Why You Should Visit the Canadian Archipelago of Haida Gwaii

AFAR’s CEO and cofounder just returned from a memorable trip and offers three top reasons to go.

Traveling by e-bike rental provided by Haida Tide Cultural Tours, guests enjoying Hiellen Longhouse Village and totem pole carved by master carver Christian White

Haida Tide offers e-bikes for rental, a great way to explore the region and visit its poles, including this piece carved by master carver Christian White.

Photo by Northern BC Tourism/Shayd Johnson

I recently returned from five days in Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago with a population of fewer than 5,000 people in northwest British Columbia, and loved it. Here are my top three reasons you may want to visit yourself.

1. To appreciate and support the Haida people and nation

Haida Gwaii means “Islands of the Haida people,” who have occupied these islands for over 13,000 years. First contact with Europeans or white people, who Haida call “yáats’ xaadee,” or “iron people,” because the Haida traded for iron, was likely in the late 1700’s. Smallpox nearly decimated the Haida. The population on Haida Gwaii decreased from over 20,000 to just over 800 by 1881. And Canadian governmental policies, such as the potlatch ban of 1895 and the residential school system, nearly wiped out Haida culture.

From 1787 until 2009, the islands were known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. However, the Haida have been in an ongoing effort with the Canadian and British Columbia governments to exercise more control over their ancestral lands and, in 2009, British Columbia agreed to rename the islands Haida Gwaii. They also agreed to create shared decision-making respecting lands and natural resources as part of the ongoing Kunst’aa guu Kunst’aayah Reconciliation Protocol. On the renaming, the Haida people, who place much importance to names, put the name “Queen Charlotte Islands” in a bentwood box that they gave with respect to the premier of British Columbia. The box stayed in parliament buildings in Victoria until 2016, when it was given likewise with respect to Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, who took it back to Kensington Palace in London, the “fancy palace” from which it came.

The importance of names is partly what led me to Haida Gwaii. I attended a series of TED Talks undertaken in partnership with Destination Canada in New York last February. One was by Cohen Bradley, a Haida cultural ambassador, who spoke about the importance of names and storytelling in Haida culture. Cohen had just received a new Haida name, Taaydal (“Coming in Big”) in 2022, at age 26, to mark both his development and potential. He talked about how the Haida have striven so hard to retain their culture and how important that culture is to them, and to him. I was touched by his genuineness and intrigued by the concepts. I didn’t fully understand what he meant by the importance of storytelling or names, but his message called to me to try to understand more about these people and their culture. I resolved to go visit and try to learn more.

My visit in August of this year was illuminating and rewarding. Although I have much more to learn, I now have so much appreciation for the culture developed by the Haida people in this area, and on the efforts it has taken to preserve that culture in the wake of colonialism. I also gained appreciation for how one’s name in Haida culture can serve as a challenge and a responsibility, how oral storytelling is not just an individual talent, but a community responsibility, and on how their potlatch culture has encouraged individual achievement, but as part of wealth redistribution and collective well-being. All of it is fascinating and I recommend visiting and exploring this culture for any who are so inclined.

Skedans, the site of a former Haida village

Cohen Bradley (left) joined Greg Sullivan (right) and Greg’s friend Mark Winkleman (center) on the trip. The group visited Skedans, the site of a former Haida village, during their time in Haida Gwaii.

Photo by Samantha Bradley

The key is to spend a few days in Haida Gwaii with one or more Haida guides, with the opportunity to see, hear, and ask questions. I was fortunate that Cohen, who I first met at that TED Talk in New York, was able to join me on much of my visit. Cohen has emceed at potlatches, sings traditional Haida songs, shares his knowledge of the Haida language, is well-studied in Haida history and culture, and seems to be connected with most everyone on the islands. But excellent Haida guides are available to all visitors through Haida Tourism, which is overseen by the Council of the Haida Nation. Haida Tourism has a series of three-, four- and seven-day itineraries, including Haida guides, transportation, and meals. Kathy James, the director of guest experiences for Haida Tourism, oversees the organization’s accommodation, Haida House, and all the itineraries. Kathy can help craft a custom itinerary around your timing and preferences and can be reached at info@haidatourism.ca.

Another alternative is to book through luxury tour operator, Entrée Canada, whose owner Marc Telio has worked with Haida Tourism to develop a thoroughly Haida experience, but with extra care and hand-holding. Entrée has a five-day itinerary in Haida, plus hotels and transfers in Vancouver. I’d highly recommend watching the video on their site. Marc worked with Destination Canada to develop 16 distinctive itineraries for experiencing diverse aspects of Canada in each province and territory, with 12 of them including indigenous elements, which they call Stories of Canada. The videos are all worth watching. AFAR expects to write more about these extraordinary Entrée Canada trips in the future, including word on four new itineraries yet to be announced. Stay tuned, and contact Entrée Canada at explore@entreedestinations.com, or through your travel advisor.

