Fred Davis was known for his delicate and intricate miniature carvings. He was also one of the most adventurous Northwest Coast artists in terms of the variety of materials that he used and mixed together. Using bone, abalone shell and wood, this sculpture is a perfect example. In this tiny piece he captures a moment from the wonderful Haida legend of Gunar, also called Nanasimgit.
The Legend of Nanasimgit and His Wife
Nanasimgit’s wife was out on a point washing off a fresh pelt from a skinned otter. She walked to where there were clear pools, free of sand, in the surf polished rock. She slipped on the wet stone and the otter pelt fell into the sea. She jumped in to retrieve it, and just as she touched it, the black shape of a killer whale rose from beneath her, lifting her clear off the waves. She clung to his dorsal fin and he carried her away.
Nanasimgit, the hunter, chased after her in his canoe, but he found nothing at the spot where the whale had dived, and he waited in vain for his wife or the whale to surface again.He returned to his village to fast for four days. On the fifth day, he gathered things he might need (a mussel shell knife, goat hair, a whetstone, and a comb) and, in his canoe, paddled to the spot where the whale had gone down. There he moored his canoe to a two-headed kelp, grabbed the tools he had brought, took one great breath, and dove.
Nanasimgit found the house of the whale and outside was a slave by the woodpile. He asked the slave if he had seen his wife. He was told that she was in the house and is to marry the Killer Whale as soon as she has a fin. Using a red snapper’s tail for a wedge, the slave continued to split kindling. Nanasimgit watched intently as he struck it with his maul and the wedge broke. The slave began weeping. He explained that his master will beat him for breaking his wedge. Nanasimgit put the broken wedge end into his mouth and sucked it. It came out whole.
The slave explained to Nanasimgit that he was splitting the kindling to build the fire to steam a fin for his wife so she can marry the Killer Whale. Nanasimgit said that he wanted her back. For repairing the wedge, the slave created a plan to help him. When the fire was built, he would take in the water for the steam, trip, spilling the water into the fire. When the room filled with smoke, Nanasimgit would run in and take her.
Nanasimgit hid near the stream. When the slave came for the water, he followed him to the door, and when the slave spilled the water and steam filled the house, Nanasimgit rushed in. As he raced out again with his wife, the slave swelled like a bullfrog, blocking the others from getting our the door.Nanasimgit raced to his canoe, he threw down the goat hair he carried, and a forest sprung up at his heels. He and his wife ran down the trail to the two-headed kelp and climbed into the canoe.
As the Killer Whale closed in, he threw out the whetstone. Where it hit the water, an island formed. When he closed in again, he threw out the comb, which turned into a reef. When the Killer Whale finally came around, the canoe had already reached the beach, and Nanasimgit and his wife were nowhere to be seen.