In Haida Gwaii, an Indigenous People Thrives

The protectors of North Pacific indigenous culture connect with the past while embracing the future on Canada’s remote Haida Gwaii archipelago.

In Haida Gwaii, an Indigenous People Thrives

A colony of Northern sea lions on Skedans Rocks, near Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

Photo by Jim McAuley

I stood on the shoreline, just as the late morning sun was freeing mist from the damp driftwood, and stared up at the “Legacy Pole.” Carved from the trunk of a cedar tree, the pole stands 42 feet high. I craned my neck to see the three figures just below the eagle at the top. The front figure faces the ocean; the others face right and left. These are the Watchmen. According to the oral histories of the Haida, the indigenous people who have long populated the archipelago off the British Columbia coast called Haida Gwaii, the Watchmen once served their villages by looking out over the water to spy advancing canoes. In times of conflict, boats approaching stern first were deemed friendly. Bow first meant war.

These are the sorts of stories I learned growing up in Canada during the 1980s, when First Nations culture was taught only as ancient history. We learned about wigwams and buffalo jumps back then and tried on feathered headdresses in replica tepees on museum field trips. For us, Canada’s first peoples were akin to the Aztecs or the ancient Romans—their civilizations were captivating, but bygone. Decades later, I came to Haida Gwaii because I wanted to see the line from those old stories to the modern day. By spending a week here with the Haida—exploring their islands, hearing their stories—I hoped to leave with a better understanding of Haida culture as it exists today.


Cedar forests meet the sea on Canada’s remote Haida Gwaii archipelago.

Photo by Jim McAuley

The Haida first settled here on this collection of islands, about 50 miles from the southern tip of Alaska, at least 8,000 years ago. The first European explorers to arrive in Haida Gwaii in the 1700s found a rich and complex culture divided into two main clans, the Raven and the Eagle, dispersed across dozens of villages throughout the archipelago. The Europeans traded iron tools for sea otter pelts, and—as is sadly too common in such stories—left disease behind. Smallpox, measles, and typhoid decimated the Haida, dropping the population from tens of thousands at the time of contact to about 600. The Haida have never rebounded to pre-contact levels. These days, about 2,500 Haida live in Haida Gwaii. I’d arrived on the shore of Hlk’yah GawGa aboard a boat helmed by Sk’aal Ts’iid James Cowpar and his cousin Iiljuwaas Leonard Arens. The wind and rain that had shaken my flight from Vancouver the previous day had unexpectedly eased, and a clear sky had blessed our four-and-a-half-hour sail from the docks of Queen Charlotte, Haida Gwaii’s largest village. En route, we had sailed past wave-washed Skedans Rocks, where 50 sea lions sunned themselves under the snorting authority of an enormous alpha bull. Then we had crossed into Gwaii Haanas, the protected southernmost third of Haida Gwaii that bears the multibarreled title “National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site.”


Iiljuwaas Leonard Arens points out fishing spots on his expedition boat’s map.

Photo by Jim McAuley

While Cowpar cooked venison and grilled salmon for our lunch, Arens led our group into the forest of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and—most important to the Haida—red cedar. As we walked, Arens told us the Haida have lived on these islands longer than the trees, but ever since the spirit of the Raven gave the Haida the ts’uu, or red cedar, Haida culture has been enmeshed with the towering evergreens. The Haida carve cedar into massive poles, weave its bark into baskets, and build longhouses (traditional dwellings) of cedar logs. In the centuries before European contact, the Haida fashioned the trees into massive canoes used for trade and war. Only the Haida possessed such fearsome vessels—canoes were another gift from the spirit world—and would visit (or raid) mainland villages on the other side of the Hecate Strait and up the Fraser Delta for blankets, copper shields, and, primarily, slaves. I would see one of these old canoes a few days later, lying unfinished in a forest in the north part of Haida Gwaii. In the 19th century, whenever one of the canoe carvers succumbed to smallpox, his fellow workmen gathered their tools and walked away. The sight of the abandoned and unhollowed canoe made me shiver.

The Haida’s contemporary history is also connected to the cedars. As we made our way through the forest, Arens told us about the 1985 stand, when activists obstructed a road on the island of Athlii Gwaay to prevent logging companies from clearcutting the island’s old-growth forests and to demand that the government recognize Haida law. Seventy-two Haida were arrested on that road and 11 charged with contempt. Arens was there, too. He was only four years old at the time, but he spent six weeks on the stand with his grandmother and earned his Haida name: “Sitting Big.” The protesters’ actions eventually prodded the Canadian government to designate Gwaii Haanas a national park reserve—and the success of the blockade empowered Haida throughout the archipelago. While forestry remains a key economic driver in Haida Gwaii, companies are subject to strict laws developed by the Haida Nation in collaboration with the government.


Haida Watchman Guut’iiwaans David Dixon

Photo by Jim McAuley

As a result, the Haida consider the Athlii Gwaay activists heroes. When Arens led us out of the forest and back to the foot of the Legacy Pole, he pointed out the images of five people—four of them wearing gumboots—linking arms on the lower half of the pole. These were carved in honor of the protesters who first stood arm in arm and held the line in 1985. Arens was quiet for a moment as he looked up at the pole. Then he said “This is a tear-jerking place for me.” After lunch on Athlii Gwaay, and after Arens burned a few pieces of salmon on the fire as an offering for a funeral he was missing in town, we sailed north. On our way back to Queen Charlotte, Cowpar stopped at the historical village site at K’uuna Llnagaay, once a vibrant settlement consisting of some 30 longhouses. Little remains of the village today. We followed Arens along a trail marked with clamshells, past mortuary poles that still stand. Niches cut into the poles once cradled bentwood boxes containing the remains of Haida chiefs and Haida women held in high esteem. Most of the boxes, fashioned by steaming and bending a single plank of cedar, sit on shelves in faraway museums now, and the poles themselves lean at angles that warn of an inevitable fall.