The Haida Heritage Center

The Haida Heritage Center is an excellent place to learn about Haida culture and history, with artwork, poles, and regular events.

Photo by Cohen Bradley

2. To appreciate Haida art

The Haida are world-renowned for their art. In trading with neighboring tribes, their main asset was their craftsmanship. They imported what they needed and added value through carving, engraving, weaving, and design, which can be found on shields, bowls, baskets, wooden boxes, canoes, and—most famously—poles, commonly called totem poles, but more specifically frontal poles, memorial poles, and potlatch poles. Many Haida poles and other artifacts were pillaged in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and can be found in museums around the world, including the British Museum in London and the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Contemporary Haida poles can be seen throughout the communities on Graham Island (Kiis Gwaay), the northern-most island that’s home to over 85 percent of the population. One of the highlights of my visit was stopping by a number of carving sheds throughout the area in which artists were at work.

Artist Christian White (right) talks about the dugout canoe he is carving.

Artist Christian White (right) talks about the dugout canoe he is carving. Behind, and hanging from the ceiling, is his inspiration: a dugout canoe made by his father.

Photo by Cohen Bradley

Christian White, whose Haida name is Kihlyaahda, is one of the most famous contemporary artists. He talked to a group of us organized by Haida Tourism outside his longhouse with its towering frontal pole in Old Masset. He took us inside his carving shed to see his current project, a huge dugout canoe that he’s planning to take out on the ocean within the next year. He and his team were carving the canoe underneath a retired canoe his father had made decades ago and which Christian helped paddle to Alaska as a youth.

Jaalen Edenshaw is well-known for several poles on display throughout the islands. When I visited his carving shed just outside of New Masset, he was working with his brother Gwaai, who is also well-known for his jewelry creations. The pair were collaborating on a pole that they had just learned would not be erected this fall as they had been thinking, but the following fall. They were nonplussed and relieved that they now had time for a myriad of other projects that had been on hold.

Jaalen told me he and his brother had visited museums across the world, including the Museum of Natural History in New York, among others, to identify and ascertain the origins of indigenous art, most of which had been pillaged from their communities. In some cases, they have been able to retrieve pieces to return to Haida Gwaii. In others, they made replicas that they brought back to their people.

Artist Billy Yavonovich Jr. working on a carved mask and a Haida memorial pole.

Artist Billy Yavonovich Jr. works on a carved mask. The Haida people are renowned for their intricate memorial poles and beautiful woodwork.

Photos by Cohen Bradley

I would not encourage travelers to visit carver sheds on their own, as these are the artists’ place of work. But accompanied by a Haida guide, who can determine the appropriateness of a possible visit, they can be a highlight of a visit to Haida Gwaii, whether you visit famous artists or those less so. There are advantages to both.

I really enjoyed a visit with Billy Yavonovich Jr. in his shed in Skidegate. He was simultaneously working on carving a mask and a pole that was to be part of a multi-artist installation at a new health center in the village of Skidegate. Billy graciously accepted a commission from me to carve and paint a paddle that he will ship to me, and that I’m confident I will treasure.

Temperate rainforest in Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii is a land of temperate rainforests. Expect to see sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western redcedar on your trip. The latter is put to good use by Haida people for carvings.

Photos by Jim McAuley

3. To experience the beauty of Haida Gwaii

Although the towns have outstanding art to see, in themselves, they are not particularly beautiful. Pre-reconciliation, the development by white people was to extract lumber, ore, and seafood, and their construction was likewise pragmatic, not cosmetic.

Further, in the Haida culture, although individuals may accumulate riches, they don’t retain them. Through potlatches, they share their wealth with the community and accumulate witnesses to their achievements. Respect from the community is worth much more than material goods to the Haida.

But the islands themselves are beautiful, replete with cedar trees, mountains, inlets and hundreds of miles of coastline. There is much to see, and there is no better way than by boat. I met a few travelers who kayaked the islands on multi-day itineraries and camped in the wild with Green Coast.

Boat in Haida Gwaii

Haida Style Expeditions offer boat trips to remote poles and ancient villages.

