On Haida Gwaii, Exploring a Thriving Indigenous Culture

On the archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, carvers and cooks, boat captains and botanists are helping revive Haida culture and history.

Tow Hill in Haida Gwaii

Tow (Taaw) Hill, an ancient volcanic plug on the north shore of Graham island, offers spectacular hiking and occupies a special place in Haida culture.

Photo by Northern BC Tourism/John Scarth

Hidden in an unmarked forest on Haida Gwaii’s wild and remote west coast stands a testament to human endeavor and resilience: the Mosquito Pole. Its intricate carvings, fashioned more than 200 years ago with tools made from bone and rock, depict numerous creatures from the rich canon of Haida mythology—a beaver, a bear cub, the namesake mosquito, a trio of watchmen keeping lookout in three different directions.

Reaching this site is no easy feat. There are no roads, trails, or towns nearby, and few people make it here. In September, I visited on a small catamaran with Haida Style Expeditions, discovering a coastline where, according to our captain (and co-owner of the tour company) James Cowpar, winds hit 100 mph and late fall and winter can bring 40-foot waves. After landing on a pebble beach and hiking up a rocky path and through trees on spongy, moss-covered ground, we finally found the frontal pole, which told of the lineage of the family living in the collapsed longhouse behind.

It’s a “beautiful place” for Cowpar, who is of Haida descent. He’s roamed this whole region in a range of boats since childhood, exploring burial and habitation caves with a paddleboard and hard hat, discovering ancient villages, and even finding (and covering up) the remains of his ancestors. But few tourists come; most try to head south to the smaller (but more numerous) poles at the UNESCO village of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay (formerly Nan Sdins or Ninstints).

That fact that the 40-foot Mosquito Pole was made and raised is astonishing enough, but that it’s still standing is equally miraculous; it’s survived centuries of lashing rain, high winds, seismic activity, landslides, and cultural looting. Similar poles have been chopped into pieces and reassembled for the edification of museumgoers in cities like Liverpool and Chicago. They quartered them and hauled them out in crates, Cowpar said.

The Mosquito Pole dwarfs its more famous southern cousins, and it predates any of the surrounding trees. Another well-preserved specimen nearby is playing host to multiple arboreal offspring, including huckleberry, hemlock, and spruce. It’s weather beaten and eroded on one side but clearly retains its detail on the other, telling a story of Haida culture and life that’s been suppressed in several ways in recent history but remains steadfast—and has been blossoming in recent years.

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The archipelago of Haida Gwaii can be reached by boat or a two-hour flight from Vancouver.

Photo by Northern BC Tourism/John Scarth

Haida people have lived on this archipelago off the coast of British Columbia for some 13,000 years, initially in the tens of thousands across several dozen sites. However, after contact with Europeans in the late 1700s and a period of brisk sea otter fur trade, smallpox and other diseases introduced to the island in the 1860s reduced the population to some 600. Most Haida people eventually moved to one of two towns on Graham Island, the settlements now known as Old Massett and Skidegate. They now make up around half of the 5,000 population, according to the Haida Nation.

The late 19th century also saw the arrival of missionaries, who offered some help but oversaw the removal of house poles and mortuary poles, replacing traditional Haida architecture with more familiar (to them) buildings, and encouraging Haida people to use English names. Potlatches, or communal celebrations that marked big life events like deaths or marriages, were banned by the federal Canadian government in the late 19th century, imperiling traditions and even the Haida language itself.

Today, the language survives largely in books. It counts around 80 fluent speakers, according to Cowpar, but it’s being kept alive and revived by a determined band. “They thought ‘we’ve fixed these Indians’,” he smiled, “but little did they know there was an underground movement to hold on to the language. It’s slowly coming back.”

In fact, the past half century has seen a gradual resurgence in much Haida culture on X̱aaydag̱a Gwaay.yaay—the Haida name for the island chain meaning “island of the Haida people.”

A good starting point for first-time visitors is Saahlinda Naay (or the “saving things house”) at the Haida Gwaii museum, just outside the town of Skidegate. Here, in a series of buildings that resemble traditional longhouses, art and artifacts have been on display since 1976.

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The underlying theme at the Haida Gwaii museum is the “complex link between the land, the sea, human beings and Supernatural Beings”.

Photo by Destination BC/Grant Harder

A must-see video inside the museum tells of the first pole raising in a century in Old Massett Village in 1969. It was a momentous and joyous affair: the first in living memory, in more than a century, involving hundreds of people pulling ropes tied to the poles while elders in traditional dress looked on.

