Lost and Found on Haida Gwaii
It’s a warm, blue day on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago located off the northern British Columbia coast. I’ve been zipping around the islands on a zodiac speedboat, soaking up culture and nature and people.
I’m standing beneath a towering pole of silvery cedar, carved with faces and figurines, human and sea-wolf and raven. Surrounded by glinting navy ocean and earthy temperate rainforest, I squint into the sun and crane my neck to see the sculpted eagle perched atop the totem pole.
“This is the Legacy Pole, the first totem pole raised in Gwaii Haanas in 130 years,” explains Rick, our guide. “It was placed here at Hlk’yah GaawGa (Windy Bay) to commemorate the logging blockades. Look, those figures halfway up the pole, they represent protestors wearing gumboots.”
Rick has lived all his life in Skidegate, a Haida town. He spends his summers as a Watchman, protecting Haida natural and cultural heritage and yarning with visitors. With a warm smile, he leads us through village remnants and forest dripping with lichen. He chats about whales breaching in front of his fishing boat and catching fresh octopus for dinner.
Earlier, Rick had led us down a path cut into the thick moss carpet, jagged with roots, to a cave. “Archaeological evidence shows that my ancestors first settled here 17,000 years ago, living in caves like this,” Rick gestures to the opening, shadowy in contrast to the sunlight spilling through twisted treetops.
Over millennia, the Haida developed a rich culture, sophisticated trading systems, craftsmanship and seamanship, a unique language, stunning art and a deep connection with the land. But with a swift stomp of the colonial boot, much of the Haida way of life was quashed.
It’s mind-blowing to consider the knowledge that has been lost – the forgotten words, the vanished species and bygone ways of being. What’s more, the Haida story is just one thread in a common tapestry of Indigenous oppression and loss. We are in the midst of a cultural extinction crisis, an accelerated erosion of the ethnosphere. But this isn’t just about some abstract concept – it’s about people. Without his language, his history, his art and his land, Rick would be identity-less.
Totem poles, like the one I’m standing beneath now, were considered satanic by colonialists. In reality, totem poles are a profound expression of family and history. Placed at the front of a family’s longhouse, they depict lineages, clans and events in intricate carving. Many were destroyed or wrenched away to far-flung museums as exotic curiosities, along with exhumed ancestral remains.
Rick leads us back amongst pine and spruce to a cluster of mossy logs laid across square depressions.
His smile fades for a second, “This is T’anuu, a village once home to more than 500 people.” I scan the woodland that stretches down to the stony shore. The roof beams of the longhouses are all that remain, and less than 10 of us huddle beneath the trees. I try to picture a settlement bustling with people. Can Rick see more than trees and moss?
European contact in the 19th century brought smallpox, which decimated Rick’s ancestors. The Haida population plummeted from around 30,000 to only 600. A parent, a sibling, friends – whole communities torn apart by a nightmarish pus-filled blistering rash.
Despite this history of hardships, Haida culture has experienced a magnificent resurgence. The people have reclaimed their language, land and art, and they graciously share their lives with all those who are willing to listen.
We return to a tent further back – Rick is staying here while a new longhouse is built. He retrieves a box. His eyes light up as he removes a smooth black object and sets it softly before us. It is sculpted into an anthropomorphic raven, with inlaid prehistoric ivory and abalone, holding a red disc in its beak.
“This represents the story of the Raven Who Stole the Light,” he transfixes us with a snippet of ancient oral history. “My father taught me how to carve. It’s what I love to do.”
We meander through cedar-moss magic and follow Rick to a dappled clearing. He stops, bending down, pointing to tiny white flowers nestled in the feathery green. “See these flowers here? In Haida, they are ‘The one who always looks down’ and our ancestors would eat them for strength before battle,” Rick describes. His explanation is simple but his tone is laced with the gravity of a thousand-year oral history, and I am rapt. Humble strength is a Haida trait: in 2004, the Council of the Haida Nation took the BC Government to court and won. They successfully argued that they should be consulted before any land to which they may have claims is exploited.
We carry on to the edge of the forest, where the best-preserved totem poles face the sea in an unwavering last stand.
“If you’d like, I can sing a song,” Rick suggests.
We nod enthusiastically. Rick begins to sing in a thrumming rhythmic voice. The song reverberates around the cliff walls and sails through the forest, past the row of disintegrating totem poles to the ocean. The cadence and guttural sounds are alien: Haida is a language isolate, it pulsates with a unique way of knowing.
But after decades of only being spoken in illicit whispers, the Haida language is critically endangered. Just 20 fluent native speakers remain. That it persists at all is a wonder: indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to residential schools to be assimilated into English-speaking, Christian society. The last such school only closed in 1996.
Zooming back to “civilisation” on our zodiac, I’m feeling overwhelmed by the synergy of vivid history, spectacular vistas and fascinating people – in a heartwarming way.
We can choose to remain in our bubbles. But as travellers, we have an unmatched opportunity to go deeper. I was blown away by the kindness, openness and resilience of Rick and I have a feeling that if I explored a little more elsewhere and in my own country, I’d discover people equally as vibrant. We live in a labyrinth of cultures, landscapes, people and languages – so many different ways of orienting yourself on the Earth. There’s beauty in diversity and if we navigate just a little from our own comfortable corner, we can keep the worldwide web of culture thriving.
Cover by Dorinsa, insets by the author.