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Skilquewat : on the trail of Property Woman : the life story of Freda Diesing Slade, Mary Anne Barbara

Abstract

This dissertation presents the life story of Freda Diesing, artist, teacher, and the first Haida woman known to become a professional carver. Diesing holds the Haida name Skilquewat, which translates as the descriptive phrase "On the trail of Property Woman." This phrase makes an appropriate title, as it reflects both the research process and the form of the written result. Diesing's life is not presented here as a monolith discovered, singular and clearly bounded, but rather as an organic accretive identity, constantly in the process of construction and negotiation. Diesing defines herself in relation to her mother and her grandmother, and her stories tell how they negotiated their own identities during times of rapid cultural change. For all three women changes in Haida culture under pressure from wider Canadian society tended to emphasize the role of women in the domestic sphere, as wives and mothers, while mmimizing their wider political and social impact. Diesing, a woman of mixed ethnic decent, who married late, has no children, lives only on the mainland and grows increasingly independent and active as an elderly widow, resists easy classification. She performs her own identity variably, depending upon her audience. By developing her identity as a Haida artist and teacher Diesing has been able to negotiate a position of continuing respect and influence appropriate to her chiefly heritage, despite inauspicious circumstances in her own life and in the contemporary history of the Haida people. Yet it is not being recognized as an artist or a master carver that has been Diesing's primary intention. Rather she has used her art itself as a tool in achieving a goal she defines as most important: helping both Natives and non-Natives understand and take pride in the indigenous cultural heritage of the Northwest Coast. More than an artist, Freda Diesing is a teacher. Through the stories she tells, and through her own life's example, she reminds us all of the continuing vitality of Northwest Coast cultures, and especially of the important contributions of women in Coastal society.

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