Physical currency has long been a means for a region to portray its culture, history, and values. While the most common images on the majority of currencies are politicians and leaders, many nations also have specially minted coins throughout the year for purchase as well as unique designs in circulation. Whether it be in tandem with a current happening or in honour of a historical anniversary, our everyday change displaying a unique image for a short while reminds us of the artistry that goes into their design. This past week, The Royal Canadian Mint launched its design of Bill Reid’s Haida grizzly bear on the two-dollar coin in honour of the late artist’s 100 birthday.
Bill Reid is renowned in Canada for bringing many of the artistic practices of the Haida into the spotlight. The Haida people are a First Nations group who call the pacific coast home, and amongst their countless artistic practices, totem can easily be recognized as one of the most iconic. Throughout his life, Reid, of Haida heritage on his mother’s side, studied and was inspired by the work of his great-great-uncle, Charles Edenshaw, another Haida artist who had passed before Reid’s birth. As Reid attempted to understand many of the aspects of Haida art that had been lost due to colonization, he also was physically revitalizing abandoned artifacts, such as totems, that were found near his studio on Granville Island.
The style of Reid’s work is instantly recognizable. Thick, rounded lines of black and red detail expressive beings, both natural and spiritual, and are often situated on off-white backdrops or found carved into wood. While he initially studied and practiced jewellery making, it is certainly his depictions of Haida mythologies and creatures that he is most recognized for. It is no surprise that Bill Reid’s Haida grizzly bear design was selected for display on the toonie (especially with the polar bear as the usual face of the coin). It’s an iconic image that boasts a timeless feel and gives representation to the art style of one of many cultures that Canada stifled in its growth.
Bill Reid’s Haida grizzly bear is not the only work by Haida artists to be in the spotlight over the past year. Montreal’s McCord Museum has presented many works through 2019-2020. The permanent exhibition “Supernatural Stories” displayed countless Haida crafted artifacts, tools, and artistic pieces, diving into both the history of the group as well the present. McCord also hosted a screening of two Haida language films, SG̲aawaay Ḵ’uuna and The Mountain of SGaana, the first films whose script is entirely composed of the linguistically isolated language of the Haida. These steps by influential Canadian institutions are a welcome step forward for broadcasting art by indigenous creators to audiences that have remained ignorant of their current offerings, as well as displaying some of the profound depth of works from the past.
Change might seem like an odd way to elicit change. It’s something we take for granted, the familiar images on our nickels and dimes. But it’s also something many of us see every day, and so it is no small canvas for sharing an image. Bill Reid’s Haida grizzly bear minted on the toonie gives homage to an important artist in Canada’s history, and can serve as a reminder as to what the roots of this land truly are. And to think, you can get this beautiful piece of history for just two dollars.