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Pole position: Exploring Haida Gwaii

Pole position: Exploring Haida Gwaii
21 Sep
The remote archipelago of Haida Gwaii, on Canada’s west coast, has been home to the Haida people for at least 6,000 years. Returning to villages once decimated by smallpox, indigenous people are reclaiming their homeland

The name of the largest longhouse in the ruined Haida village of K’uuna Llnagaay (also called Skedans) translates as ‘clouds sound against it when they ride over’. But there’s no danger of cloud-crash now. These days it’s just a grass-covered hole in the ground, criss-crossed by the massive cedar trunks that once supported its roof. The totem pole that would have stood proudly out front, notifying visitors of the lineage and accomplishments of those who lived there, is nowhere to be seen.

K’uuna Llnagaay, once a village of around 400 people, was decimated by the successive smallpox epidemics that tore through Haida Gwaii – literally, ‘islands of the Haida people’ – after Europeans began to settle in this archipelago on Canada’s west coast in the 19th century. It was finally abandoned in 1888. Survivors from this and other villages fled to one of two settlements on Graham Island (Skidegate) and Gaaw (Old Massett). An estimated archipelago-wide population of 8,000 Haida fell to less than 1,000 in 50 years.

The Haida have since returned to reclaim K’uuna Llnagaay from the encroaching forest, though you’ll only find people living there between May and September each year, and only a couple at a time. They are here as ‘watchmen’, representatives of a programme set up in 1981 to safeguard Haida cultural heritage and the natural world with which it is so intertwined.

CAM 3134 copyThe abandoned village of K’uuna Llnagaay (Image: Steve Pretty)

The scheme has expanded significantly since the early days, when volunteers used their own boats to sail out and camp in the woods of abandoned villages. Since 1988 the ruined settlements have benefited from government protection in the shape of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. These were established to safeguard the southern half of Haida Gwaii following decades of unsustainable commercial logging. At its heart though, the watchman programme has changed very little.

On visiting K’uuna Llnagaay the guide radios ahead to check that the watchmen – or in this case watchwomen – posted there are ready. Too many people and visitors have to wait their turn. It’s not an onerous experience – hopping ashore from the inflatable-hulled boat provides a chance to strip off the layers of woolens and waterproofs necessary for the bitingly cold boat ride from Moresby Camp, a former logging settlement on Moresby Island.

CAM 3099Approaching the derserted islands of Haida Gwaii (Image: Steve Pretty)

At the village itself, a hush falls. The sense of loss is palpable, heightened by an earlier stop-off at an overgrown graveyard in the former missionary post of New Kloo, home to dozens of higgledy-piggledy gravestones that date from the peak of the smallpox epidemic. Today there are about 2,500 Haida people living on Haida Gwaii, with a further 2,000 living elsewhere in the world, mainly North America. Well over a century since disease swept through these islands, the population is yet to fully recover.

Watchman David Dixon spends up to five months a year at the five Gwaii Hanaas (or ‘islands of beauty’), heritage sites that are open to visitors. They include K’uuna Llnagaay, the most easily accessible, and Sgaang Gwaii (Anthony Island), situated on the wild Pacific coast almost at the southernmost point of the archipelago. This is Dixon’s 15th year with the programme, which he sees as a way of reconnecting with his heritage and informing young people about Haida history and culture.

‘I was taught by my grandparents so it came second nature to be a watchman,’ he says, after returning from the field at the end of the season. Dixon remembers going out on the boat with his grandparents to gather clams and seaweed, before laying them out to dry outside their house in Old Massett, a settlement of around 350 people that now serves as the administrative seat of the Council of the Haida Nation. Neighbours would pass by and barter for them, whether with fish, berries or the skills to complete a job that needed doing. It’s a practice that still goes on.

Old Massett is now the location of the greatest collection of totem poles on the archipelago, from house frontal poles and memorial poles to mortuary poles, complete with boxes containing the remains of the deceased. At K’uuna Llnagaay it takes a good deal of imagination to make out the figures on the fragments of the poles that remain, but in Old Massett the poles are mostly in excellent condition, their paintwork popping with colour and their carvings still sharply delineated. Ravens and eagles, representing the two main Haida clans, are ubiquitous, along with stylised representations of native creatures visible to visitors such as bald eagles and bears. A couple of poles feature the mythological inspiration for the watchman programme: three human figures wearing high-crowned hats who watch over the village and protect it from harm.

