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Haida Gwaii brothers appointed to the Order of Canada

The Gwaii Haanas legacy totem pole is seen after being raised in Windy Bay, B.C., on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii on August 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Two Haida brothers from the t’saahl clan in Old Masset were honoured with the Order of Canada on June 29.

Reg Davidson was appointed as a member of the Order for the first time. Robert Davidson, the older of the two, was promoted within the Order from member to officer.

Reg was shocked when he got the email about the award.

“All the things I do, I do because I enjoy it. I’m not looking for awards. I mean, I’m overwhelmed that what I enjoy doing they actually give me an award for,” he said.

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The prestigious designation was created to recognize people “whose service shapes our society, whose innovations ignite our imaginations and whose compassion unites our communities,” the Governor General’s office stated in a media release on June 29.

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When Robert was first appointed as a member in 1996 it was Reg who nominated him. Someone from the Order told Reg it was the first time a nomination had ever come from a brother.

They rented tuxedos for the ceremony but Reg doesn’t think they will do that this time.

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The brothers are being celebrated for their artistic contributions and their advancement of Haida art and culture. This wasn’t something he ever set out to do, Reg said.

“I just really was curious about our history and so I just kept pursuing it through studying the old master’s creations that are housed in many museums.”

When Reg and Robert first learned to carve using argillite and it was their father, Claude Davidson, who taught them.

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There were only a handful of part-time carvers in Skidegate and Old Massett at the time, Robert said.

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Totem pole carving and other cultural practices of the Haida had been lost following laws by the federal government to ban them. The elders were the last link left to their ancient practices.

“All the elders spoke Haida and my parents generation was the generation that was kidnapped. I have to say it really heavily, they were literally kidnapped. The laws of Canada, that was the law,” Robert said.

In 1969, Robert, 22, carved the first totem pole that the community had seen in nearly a century. He said he felt a lot of despair among his grandparents’ generation and he wanted to create an occasion for them to celebrate one more time the way they knew how.

Reg, who was just 14, helped and learned from his older brother.

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Before the pole was raised, elders in the community went to the brothers’ naanii’s (grandmother’s) house to practice dancing.

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“She was dancing behind a blanket, and she said, ‘I need a mask for this.’ So she went into the kitchen, got a brown paper bag and cut holes in it. That’s what she used for her mask,” Reg said.

At that time there were only two drums on the whole island. Reg said that a picture of the brothers’ tsinii (grandfather) shows him using a toy drum at the ceremony.

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The elders pieced together what they remembered of the past and created a schedule for the pole raising. It was a turning point for the Haida’s cultural revival.

Afterwards, Reg and Robert started to learn songs and dances from their naanii. For Reg, it meant he gained a better understanding of the purpose for his carvings.

He said his early masks didn’t fit anybody, they were just used as wall art. As he learned to sing and dance, it allowed him to understand the Haida culture more. With a new understanding, he made masks that people could use.

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In 1980 Reg and Robert started what is now called the Rainbow Creek Dance group.

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At first, they called themselves the Urban Haidas because they lived in Vancouver. Then, when they were hired to dance at Calgary’s Winter Olympics, the organizers asked them to change their name. It was thought people would associate them with the movie Urban Cowboy.

They renamed themselves after Rainbow Creek in their village.

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One of the most meaningful projects Reg has worked on is a pole his father hired him to carve after becoming chief. It was raised in front of his father’s house and still exists there today.

Reg and Robert played a significant role in the resurgence of Haida culture and art, making growing up in Old Massett different today than when they were children.

“I hear a kid getting off the bus singing a Haida song,” Reg said.

There are many people in the younger generation who are making a great effort to revitalize the language and it’s exciting, Robert added.

Reg doesn’t sing as much anymore because so many people are singing now. He doesn’t feel like he needs to, he said, smiling.

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