Marni, one of our guides for the week whose Haida name is Aadiitsii Jaad, was six years old at the time and has vague memories of events. She said the video makes her emotional and she recognizes some of the people, including a child of around nine who’s now in his 60s and raises poles today. “He used to free climb up poles and undo the knots,” she remembered.

Robert Davidson, who carved the pole, talks in the clip about the occasion, which he refers to as ground zero. “When I talk about ground zero, it couldn’t go any lower,” he said. “Because of the laws that governed us, muting our will to participate in ceremony, participate in our song and dance, the very thing that fills the spirit.” Another artifact in the museum really shows what he’s talking about: a sobering picture from the late 1800s of Haida women “allowed” one last photo in masks.

The 1960s event was the beginning of a pole-raising renaissance. Outside the museum stand six more modern poles, erected in 2002. Also carved from red cedar trees—preferably specimens arrow straight with few knots—they’re carved with a host of characters and crests that tell you a story as you stand below craning your neck up.

Marni decoded them for me: a bear mother, who was a human and had bear children; a cormorant; hats with etches indicating the number of feasts and potlatches the family had hosted; a dogfish; a wolf; and the raven, a key character in Haida mythology who ushered the first humans into the world from a clam shell. Like the Mosquito Pole, they’re emblematic of a culture regained and celebrated. Today, visitors will also see modern poles all over the islands, including one carved by Tim Boyko, which was raised outside a new hospital in 2019 and is accompanied by a sign that says, “Nurses rock.”

The potlatches are back, too. Shortly before my visit, renowned carver Kihlyaahda (Christian White) and his wife Candace Weir-White raised a 53-foot pole carved depicting a grizzly bear, a frog, and a great white shark mother from an 800-year-old cedar in front of their Old Massett longhouse. Christian and his two brothers, Todd and Derek White, each carved a watchman. Candace fed some 500–600 people at the accompanying event, which featured new masks, songs, and dances.

Tradition lives on elsewhere in Haida Gwaii, in tattoos, cedar hats, celebrations and more. In 2010, even the name changed from the former moniker for the archipelago since 1787—Queen Charlotte Islands—to its original name of Haida Gwaii.

Over a traditional Haida dinner of salmon, venison, and herring roe on kelp one night at Roberta Olson’s home, Keenawaii’s Kitchen in Skidegate, Marni fondly recalled the ceremony where everyone shouted “Charlotte Islands” into a cedar box and sent it away. That process has filtered down to the local level. Earlier this year, council members in the village of Queen Charlotte voted to revert to the original name of Daajing Giids.

A new generation of carvers

Across Graham Island (the northern portion of Haida Gwaii), carvers like Garner Moody chip away at cedar to keep tradition alive. A roomy wooden shed overlooking the bay outside Skidegate is carpeted with heaps of woodchips and shavings that feed a small burner, steeped in that unmistakable aroma of freshly cut wood, and sound tracked by blues rock blasting from a cassette player.

Garner has been carving since 1987, getting into it after working as an apprentice with the famous Haida artist Bill Reid. He’s a fun presence to be around, happy to be in photographs (“Oh for sure; I say, geez, where do you want me?”) and apt to slip into a conversation about sports. (Golden State Warriors “ruined the game; they’re not sportsmen,” he joked, when he hears I’m from California.)

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Carvers like Reg Davidson keep Haida traditions alive, often working for months at a time on projects.

Photo by Destination BC/Grant Harder

As plodding blues bass lines gave way to frantic harmonica, he explained how the pole-carving process works, making it sound unfeasibly easy. He starts out with a rough sketch on paper, where an inch is a foot (“I get a rough idea and go from there”), working from nine to noon for months on creations he eventually sells. Or as he put it: “Somebody might nibble, or I’m stuck with a pole.”

Up in Old Massett on the northern coast of Graham Island, Tyler York massaged slim slices off an exquisite eagle head destined for the top of a memorial pole carved by brothers Jaalen and Gwaai Edenshaw that was going to be raised in honor of their late chief, Gaahlaay (Watson Price) at Xaayna, an old Haida village, on Maude Island. York is also an award-winning actor having won Best Actor in a Canadian Film at the Vancouver Film Critics Circle for his performance in the Haida language Edge of the Knife. A poem by another artist, Iljuuwaas (Tyson Brown) is printed out on the studio wall. “Like a cedar chip // from a chisel tip // I lay in a heap on the floor, Willing myself // to find a broom // and sweep me out the door.”

