Photo by Jim McAuley
Photo by Jim McAuley
A colony of Northern sea lions on Skedans Rocks, near Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.
The protectors of North Pacific indigenous culture connect with the past while embracing the future on Canada’s remote Haida Gwaii archipelago.
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.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.”
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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