Norman Tait, renowned Nisga'a carver, dead at 75

Tait was known for carving totems, but the self-taught artist's work also includes masks, jewelry and photos

VANCOUVER – Norman Tait, a Nisga’a First Nation artist whose work is displayed around the world, has died at the age of 75.

Tait was known for carving totems, but the self-taught artist’s work also includes masks, jewelry and photos.

He died of cancer in Vancouver on May 21, one day after his birthday.

Valerie Tait, his oldest child, said in an interview Wednesday that her father’s totems are on display in many locations, including his Nisga’a home in northwest British Columbia, Chicago and Japan, and he even carved a pole for the Royal Family in London.

She said he was thrilled by the Royal commission.

“Especially when he was invited to go see her,” she said, referring to Queen Elizabeth.

The totem pole sits in Bushy Park, a royal park in London, and features at its base a killer whale, considered the monarch of the sea, and on the top, an eagle, the monarch of the air.

Norman Tait graduated from the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s millwright program in 1963 and later worked for the paper mill Skeena Cellulose in Prince Rupert, B.C.

He moved his family to Vancouver in 1971 and while waiting for millwright work, began to carve.

But Valerie Tait said there were no Nisga’a carvers alive to teach him how it was done.

“That’s when he started looking in all the museums. He said he went through every place that he could find within his reach to study the work, the masters.”

She said he soon began making more money carving than he did as a millwright.

Tait was the first person to have a solo exhibit at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology with 125 pieces, a show which his daughter said he was extremely proud of.

His work was featured in three books, and showcased in numerous exhibitions, performances and videos.

In 2012, he was presented with a British Columbia lifetime achievement award for his First Nations’ Art.

Valerie Tait said her dad’s legacy will be long lasting because of his unique style and through the many he taught to carve, including her son, his grandson, Kristopher.

She said her father hadn’t finished a piece for a while before his death.

“It really hurt to him have idle hands,” she said.

Norman Tait leaves behind his daughter, his son Micah, brothers and sisters, grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.