PRIMORDIAL HAIDA GWAII

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This article first appeared on Terry Anne Wilson’s Notes on a Boarding Pass.

The Highland Ranger took a sharp turn into a small cove and skidded to an abrupt stop on the pebbly beach of what once was K’uuna village. We disembarked quickly, eager to explore and relieved to be on land after a two-hours sail across choppy seas. The rugged shoreline looked much like the rest we’d seen of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of 150 islands located between Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle. We had journeyed on a small propeller plane—its age belied by lavatory ashtrays—for an Easter getaway from the city. Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii was renamed in 2010 as part of a restitution agreement between the indigenous Haida Nation and the provincial government of British Columbia. Despite its pristine wilderness earning it a spot on National Geographic’s list of ‘must-see places in the world’, it seems that relatively few have heard of it. For us, the notion of exploring Haida Gwaii first came from an unexpected source—a chance meeting with a German hitchhiker during Trixie’s solo road trip to Alaska last August. The almost spiritual wonder with which he spoke about the island resonated; we were curious to see if it would evoke a similar response in ourselves.

On the road to the Queen Charlotte harbour earlier that morning, we had no choice but to interrupt a convocation of eagles swooping and circling over their roadkill breakfast; there’s only one main road on the island and it is shared by all. Passing slowly, we counted seven Bald Eagles perched in the trees above, piercing eyes ever watchful. Though tempted to linger for this intimate glimpse of nature, we had a boat to catch. We arrived at the docks as the morning sun burned through the mist, revealing pine-covered islands and snow-capped mountains. Equipped with extra layers and thermoses of steaming coffee, we walked down the gangway to meet Danny, the colourful owner of Highlander Marine Services. The guiding season doesn’t technically begin until May, and his company doesn’t typically offer guided tours, so it was by chance and generosity that this expedition came together. Coincidentally, Danny had been on our flight to Haida Gwaii, and was able to work some magic for us. He arranged our passage into Gwaii Haanas, the National Park Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site that comprises the southern-third of the island.

Here we were on the Highland Ranger, two of twelve Haida Gwaii first-timers from all over the world. To prove the vessel was sound, Danny wryly explained that the Ranger had once even been used to recover a decomposing grey whale from the harbour. He introduced us to our captain, Volker, his career built sailing local waters, and our guide Walter, who had spent many summers leading tours through the historic sites of Gwaii Haanas. We were told that one such site, a village known as K’uuna (or Skedans by early European fur traders), would be our first stop. As we sped southwards, we were whipped by crisp wind, sprayed by heavy waves, and battered by the boat’s metal benches. But breathtaking vistas and a thrilling, up-close encounter with a pod of grey whales made the journey worth every discomfort we'd felt as self-admitted landlubbers.

Picture above: Boat Captain Volker and Watchman Walter; the Highland Ranger pulling up to Skedans; the rugged coast of Haida Gwaii.

At first glance, K’uuna didn’t appear to be much. In place of the well-preserved Haida village we had naively envisioned, we found a lush patch of forest nestled beneath a steep cliff and flanked on either side by a rocky, driftwood-laden beach. The only visible dwelling was a newly constructed cabin housing the summer watchmen who maintain and protect the site throughout the ‘busy’ tourist season. Walter had spent many summers as a watchman and it wasn’t until he began to walk us along K’uuna’s winding trails—marked with bright white clam-shells—that we slowly began to realize the extent of the history they were watching over.

The ancestors of the Haida Nation first reached the islands of Haida Gwaii as early as 13,000 years ago. They developed a complex culture inextricably and harmoniously linked to the abundant resources of the land and surrounding sea. At one point, as many as 100 villages had cropped up throughout the archipelago—vibrant enclaves of skilled artists, seafarers, warriors and traders. European contact, which began in the late the 18th century, was initially an economic boon for many Haida clans who leveraged their trading prowess to take advantage of the insatiable foreign demand for fur pelts. This relationship ultimately had tragic consequences as diseases transmitted by the European traders and subsequent Christian missionaries decimated indigenous populations, wiping out 90% of the Haida people in a matter of decades. The scourge of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis was so virulent that by 1890, the vast majority of villages had been abandoned entirely. We learned of this as we walked the paths of K’uuna; the white clam shells preventing us from unwittingly disturbing human remains, and serving as a stark reminder of the catastrophic fate that had befallen it.

Before the epidemic, the village was home to over 700 people living in thirty communal longhouses lining the sheltered bay. Walter showed us all that remained of these dwellings—rectangular depressions in the soil, now overgrown. Could this be all we’d traveled so far to see? But our initial disappointment quickly faded as Walter began to weave the history of his people into the tour. As he pointed out four cedar corner posts—waist high and rotting away—that once supported a longhouse, he described how numerous families lived, cooked, and socialized under one roof. They were clearly once impressive structures, sometimes up to 30 meters long and over 15 meters wide; however, despite their size, custom required them to be constructed in just one day. According to Walter, the superstitious villagers feared that evil spirits would occupy the building site if it was left incomplete overnight. The residents of a particular longhouse were rarely involved in the building of their own home; that task was given to members of neighbouring clans—a tradition designed to promote peace and unity throughout the community. Once adorning the front of the homes were intricately carved and painted ‘house poles’ that, wielding totems of revered animals like the orca, grizzly bear or mythological thunderbird, represented the identity, lineage, and social standing of its occupants. The shores were once also dotted with ‘mortuary poles’ honouring past chiefs and other prominent individuals. The largest of the Haida poles, they had a cavity at the top where the remains were enshrined, allowing the physical body to return to nature while providing an earthly home for the spirit of the deceased.

