Dawn Ryland wants to carry on the First Nations traditions and artistry of her forefathers.
Her intricately woven cedar baskets, small and large mats and Haida hats are a testament to that. Born to a Norwegian father and Haida descent mother, Ryland wants to help preserve her own First Nations culture and ancestry – she’s a member of Yahgulanaas (Raven) Clan – by teaching and passing on her weaving tips and skills to the next generation.
In the meantime, shes showing and selling her woven pieces so people can see how they are made and learn about the old ways of weaving by hand and using natural materials.
In springtime – which the artisan says, given the mild weather, may be just around the corner – Ryland and her husband George travel to Haida Gwaii (also known as Queen Charlotte Islands) making their annual foray into the woods to find suitable cedar stands. Their grandson and great grandson often accompany them.
“You have to go in spring or early summer when the sap is running and it’s easier to pull the bark off,” says George Ryland.
“If you go too late and the sun is out, it can turn into pitch. With red cedar it’s not so bad but with yellow cedar, it’s a problem. Then if you go too early, the bark won’t peel off easily.”
They look for straight cedars with few or no limbs and knots. Then they put a notch on the lower part of the tree and pull the bark back in strips leaving behind an underneath bark layer so the tree’s growth is not harmed.
“This method doesn’t kill the inner bark, “ says George Ryland, showing slides of how it’s done.
He stops at a photo of a bear passing by one of the cedars they are working on and laughs.
“One of the hazards,” he notes.
When they have enough strips of cedar, Dawn Ryland gets to work making her cedar baskets. She works in items like buttons on the more decorative pieces but all her pieces are functional as well as pleasing to the eye.
“I like to work on one piece at a time until it’s done,” she said. “I like to finish what I start but sometimes it takes me longer if there are interruptions.”
The artist has three children and seven grandchildren – so interruptions are not surprising. She is also granddaughter of renowned weaver Eliza Abrahams, who made beautiful hats and baskets.
“Nannii Eliza definitely inspired me,” said Ryland, “but she died before she could pass on the tradition to me. In 1980, I learned how to make the hats from another elder, Carie Weir, who was also from Haida.”
She has fond memories of being Weir’s student, she says.
“I remember her telling me, ‘You will never go hungry as long as you can weave.’ She taught me the basics and her granddaughter Colleen Williams (one of the top weavers on Haida Gwaii) shared her techniques with me.”
The couple’s son, Kevin Ryland, is also an accomplished artist. He drew up the design used in the band chief’s robe which features a bear and salmon. Dawn’s sisters are also weavers and artisans.
All these years later, Ryland said she’s still learning from other artisans.
“I’m always learning something new from all the weavers. And I’m excited and always moving forward with this love of weaving.”
So much of what is “woven” today is actually plastic made by machines and too many masks, carvings, sculptures and other “Haida” art is actually not based on traditional heritage or made using old methods, says George Ryland.
“On the island there are lots of artists. The Haida band council came up with a solution for that because there are so many artists trying to get in on the [lucrative] ‘Haida’ art market. The council issues tags to authenticate artists and their work so they can sell their items with an identifiable tag attached. The tag has the artist’s name and tag number on it so people can do more research if they want.”
Dawn Ryland is proud of having the designation tags on all her work. Indeed, she has sold her pieces all over Canada to museums and shops and importantly, many friends and family members also have pieces of her woven works in their homes who hopefully will pass them down as heirlooms to future generations.
In Prince George, Dawn Ryland’s woven pieces are at the gift shop of Two Rivers Gallery.