to have a way to express themselves.
“I could see that young people were using (emojis) more and more … it’s a real part of written communication now,” he explained.
“Some of (the emojis) are funny, using our own aesthetic to have the same images as what (mainstream) emojis are, but others were sort of Haida slang, phrasing and stories — just giving young people the opportunity to use their own expressions through emojis.”
When social media users see the Naaxiin graphic on June 21, Edenshaw said he wants them to be reminded that Indigenous peoples are not a monolith, but a wonderfully diverse group of distinct nations and cultures that are still connected.
Edenshaw also creates prints, bentwood boxes, masks, copper shields, and dug out canoes. Designing Twitter’s emoji fits in with his portfolio of functional art, he explained.
“I create things that are going to be used as much as possible. Some things will end up in galleries or museums, but I enjoy seeing pieces either in the dances as masks or used as regalia, or totem poles that are standing in the village,” he said.
“It sort of gives it more of a life of its own, as opposed to something that’s sort of static and there just for review. The emoji sort of works in the same way because it’s something that’s living and being used on a daily basis.”