Pictured Above: Leaning mortuary poles in Skedans; a fading bear carving; moss blanketing longhouse ceiling beams that have fallen to rest beside a corner post's remains.

Only a few of the many totem poles that towered over K’uuna remain; some still stand, defying gravity at alarming angles, but most lay on the ground beneath a blanket of moss in various stages of decomposition. Walter pointed our attention to a faded carving of a bear and the group crowded around a fallen pole, straining to get a glimpse of the faint outline. Without Walter’s help, it would have been nearly impossible to determine what any of the carvings symbolized. He revealed that over the course of his time as a watchman, he has seen such a dramatic deterioration in the appearance of the poles that he believes, in as little as a decade, the once beautiful and striking totems will be unrecognizable. Instinctively, we asked: shouldn’t all of this be preserved so future visitors have the opportunity to learn about Haida culture first-hand? Walter paused thoughtfully, “In our culture, we believe that everything should be allowed to return to the earth”. This simple, yet profound, response provoked a fascinating discussion that continued throughout the day as much of what we observed circled back to the delicate and often contentious issue of cultural preservation.

At one point, Walter turned our attention to a mortuary pole and indicated that it was one of many painted by Emily Carr, the renowned British Columbian artist who traveled to Haida Gwaii in 1912. Her depictions of the haunting scene she found in K’uuna are an example of early attempts by outsiders to record Haida history, and she was not the only one to show concern. Anthropologist Wilson Duff to lead an expedition to ‘salvage’ artifacts from the village in response to the encroachment of the logging industry in the 1950s, the repercussions of which were still evident in the scarred terrain beneath our feet, and the tire tracks left at alarming proximity to several mortuary poles. Facing such threats, many were cut down, rolled to the beach using logs, and carted off to various places. (It is suspected that there is still a container of poles—some no doubt from K’uuna—being stored at the University of British Columbia, neither displayed nor allowed to return to the earth.) Though Duff had obtained permission, we got the sense there were, and likely still are, members of the Haida Nation who feel his actions were tantamount to sacrilege. Towards the end of our tour we passed a mortuary pole, slanting forty-five degrees but supported by a makeshift wooden brace. Walter shook his head, “I don’t know who did this but it’s not the Haida way—it should’ve been left to fall.”

At the end of a long day, which included a stop at Tanu, a larger Haida site and the final resting place of celebrated sculptor Bill Reid, it was time to return. As the Ranger pulled away, we were struck once more by the island’s pristine nature; from our vantage point, there was no sign that we—nor 13,000 years worth of thriving, industrious inhabitants—had ever set foot ashore. Sailing north towards the Queen Charlotte harbour, we reflected on what Walter called the ‘Haida way’; an understanding of equilibrium and a willingness to let nature take its course. We realized that behind us was one of few truly wild places remaining in the world, one that wouldn’t exist without the Haida Nation’s continued practice and defense of their ancestral beliefs.

Two weeks later, we found ourselves admiring The Raven and the First Men, a seminal Bill Reid sculpture featured at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA). We roamed the adjacent gallery of totem poles and wooden chests, taken from Haida villages and put on display in modern, climate-controlled rooms. We roamed the outdoor exhibit where several replica poles and two impressive longhouses stood at full scale. While it helped us to better visualize what K’uuna and Tanu might have looked like, we couldn’t help but notice that they were staged on a man-made beach that was a poor imitation of its wild counterpart. However, we realized that while we were lucky enough to see the sites in person, it’s certainly not sustainable. With the MOA drawing 150,000 visitors annually, we can only imagine what that foot traffic would do to K’uuna’s lightly treaded pathways. Though the exhibit is well-curated and an effective way for people to discover the richness of Haida culture, we left the museum wondering whether these artifacts were being deprived of their natural resting place.

As you read this, wind and rain are smoothing away the once distinct and beautiful carvings. Tree roots are growing through the fallen poles, recycling their nutrients for growth. In as little as a decade, the carvings will be indistinguishable, and not long after, the poles will disappear entirely. Though the mark of the early Haida people on the land may have faded, the ‘Haida way’ lives on—in Walter’s words of wisdom, in the continued carving and raising of totem poles, and in the evolution of the culture to balance modernity with tradition. We were left with the impression that the people of K’uuna would have been okay with their poles fading, so long as their traditions and values remained. While we were moved by the pristine haven that is Haida Gwaii, what we truly walked away with was a deep respect for the guardians of this majestic place, and a determination to learn from their relationship with nature. Perhaps this is the legacy we should immortalize.

Pictured above: a contemporary carving; Haida Houses and totem poles in Skedans, British Columbia, Circa 1878 (John and Carolyn Smyly); the Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid depicting the birth of the Haida people and featured on the Canadian $20 bill; the UBC Museum of Anthropology’s indoor exhibit.