Charles and Isabella Edenshaw (attr.)
Sea Lion Hat, c. 1900
Ref no.: NA 8999
Material: spruce root, paint
Size: 16 cm in height, 41.8 cm in diameter (around the rim)
Gifted to the museum in 1918 by Anne Weightman Meirs (no information on where she acquired the hat, no doubt an art dealer, possibly Grace Nicholson)
This treasured spruce hat is woven by the famed, master weaver Isabella Edenshaw, and painted by her husband Charles Edenshaw. The hat would be worn by a high-ranking male or female of the sea lion crest in the Raven clan, to demonstrate their social standing and lineage in important public occasions such as a potlatch, marriage or naming ceremonies. Anyone not of the Sea-lion lineage wearing the hat in public would be highly offensive and can even result in war.
The four-pointed star in red and black on the top is considered one of the distinguishing marks of an Edenshaw hat. The consistency and repetition of the star motif is indicative of self-branding as a marketing tool. After all, this hat is part of tourist art and is meant for market consumption. The self-consciousness of the artist in the marketplace also debunks the romantic myth of the 19th-century Haida art as fossils of a pure and classical age of indigenous material culture untainted by western civilization.
Indeed, the artistic genius of Charles Edenshaw is born of this period of robust cultural mixing, threat of annihilation, in particular two major smallpox epidemics, and capitalistic market production, which brings in new material (metal), religion (Christianity and missionaries), laws and social changes. Although the object at hand is made for tourist consumption and collection in the early twentieth century, it rigorously eludes the early prejudice against Native American tourist art from anthropologists (Boas, Emmons etc.), collectors and curators. In the words of James Hart, Edenshaw’s style is a true continuance of the proper “Haida way”. Born to the Saanggalth Statas Eagle Clan, Charles (Chinni Charlie) was trained to take his uncle’s, Albert Edward Edenshaw, place as a chief, “the respected one.” His uncle taught him stories, carving, social skills and diplomacy. It was under Albert Edward Edenshaw’s guidance that he worked diligently, carving totem poles, argillite, and strived to perfect his artistry. Formal analysis in much modern scholarship has identified elements of narrative structure, historiography, mythography, traditional Haida motifs and crestal designs, as well as formal influence from Europe, East coast cities and the Asia Pacific. Thus, modern viewers should envision this object of art as a site of contestation and personal interpretation.
Isabella, the weaver, is also of high social standing from Klukwan village, Alaska, and well trained in the art of weaving and basketry. Hats woven by Isabella Edenshaw is characterized by the following: a relatively coarsely woven top; a row of four-strand S-twining at the turn from the top to the crown; no row of special twining between the crown and the brim; and the use of the skip-stitch pattern called the dragonfly with the brim finished in a four-strand braid. This gendered division of labour is a tradition in Haida artistic production, “where painting and carving were traditionally men’s work and mythological and crest figures a male prerogative, while weaving and baskets were made by women with geometric forms derived from the natural world.” (Nonny Florence Edenshaw Davidson) As specialized training, inherited patterns (in both crestal design and weaving) and secret techniques are passed on through a strict matrimonial system of heritage and apprenticeship, and remains largely insider knowledge, this gendered tradition persists till present days.
The design of two sea lions, deduced from the defining teeth, elongated skull and claws, is painted on the side of the hat, executed in elegant, determined, open and freely flowing grid of medium to narrow width formlines. Employing the traditional colors of Haida art, the dominant color of black delineates primary forms, while the secondary red fills in inverted Us and embellish schematic designs inside connecting spaces between rounded ovoids. Completely circular ovoids of regular concentricity represent the eye. Edenshaw’s artistic mastery is particularly manifested in how expressively the painted forms fit onto a curving surface of geometric design.