Photo by Cohen Bradley

I was happy to go on a day trip on a very comfortable motorized craft (with bathroom) from Haida Style Expeditions, an outfitter owned by identical twin brothers, Shawn and James Cowpar, who are Haida. We stopped at K’uuna Llnagaay, also known as Skedans, the site of a former Haida village. Our Haida guide, James Williams, showed us around the village and explained how the Haida lived. There are a number of poles in Skedans that are slowly decaying. The Haida don’t believe in preserving these works. “Who are we to change what our ancestors set in motion?” James said. Instead, the cedar carvings go back into the ground and serve as fodder for new growth.

We finished our visit to Skedans with a nice lunch on shore. Cohen joined us on our day at sea and capped off our visit by singing and drumming some traditional Haida songs. Shawn and James knew some of the words, and sang quietly along where they could. The rest of us did not know what the Haida words meant, but Cohen’s deep emotional attachment to the songs in this beautiful setting was quite moving for those of us fortunate to be present.

Totem poles at SGang Gwaay Llanagaay, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Haida Gwaii

The village of SG̱ang Gwaay Llnagaay in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

Photo by Destination BC/Brandon Hartwig

A much longer trip option that I would like to try on a future visit takes travelers to SGang Gwaay Llnagaay, commonly known as Ninstints, at the southern tip of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. It requires at least eight hours round trip by boat, a much more serious journey than Skedans. Ninstints, a Haida village last active in the 19th century and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the site of ancient memorial poles that have become quite widely seen, as they are used in many photos promoting the islands and the Haidas.

North Beach in Haida Gwaii

North Beach is, as the name suggests, on the far northern coast of Haida Gwaii. Great hiking and camping await here.

Photo by Greg Sullivan

There also are a number of walks available on the north island. Probably the most popular is at Tow Hill, which is off the beautiful North Beach. The walk is on a 1.4 mile boardwalk that ascends coastal cedar forest to the top of Tow Hill (elevation gain of 334 feet), where you have views of North Beach and, in the far distance across the ocean, the Alaskan Panhandle. Locals say that you if you strain, you might see Sarah Palin, but I missed out.

Why Not to Visit Haida Gwaii

I think of Haida Gwaii as a fantastic opportunity for someone who wants to learn about the Haida people and culture, and/or someone who wants to appreciate the natural beauty. I don’t think of it as an ideal place for a plop and flop. It is too far to go, and you will lack some of the comforts. Most importantly, Haida Tourism asks guests to take the Haida Pledge to care for the Air, Ocean, Land, and People. If this is not a natural concept for you, it probably is not the spot for your holiday.

How to get to Haida Gwaii

There are two small plane flights daily during the summer from Vancouver, one on Air Canada Express and one on Pacific Coastal Airlines. Air Canada flies into Sandspit, where the weather is more reliable. However, Sandspit is on Moresby Island (the southern island), and you need to take a BC Ferry to get to Graham Island, where most of the development is.

Rental cars are available through Budget, with two locations, one at Sandspit and the other in Daajing Giids (formerly Queen Charlotte City) and Massett Car Rental in Masset, where Pacific Coastal flights land. Rental cars are very difficult to obtain; you need to book far in advance for the summer. I’d recommend figuring out whether to get a rental car from Haida Tourism or whoever books your travel.

There is also a seven-hour BC Ferries service daily from Prince Rupert on the northwest coast of mainland British Columbia.

Haida House

Haida House is an indigenous-owned property that offers cabins by the ocean.

Photo by Kyler Vos

Where to stay

My recommendation would be to stay at Haida House, which is operated by Haida Tourism and is located near Tlell approximately midway on the east coast of Graham Island. The property includes a lodge, which formerly served as a camp for bear hunting. Bears are sacred to the Haida people, and the nation managed to purchase the property, shut down the hunting lodge, and open the property for tourists anxious to learn about and support the community. During COVID, in which the Haida nation locked down the islands to travel very strictly—very understandable since smallpox nearly wiped their population out completely—Haida Tourism built 12 two-bedroom cabins to complement the 10 bedrooms in the lodge. The cabins feature a living room, one bath, inside and outside showers, hospitality bar (with a small fridge), and a large outdoor deck with hot tub. All of the cabins are ocean-side, though with trees and a high berm they are not ocean view.

In addition to Haida House, Haida Tourism plans to reopen in the spring of 2024 Ocean House, a boutique 24-room hotel, on the north coast, near Old Massett, that had previously been open in another location. AFAR hopes to have more details on this soon.

Other reading

For more inspiration and insights, our deputy editor, Tim Chester, visited last fall and wrote this excellent piece that I highly recommend. And six years ago, Marcello DiCintio penned this wonderful story for the magazine. This earlier feature includes some beautiful photography by Jim McAuley, who shared many more photos from that shoot on his personal website.

Greg Sullivan is the cofounder and CEO of AFAR. You can reach Greg at greg@afar.com.
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