Conserving nature

Across the islands, nature is in abundance. In ancient temperate rain forests, the understory thrives and dampness reigns, shades of spongy green and yellow undulate, branch stumps sport mossy boxing gloves, and plant life drapes everywhere. The “Galápagos of the North” is a land of bears, puffins, and salmon, where biodiversity thrives and ecological integrity is being preserved as much as Haida culture.

Reverence for nature is ingrained in Haida life, and often they’ve fought to protect the islands’ old growth forests, waterways, and ecosystems. In 1985, after decades of clear-cut logging during which “people saw barges of logs leaving the island and nothing [coming] back in,” according to Marni, islanders staged a demonstration on Lyell Island. She flew down to join the effort and found herself arrested and kept in a logging company’s garage. The incident led to the establishment of Gwaii Hanas National Park Reserve and a Haida Heritage Site at Ninstints that is protected by Haida Gwaii watchmen.

Now, some 53 percent of Haida Gwaii’s land base is protected, along with 72 percent of its foreshore, thanks to a 2009 agreement between the Haida Nation and the Province of British Columbia.

We’re led around the orchard, forest, and organic gardens surrounding the Haida House hotel at the southern end of Naikoon Park by naturalist Phred Collins, He was born in California to Canadian parents but quickly discovered home was where the Haida are, first arriving as a “kayak bum [content] with four bottles of wine, a good book, and a fishing pole”—but soon becoming a renowned expert on all things flora and fauna (particularly birds). People come to the islands from “all over the world” to learn about community, forestry, and culture he said.

A new approach to travel

Travel to Haida Gwaii has evolved in recent decades. Cultural and eco tourism have somewhat displaced hunting and fishing. Haida House was a bear-hunting lodge briefly before the Council of the Haida Nation decided to end the recreational practice and purchased the property to acquire the last remaining licenses. Marni and others, meanwhile, formed the Daughters of the River group to oppose sportfishing lodges that continued to function (unregulated by the department of fisheries) when others were shut down during COVID.

But there’s a limit to how much tourism of any kind the small archipelago and its infrastructure can handle. Haida Tourism offers travelers the chance to take the Haida Pledge—to respect the destination and the “Haida Ways of Being,” review an orientation document, and contribute to a stewardship fund.

That money can be used for programs that help Haida heritage thrive—like youth culture camps, where young people are taught “cultural, stewardship, survival, health, physical, and social development skills” that include clam digging, reading the tides, and visiting historic village sites. Marni told us about the camps when we stopped at the fabled Balance Rock. She’s hoping to take time off to take her niece and her niece’s children to one soon.

The talk reminded me of a quote about the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program I’d read at the Haida Heritage Center, attributed to Tlingit linguists and poets Nora Marks & Richard Dauenhauser: “Preservation is what we do to berries in jam jars and salmon in cans. Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive.”

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Christian White works on huge, intricate pieces in his dedicated carving shed.

Photo by Northern BC Tourism/Marcus Paladino (left) John Scarth (right)

On our penultimate night, Phred took us for a kind of beach/forest bathing meditation walk. We navigated through the trees illuminated by iPhone torches before standing in a line 10 feet apart, with our feet in the sand, staring at the star-packed night sky over the calm fringes of the famously treacherous Hecate Strait. My mind started tumbling back to the timeless stories I’d heard and their recent representations on newly raised poles.

Haida Gwaii is often referred to as the edge of the world, and from one perspective that’s kind of true. It’s surrounded by miles of water, with northern B.C. on one side and Russia somewhere distant on the other—but to many islanders, Haida or otherwise, it’s the very center.

Perhaps more fitting is an older name, which means roughly “islands on the boundary between worlds” and refers more to the gray area between this world and the supernatural. As the author of The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant, has it, they “represent a sort of existential intertidal zone.” That evening, as I looked out at the water, facing continental North America but seeing only bioluminescent sparkles, faint, possibly imagined lights on the horizon, and gentle waves lit by the glow of a distant Venus, I started to know what that means.

How to Visit Haida Gwaii

There are a number of places to stay in Haida Gwaii, but we spent our week at the Haida-owned Haida House, a lodge on the banks of the Tlell River, which runs parallel and just inland from Graham Island’s east coast. Here, new oceanfront cedar cabins come complete with hot tubs and outdoor showers; guests can book three-, four-, or seven-night packages that include meals, transfers, and local Haida-guided excursions.

With no public transport on the islands and limited car hire available, it’s a good way to make the most of your time and immerse yourself in the culture.

If you’re looking for a book for the two-hour flight from Vancouver, Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World and The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant are both enlightening reads.

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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