Charles Edenshaw (Tahayren) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Charles Edenshaw (Tahayren)

​Charles (Charlie) Edenshaw (Haida name, Tahayren), Haida chief and master artist (born 1839 in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, BC; died 10 September 1920 in Masset, Haida Gwaii, BC). Edenshaw was among the first professional Haida artists. He was noted for his flawless execution of dynamic flowing forms in an otherwise strict and disciplined art tradition. Many of Edenshaw’s descendants also became artists, including his daughter Florence Davidson, his grandson Claude Davidson, his great-grandsons Reggie and Robert Davidson and his great-great nephew Bill Reid.

Charles Edenshaw (Tahayren)

Ancestry and Early Life

Charles Edenshaw was the owner of many prestigious Haida names of the powerful Stastas Eagle lineage. Margaret B. Blackman, biographer of Florence Davidson (Edenshaw’s daughter), records his names as "Fairies coming to you as in a big wave," "Noise in the house pit," and "They gave 10potlatchesfor him." Much of Edenshaw’s early life was spent in the villages of Kiusta and Yatze. Surviving the catastrophic smallpox epidemic in 1862 that reduced the Haida population from 30,000 to less than 600, the Stastas Eagle clan moved to Masset.

He was tutored in Haida traditions by his uncle John Robson. Between 1878 and 1881, Edenshaw was apprentice carver on the pole Robson raised in memory of Edenshaw’s mother, Qwa’Kuna. Edenshaw served as apprentice to Robson every summer in Kung and eventually moved to Masset to complete his apprenticeship. Once Edenshaw had achieved the status of master craftsman, he gave a potlatch in his uncle’s home. Edenshaw worked during a period in which traditional Haida culture was at risk of disappearing altogether, exacerbated by revisions to the Indian Actin 1884 that restricted Indigenous ceremonies and art.

Mature Work

While Charles Edenshaw’s early work mostly consists of carved totem poles, his repertoire gradually came to include a wide variety of objects in wood, argillite and precious metals. His Sea Bear Bracelet, for instance, is a wide silver bracelet with an animal’s gaping, and perhaps mocking, toothy smile, deeply carved into it, other shapes coiling across its surface. One beautiful early argillite platter features panicked creatures, part human, part animal, part spirit, furiously rowing a canoe while a sea monster thrashes beneath. And one of his bentwood chests has heads and a huge mouth and nostrils protruding from it, flattened faces and eyes outlined in black dancing across the surface of the orange pigmented wood.

Edenshaw frequently met museum anthropologists, curators and collectors at Masset and Prince Rupert. His contributions to world art are therefore not only hallmarked by exquisite works in gold, silver, ivory, argillite and wood, but are also found in the recording and documentation of Haida language and culture. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.)

Working with such notable scholars and collectors as Dr. C.F. Newcombe, Franz Boas, John Swanton and Marius Barbeau, Edenshaw produced a rich and varied body of artworks. These include painted and carved kerfed boxes, gold and silver jewellery, argillite sculpture of every description, ivory cane handles, and ceremonial masks, rattles and frontlet headdresses. Art historians and anthropologists continue to study his works, while artists such as his great-grandsons, Reg and Robert Davidson, carry on his tradition of excellence. Edenshaw’s work was also a pivotal influence on the work of his great-great nephew Bill Reid.