The Haida Gwaii archipelago sits off the coast of British Columbia.

Photo by Jim McAuley

The Haida see no tragedy in this. Mortuary poles were meant to eventually come down. When they topple, these monuments to death will nurse and nourish new life: A little farther down the path, we came upon a spruce tree growing straight and strong out of a fallen mortuary pole. The spruce roots wrapped around the carved cedar in an intimate embrace I found both beautiful and strangely reassuring. On our way back to Queen Charlotte, we also passed by the historical village site of T’aanuu Llnagaay. Cowpar, though, wouldn’t land there that day. The site stands near a mass grave for 19th-century smallpox victims, and Haida speak of feeling their ancestors’ presence there. Strange things happen on T’aanuu Llnagaay.

I had no supernatural experiences in Gwaii Haanas. No restless spirits appeared to me. Why would they, after all? But I did sense the presence of something transcendent as I wandered its forests. I felt a biological greatness, if not a spiritual one. These islands throb and thrum with life. The centuries-old trees. The rain forest’s constant drip. The hungry seals waiting for the salmon runs at the river mouths. The soft underbrush that yielded like flesh beneath my boots. Everything inspired reverence.


Floatplane pilot Peter Grundmann

Photo by Jim McAuley

The next day, at the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate, a village just east of Queen Charlotte, I met with 23-year-old Sgaas Sgwaansing Shyla Cross. I had wanted to meet Cross because she is a Haida Watchman—the modern-day incarnation of the figures rendered on Haida poles like the one I’d first seen in Hlk’yah GawGa. Instead of watching for advancing war parties as their predecessors did, today’s Watchmen care for all that remains of the Haida villages in Gwaii Haanas. From May through the end of August, around 20 Watchmen—men and women both, ranging in age from teens to septuagenarians—spend two weeks to a month at a time at five old village sites in Gwaii Haanas. They trim the grass around the sites, clip the salal berry saplings that grow on the old poles, and ensure that guests don’t touch what they should not touch. Most of all, they act as Haida cultural ambassadors. The Watchmen guide visitors through the sites and the nearby rain forests. They explain the significance of the poles, point out the lightning-struck cedars, and answer questions about Haida history and beliefs. Their job is to welcome all who make the effort to visit, whether they land bow or stern first.


A rental cabin on the north coast of Haida Gwaii, near the village of Gaaw.

Photo by Jim McAuley

But the Watchmen are no mere park rangers. What I found most compelling about the Watchmen was that their personal histories are as deeply rooted in Gwaii Haanas as the cedar and spruce. Cross grew up hearing stories about her family’s secret fishing spots in distant inlets of Gwaii Haanas, stories about where they’d find the best abalone, say, or the most herring. Her Watchman service allows her to connect with these old stories. And even though she confesses to being attached to her cell phone, Cross says the low-tech quiet of Gwaii Haanas rejuvenates and relaxes her. In the evenings, after all the visitors are gone, Cross weaves bracelets out of bark she strips from the cedar and takes walks in the forests. “It’s such a simple way of life,” she said. “To have the ability to run around barefoot and no one scolds me to put my shoes on.” I met another Watchman at the Centre: Gid yahk’ii Sean Young. He, too, can link his family history to the old villages in Haida Gwaii. Young’s great-great chinai, or grandfather, was born in a chief’s longhouse on K’uuna Llnagaay whose foundations Arens had pointed out during our tour. Young is 44 years old, and like many Haida men of his generation, had to decide between fishing and logging after finishing high school. “When you turned 18, you ended up in the bush or on the water,” Young said. “I chose the bush because my father was a logger.” Young eventually left the forest to study archaeology and now works at the Centre’s Haida Gwaii Museum as a collections curator.


A meal of Dungeness crab at a home in the Haida village of Gaaw.

Photo by Jim McAuley

The Watchmen program connects Young to his family’s past and serves his family’s future. Last year, Young “watched” with his girlfriend, Dall sgii Helen Engelbert—also a Watchman—and their two-year-old daughter, Saandlaans Thora. The summer sun sets late in Gwaii Haanas, Young said, and after their daily duties, Young, Engelbert, and Thora would spend their long evenings exploring the islands around them and gathering food. They picked blackberries and huckleberries. They fished for salmon, halibut, and prawns. They trapped crabs and culled mussels, scallops, and sea urchins. “Thora caught her first fish this summer,” Young said. “Her first solid food was sockeye salmon.” The Watchmen program not only grants Young the opportunity to share his culture with visitors but also allows his family to live in accordance with that culture themselves.

And this is what I’d come to Haida Gwaii to find: Canadian First Nations culture in the present tense. Haida anglers may fish from Zodiacs rather than canoes, but they ply the same waters for salmon and halibut. Old beliefs endure. Haida traditions were shared with me, not staged. “The core root of the whole Watchmen program is to tell people that ‘We are Haida. We are alive. We’re still thriving. We’re vibrant,’” Young said. For the Haida, Gwaii Haanas is not a park. It is home.


The “Unity Pole” in Skidegate, British Columbia

Photo by Jim McAuley

>>Next: Everything You Need to Know to Plan a Trip to Haida Gwaii

I am the author of three books of travel reportage, Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa, Poets and Pahelvans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran, and, most recently, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades. I also write for magazines, including Afar.
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