Monday, March 18, 2013

Haida Jewelry: one artist, one piece, a whole lot of meaning

On a recent trip to my closest local cafe (the one I go to when my back hurts the most but I just have to get out of the house), I noticed this fellow and his friend heading in the same direction. My first impression of him was that he is one of the biggest people I've even seen. He towers well over six feet and is just massive -- not fat, just huge. With his blue-black long hair, the teeth (I think they're teeth) as earrings, and strong profile, juxtaposed with his young-looking face create a very riveting presence.

Add to this the fact that his coffee companion was a tiny woman with a very new baby and they created a really interesting human tableau.

Given my ongoing passion for jewelry, it didn't take me long to notice the great pendant around his neck. I think you'd have to be brain dead and willfully blind to live in this part of the world and not notice and appreciate the rich tradition of Aboriginal art here. This pendant is unmistakably of this tradition and really beautiful.

It's not in my nature to be very shy (though I'm actually an introvert), and I eventually asked him if I could take a closer look at his necklace. He said yes. I asked if it is, as I guessed, gold, silver, and abalone, and he said yes, and began turning it over and saying things like, "I just took an abalone disc and..." I realized that he had made his pendant himself.

Now I just had to put him in my blog. He consented, with a little reluctance which I'll get to in a moment. He introduced himself as Ernest Swanson of the Haida nation.

He explained that the pendant represents both the Chinook salmon and the Chinook language. The life cycle of the salmon here on the west coast is famous, mysterious, and symbolically powerful. Salmon return from the ocean to spawn in the very river bed in which they came to life. It is an incredibly difficult journey for them as they swim upstream, against the flow of the water. They arrive exhausted and near death. They spawn, and then they die.

For many here, this migratory spawning has become a symbol of the never-ending cycle of life. For the Haida, salmon also represent the belief in reincarnation, the return of ancestors' spirits in the young new lives of their own people.

In the above video, you can see the fish swimming up a waterfall!

Of course, the salmon are also an amazing source of abundant nutrition for humans and animals alike.

Chinook is also the name of an Aboriginal people here. Many are not aware that there were many Aboriginal nations here long before white people arrived. I wrote about that in my post about Idle No More.

These nations traded with each other up and down the coast and into the interior. That trade expanded still further in the 19th century when European trade with the First Nations in the area increased. Because the various traders spoke so many languages, they needed a way to communicate with each other so they used a pidgin jargon largely derived from the Chinook language.

Ernest says his pendant, then, also represents unity amongst all the peoples of of the west coast... including me, I guess! I like that. I'm completely besotted with my chosen land here.

As much as he had to say about his pendant, he was surprised that I found it so beautiful and was a bit reluctant to let me showcase it in my blog. He said it was really a very simple pendant and that he does much more complex work, seldom bothers doing commissions anymore, and really doesn't need whatever publicity my little post might create.

I think this gorgeous piece is called Bear, by Ernest Swanson.
He wasn't kidding! I looked up more of work and it is stunning and way the hell out of my price range.

All of it draws on traditional Haida beliefs which are strongly based in a story-telling tradition.
Raven and First Man, by Ernest Swanson
I love the three dimensional effect of this piece.

Raven and First Man, by Ernest Swanson
I don't know a lot about Haida stories but the name Raven and First Man clearly indicates that this pendant is about the inception of humanity.

Raven Finding First Man, by Ernest Swanson
The same is true of this piece.

Octopus, by Ernest Swanson
The only other time I've seen jewelry that is regularly "fancy" on both sides is in Indian art (from India). I really like that. When I designed a pendant for myself once, the jeweler said he'd never before had someone ask that both the front and the back be designed.

Eagle with Salmon, by Ernest Swanson
It's wonderful to show off your jewelry to the world.

Eagle with Salmon, by Earnest Swanson
But it's also wonderful to have a sort of secret beauty against the warmth of your chest, especially if that beauty is symbolically and spiritually powerful.

It may be that part of my own love of the west coast traditions in Aboriginal art stems not just from its beauty but from the fact that it all means something too. Beauty itself as a sort of language, derived from nature and the spirit world... That's... just... awesome! Or, to use the parlance of my own blog: It's sublime.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Ask people about their jewerly. You never know what you'll learn.

If you like Ernest's work, much of it can be bought through the Lattimer Gallery.  


  1. I don't wear much jewelry, but I love just about every piece you posted! My favorites are the hand-stamped ring, the & necklace.. and if I were a mom, I would absolutely want the necklace with my kids' handwriting.

    Stone Items

    1. Glad you like it all. It's been a long time since I've looked at this post so thanks for reminding me.