Davidson learned the basics of carving from his father, and after relocating to Vancouver in 1965 to finish high school, which stopped at 10th grade in Massett, he had an epiphany when he came across some of his ancestors' carvings in the city museum. The experience was a leap into the spirit world, he recalls, like being in "dreamland." He soon began working under other carvers, including Bill Reid, a former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio announcer whose interest in his own Haida heritage had propelled him into a second career. Reid's creations, including the large-scale sculptures that would become his most famous, were profoundly influenced by the work of the legendary 19th-century Haida carver Charles Edenshaw—Davidson's great-grandfather. Reid brought renewed attention to the art form, collaborating with anthropologists and writing eloquent essays about his ancestral culture.

But the ways the Haida breathed life into their creations through ceremony remained a puzzle of fading memories. The potlatch, the paramount gathering where clans debuted valuable carvings and distributed names, crests, and property, had been banned for more than 60 years. On a trip back home, hungry for knowledge of the old ways, Davidson knocked on every single door in Massett, trying to hunt down any remaining ceremonial works. He found nothing but a carved box and a bowl.

Robert Davidson Bear Mother totem pole
Davidson's Bear Mother pole stands in his home village of Massett. Courtesy Robert Davidson Studio

Davidson was just 22, but he knew what he had to do: He would carve a totem pole. Some of the elders, now devout Christians, frowned on the idea—why dwell on the past? But others encouraged him, including his father, Claude, who spent two weeks searching the forest for a suitable cedar. "Holy shit, what did I get myself into?" Davidson remembers thinking when he laid eyes on the massive log. The pole—carved with the help of his younger brother, Reg, who also would become an accomplished artist—took four months to complete. For the ceremony, Davidson consulted his grandmother, Florence. With no traditional masks to be found, she called for a brown paper bag, cut eyeholes in it, and pulled it over her head to help her recollect the appropriate spirit dance.

Hundreds gathered on August 22, 1969, for the raising of the Bear Mother pole. "No one living has ever witnessed the raising of a totem pole for the Haida," William Mathews, then the 84-year-old hereditary chief of Massett, told a reporter in attendance. Its red-and-black figures soared 40 feet into the sky, just a few yards from the whitewashed town church. Some elders found themselves recalling songs, and the community sang, danced, and drummed deep into the night. "The totem pole caused an incredible change in my life," Davidson recalled years later, "in my understanding of ceremony, of what art means to the people."

Robert Davidson painting
Peter DiCampo

BY THE EARLY 1980s, commissions were rolling in, yet Davidson felt his art was incomplete. The void remained present in his work—often expressed as negative space—and in his life. One of his most ambitious early projects, an ornate longhouse honoring his great-grandfather that took two years to complete, was destroyed by arson in 1981. To help mourn the loss, he asked his brother Reg to carve a mask depicting his personal "helper spirit"—a frog—which had been a key figure in the structure's design. After using the mask in a ceremonial dance, they burned it.

But the void would not be easily overcome. Davidson's parents, part of a generation brought up in the residential schools, "numbed their pain" with alcohol. "I don't even know if they knew it was pain," Davidson says. He feels it acutely himself.

"There was an incredible break in the link," he tells me one afternoon in his studio. Despite his tranquil optimism, Davidson worries that his efforts are inadequate to meet the challenges his people face. "I feel like we've lost our thinkers in this holocaust," he says. "I'm willing to put my neck out there and say, 'Okay, we haven't dealt with the decimation of our population down to 5 percent.' When I do bring it up, people kind of look at me as if I'm crazy. My generation, I feel, has the biggest responsibility to relearn as much as we can if we are to carry on reclaiming our Haida-ness."

Over the decades, this sense of duty has driven Davidson to pursue activities he sees as inseparable from his art: hosting feasts and potlatches, creating ceremonial clothing and masks, teaching free design workshops, mentoring young apprentices, and cofounding the Rainbow Creek Dancers, a group that has revived the practice of dancing art into being. His mission is rooted in his relationship with the beings he depicts, says photographer Ulli Steltzer, who documented Davidson at work for two decades: "This is why his figures are so powerful. For him they are alive."

Robert Davidson eagle transformation mask
Eagle Transforming Into Itself Kenji Nagai

At a performance by the Rainbow Creek Dancers in Bellingham, Washington, a chorus of voices and throbbing of drums gives way to applause as Davidson and other troupe members prepare to showcase his cedar mask, Eagle Transforming Into Itself. Modeled after an Edenshaw work from the 1880s, the imposing visage, painted black with deep green, is hoisted atop a dancer's head. Using a built-in lever, the dancer splays open the mask's broad beak to reveal a second face, a spirit within.

Davidson, dressed in a three-piece ceremonial outfit bearing his designs, sets down his drum and picks up a microphone, beaming. "What's exciting for me and my generation," he tells the crowd, "is that we showed up in the nick of time." As the drums and voices resume, the eagle's profile begins to undulate and take flight.

THERE IS AN OLD Haida expression: "The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife." Traditionally it refers to moving through life with balance. Davidson says for him the knife's edge is the border between ancient cultural knowledge and its expansion in the present. He and other Haida leaders have cited their connection to the natural and spirit worlds in political struggles over the nation's territory—the site of a tense 1985 standoff over clearcutting. Years of negotiations eventually led to joint federal and tribal stewardship of the now-protected southern region, but in the broader fight over land rights, the government argues that the Haida must prove in court that their claim to the land predates the founding of Canada.

Robert Davidson Southeast Wind
Southeast Wind Kenji Nagai

A couple of years back, Davidson spoke at a government hearing on a proposed transcontinental pipeline project that would route oil tankers through Haida waters. His wife and artistic collaborator, Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, who is the lead attorney for the Haida Nation, assembled a dozen cultural leaders and entered 10 of Davidson's works into the record to exemplify Haida traditions predating Europeans. "Haida art is derived from the land and waters," Davidson testified. "Every prominent landmark and many places in the ocean are dwelling places for supernatural beings, which are deeply meaningful in Haida culture."

A few days after the hearing, I met Davidson for dinner at Bishop's, an upscale Vancouver eatery whose walls often display his work. Indigenous art holds high cultural status in Vancouver these days: It's found in galleries around town, in the city's landmark Stanley Park, and at the international airport, home to a large aerial Davidson sculpture called Hugging the World. But artistic recognition does not necessarily equate with political currency, and sovereignty over Haida Gwaii remains a contentious issue. I asked Davidson what the government officials thought of his talk of spirits. "They listened," he said, pausing. "I think they were open to it. They said they'd never heard anything like it before."