CAM 2775 copyTotem poles old and new (Images: Steve Pretty)

Old Massett is almost as quiet as the deserted K’uuna Llnagaay but there is action out in the bay where a pair of orcas are spotted cavorting in the waves. According to a local this mother and calf are the first leviathan arrivals of the season. I have come here, driving up the length of Graham Island from the village of Queen Charlotte (also the name of the archipelago itself until 2010), not just to see the poles that stand outside community buildings, shops and private residences, but to meet one of the area’s leading carvers. James Hart, a well known Haida artist and hereditary chief, lives in a beautiful Old Massett longhouse based on a traditional Haida design but featuring all the mod cons, including a sauna and underfloor heating. He shows off the 17-metre red cedar trunk he has been working on with his assistants (including his eldest son Gwaliga), a pole destined for the grounds of the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver.

Called ‘Reconciliation Pole’, it takes as its subject the Canadian government’s policy, begun in the late 1800s, of forcibly taking indigenous children into care in order to assimilate them into mainstream Canadian culture. Alongside the banning of ‘potlatch’ gifting ceremonies, which are central to Haida culture, the residential school system was a devastating means of suppressing cultural identity and it had deadly consequences. One of the primary motifs of the Reconciliation Pole is a carving of the residential school attended by Hart’s grandfather; each of the 60,000 copper nails that stud it represents a child who died in the system.

CAM 2956Work begins on a new totem pole (Image: Steve Pretty)

With the potlatch ban lifted in 1951 and the last residential school closed in 1996, there’s peace between the Haida people and the Canadian government today – represented on Hart’s pole by a canoe and a boat moving side by side – but it will take a long time for the wounds inflicted on this and other Aboriginal peoples to truly heal.

Haida-run initiatives such as Haida House at Tlell, a ten-bedroom lodge and restaurant on the banks of the Tlell River on the east side of Graham Island, help. Once a bear-hunting lodge, it reopened as a cultural tourism enterprise in 2012 after the Council of the Haida Nation put a stop to recreational bear hunting on Haida Gwaii.

Along with hikes and canoeing packages, an essential element of the guest experience at Haida House is learning about Haida culture with resident cultural interpreter Aay Aay Hans, who leads tours to local artists’ studios, interprets totem poles and demonstrates traditional weaving. Twelve of the lodge’s 16 employees are Haida, explains general manager Joelle Rabu, who one day hopes to open a hospitality and culinary college to run in the off-season to provide additional training opportunities for the community.

CAM 3071 copyHaida Gwaii coastline on a sunnier day (Image: Steve Pretty)

With just one day left on the islands, I spend the morning putting it all in context at the Haida Heritage Centre. Located just outside the other inhabited Haida village of Skidegate, these six connecting longhouses are home to exhibitions of Haida history – archeologists have found evidence of continual occupation going back at least 6,000 years – as well as cultural displays, exhibits on the flora and fauna of the archipelago, a carving demonstration space and 13 remarkable totem poles.

Shyla Cross coordinates visitors at the centre. Having grown up ‘immersed in the Haida culture’, yet never having had much opportunity to explore Gwaii Hanaas for herself, she became a watchwoman at the age of 18. Last year was her sixth season in the field. For Cross, spending time at the village sites and being surrounded by the natural beauty of Gwaii Hanaas – endless forest, soaring eagles, deserted beaches - is a chance to engage more deeply with her culture: ‘There’s no Haida word for nature, nature’s just life, it’s a part of life. Everything is connected and everything depends on everything else.’

Her words bring to mind a particular totem pole at K’uuna Llnagaay, fallen to the ground long ago and so covered with moss that at first glance it's no more than a tree trunk. Out of the remains of its carvings a spruce had sprouted, taking nourishment from the rich cedar and growing tall and strong. Culture and nature as one.

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