Video and narration by Catie Galbraith, Chickasaw Nation, SSMU Indigenous Art Intern, McGill Visual Arts Collection
Hlgas7agaa, or argillite is a sedimentary rock, composed primarily of lithified kaolinite clays. While argillite can be found globally, the carbonaceous, black variety used in carvings across so-called British Columbia is endemic to Slatechuck Creek, Haida Gwaii. Argillite carvings have become representative of Haida material cultures. It is an incredibly difficult medium to work with. Argillite is delicate, and often cracks or chips in the processes of carving, transportation, and display. The fragility of argillite makes carvings more valuable. The Haida are the only people with direct access to it. The material is unique and hard to replicate – while some have used composites or black plastic in attempt to produce replica argillite, there are few that match the feel and appearance have displayed this miniature totem in the round to showcase Moody’s skill with this delicate material and the intricacy of the forms.
Unknown, by Arthur Moody (1885-1967) is an argillite totem depicting what appears to be an eagle, a raven holding a fish, and bear. Moody was a Haida carver from Skidegate, Haida Gwaii. He was part of a legacy of renowned argillite carvers – his stepfather was Thomas Moody and his son Rufus Moody was one of the most prolific carvers in the Pacific Northwest. This Arthur Moody totem and two carvings by his son, Rufus, were donated to McGill Visual Arts Collection by Dr. Joanne Jepson in 2019.
The motifs featured in this totem are frequently found in Haida argillite pieces. The Raven in particular plays a major role in Haida oral histories of the land. Before the island of Haida Gwaii existed, there was only a vast sea of salt water and a small patch of rock. One day the Raven came to this patch to find a place to sit, but found that all of the supernatural creatures laid there with no place to live. He then went to the Loon’s dwelling to find the chief, who told him he would attend to the problem. Raven was given two stones, one black and one speckled – he was to lay them in the water, then bite off a piece and spit them out. These would become the island of Haida Gwaii, and all the vegetation on it. Argillite as a medium is uniquely Haida – an important component of the landscape shaped by the Raven.
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