Haida Gwaii a world apart, a living museum

Looking Back - a column by Sheila Nickols

Mid-July proved to be the perfect time to visit notoriously rainy Haida Gwaii, now the official name for the Queen Charlotte Islands.  The rugged coastline and sheltered bays were calm and sunny, with scarcely enough wind to make it worthwhile to raise the sails on the vessel Island Roamer, part of the Bluewater Adventures fleet of touring boats that visit coastal B.C. inlets.

Our preliminary visit was to the Haida Heritage Centre on Graham Island, where we learned how to “read” the symbolic creatures on totem poles.

These were newly carved when the centre opened, and have now turned the soft grey patina of aging cedar.  Another impressive display was the collection of cedar canoes, including the huge one designed by Bill Reid for Expo ‘86.

This canoe, which eventually carried Bill Reid’s ashes home to Haida Gwaii, still takes to the ocean for adventure trips by young people.

The southern part of Moresby Island is now Gwaii Haanas National Park, including a unique National Marine Conservation Area to protect the marine ecosystem.  There are also designated Haida Heritage Sites, with Haida Watchmen living there to guide visitors and interpret the historic remains of totem poles and the longhouses that used to stand.

Aside from a few rough logging roads, there are no roads in this area, accessible only by boat.

Many of the totem poles that used to stand in front of each longhouse facing the beach where boats could land have either fallen and rotted away or have been cut down and placed in museums.  Some are in the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

A visitor to one of the fiercely protected villages could paddle his canoe into land backwards, to show his peaceful intent.  He could then scan the totem poles to see which clan was his, where he could expect hospitality in that house.

The Haida people were matrilineal, tracing their clan descent from mother to child.

Part of the near tragic history of the Haida nation was the epidemic of smallpox and other diseases that swept through the villages after European contact.

It is estimated that the approximately 20,000 Haida people living in many villages had their numbers so badly reduced that villages on the south island were abandoned.

By the late 1800s, there were fewer than 600 Haida remaining.

Remember the anti-logging stand off at Lyell Island?  This was a turning point for the Haida people, which led to the protection of their threatened heritage.

Haida art is flourishing, and the pride people have for their land and history is very evident

Today the logging scars are greening over, and the amount and variety of wildlife is astonishing to city dwellers.  We saw numerous orcas, humpback whales and an enormous fin whale as we traveled.  Sea lions were hauled up on a rocky island, with a huge bull protecting his harem.  Birds of all kind are abundant, with eagles and ravens almost as common as robins to us.  Another amazing sight was colourful puffins nesting on another island.

The poles in today’s photo are mortuary poles, which were carved to commemorate an important person.  These huge cedar poles were planted with the root end up, so there was room to hold the person’s remains inside a bentwood box.

As you can see, these old poles are gradually crumbling away.  The Haida Watchman told us this is their custom.  When the pole eventually falls, they believe the soul of the dead person will be released.

It felt like a real privilege to be able to visit the moss clad rainforest and sea girt islands of Haida Gwaii and to begin to understand the story of the unique people living there.

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