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The coast of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia that has been inhabited by a people known as the Haida for as long as 13,000 years. (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)

The Magic of Haida Gwaii

I knew something magical was in store when I arrived at the dock with National Geographic Expeditions in Queen Charlotte and met Linda Tollas, a Haida interpreter and the great-granddaughter of Susan Williams, a legendary matriarch who died at the age of 109. Linda’s native name means “the one who sits regally.” To be with her really is to be with Haida royalty, and for this I am grateful. 

Haida Gwaii, the misty islands, how dramatically they have changed over the last years! The multinational timber companies that once dominated the economy and dictated public policy on this archipelago that sits off the coast of British Columbia are gone. More than half of the land is now protected.

The economy, measured by conventional indicators, is weaker. The population of Sandspit, long an industry town, has dropped from 700 to 200. Government agencies, including the Ministry of Forests, which once supported 60 families in the village of Queen Charlotte alone, have indiscriminately shed employees.

The dock at Queen Charlotte village (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)
The dock at Queen Charlotte village (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)

But little of this has affected the Haida, who were never beneficiaries of a timber boom that promised to destroy their homeland.

To a remarkable degree they have lived outside of the formal economy, relying instead on the sustainable resources of the land–salmon, halibut, venison, crabs, octopus, seaweed, herring roe, clams, sea urchins, berries, abalone, and cedar. “When the tide is out,” the Haida like to say, “the table is set.”

The collapse of industrial logging has in fact coincided with a revitalization of Haida culture that few could have anticipated when the whine of chainsaws overpowered all other sounds in the forest.

There is no better place to take measure of this astonishing transformation than the Haida Heritage Centre. Home to the finest collection of argillite carvings in the world, as well as contemporary art and scores of wooden and stone artifacts recovered from ghostly villages scattered throughout the archipelago, the Centre is the symbol of the resurrection of Haida culture.

A traditional totem pole outside the Haida Heritage Centre (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)
A traditional totem pole outside the Haida Heritage Centre (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)

It is also the site where master artist Bill Reid in 1975 accepted Guujaaw as his apprentice. Together they carved and raised one of the first totem poles to be erected after a roughly 100-year lapse in the sacred tradition. It was as though a new wind had blown through the hearts of the Haida.

Since then totem poles have sprung up by the score, emblems of rebirth but also signs of a new economy based on the creation of high art–masks, cedar bent boxes, gold and silver jewelry, exquisite prints, button blankets, and robes–fashioned both for sale and for ritual activities.

We drove north from the museum, along the eastern shore of Graham Island, through the fields of Tlell, and past the cabin where, on one fateful night some four decades ago, Guujaaw, destined to be head of the Haida Nation, and Thom Henley (Huckleberry to his friends) scratched a line across a map of the islands and vowed to save everything south of it. Most laughed it off, saying it could never be done, but today that line is the northern frontier of Gwaii Haanas, the national park we will begin to explore tomorrow.

Haida dancers in Old Massett (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)
Haida dancers in Old Massett (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)

The bogs of Naikoon carried me past Port Clements, once home to the “Golden Spruce” and the “White Raven,” both long dead, destroyed by man. Crossing a causeway we reached Old Massett, home to the Eagle moiety.

Linda spoke.

As a member of the Raven moiety, and a descendant of the people of Skedans, she would have in the old days been betrothed in an arranged marriage to an Eagle, securing for her family a reciprocal bond in kinship and commerce. But she had chosen instead to marry in the modern way, a love marriage with a non-Haida she had met at a logging camp.

Though the marriage didn’t last, its consequences endured. By marrying a white man she lost her legal status as a native person. When a Haida man, she explained, married a white woman, he not only retained his status, but his wife became Haida as well. This, Linda explained, was but another means by which the dominant white society worked to undermine the traditional social structure of the matrilineal Haida.

Divested of her status, ostracized socially, and denied even the right to gather food from traditional sources, Linda found herself in limbo, both psychologically and materially. She had little choice but to leave the islands. It took 25 years for her to return.

Christian White's longhouse in Old Massett (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)
Christian White’s longhouse in Old Massett (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)

In Old Massett we were welcomed at the long house of Christian White, an exceptional Haida carver of argillite, canoes, and totem poles, and one of the leading cultural figures of Haida Gwaii. With his wife Candace, an anthropologist and teacher of the Haida language, he leads a cultural revival based on song and dance, ritual and dreams, all of it rooted in the art of creation that is at the heart of the Haida.

One dance was that of shark, mother of dogfish. Another recalled a gesture of peace, a warrior in movement leaving eagle feathers in his wake, just as shamans quelled the wrath of the sea by scattering them down upon the waves. Christian reminded me that these songs and dances were the currency of the Haida.

Material goods could come and go, happily, without regret or attachment in the reciprocal gift exchange that was the potlatch. The songs and dances by contrast were actual wealth, real and meaningful possessions, a kind of prayer for the well-being of the community that could only be performed by those who had inherited the right to bring them into the world.

Christian later brought me to his carving shed, a workshop where cedar logs 60 feet long were being transformed into totem poles and canoes, with paddles carved from yew wood and fish nets spun from cedar bark and nettles. Outside, with a fine mist in the air, he shared the stories of the poles he had erected for his family and ancestors. These were not small undertakings. Each pole required 500 men to put up, a thousand more to bear witness, and all had to be fed and gifted for the event to shine as a community memory that would never fade.

House poles, carved flat in the back to rest easily against the facade of the long house, feature the heraldic crests of the family–Raven, Eagle, Frog, Bear–as an aristocratic European clan might display its coat of arms. Memorial poles, by contrast, are meant to be observed from all sides and carved in the round. These, too, are decorated with heraldry to honor the one being remembered.

Mortuary poles are burials, each with a cedar box held high off the ground, in which would be placed the bones of the deceased. Finally, there are story poles, which, as their name suggests, recall a narrative–a powerful and meaningful moment in time.

Jim Hart in action (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)
Jim Hart in action (Photograph by Marc Cappelletti)

Regardless of type, Christian noted, each pole took months to create. Each had to be buried nine feet in the ground, in a bed of stones, as ancient tradition dictated. There were no shortcuts here, nor interest in them.

Hospitality is a universal trait of culture at which the Haida excel. At Christian’s canoe house a dozen women prepared a feast while we slipped away to visit Jim Hart, arguably the greatest Haida artist still living, just up the road. Jim and his family welcomed us into their home. A tirelessly prolific artist, Jim shared, with immense grace and warmth, his plans for a dozen new projects, each more monumental and ambitious than the last. A new pole to be carved, a story to be told of the residential schools, and a new era of hope, reconciliation, and forgiveness for all.

Jim’s work is internationally renowned, and his pieces are to be found in museums and galleries throughout the world. To have been invited into his home, in the presence of his family, to watch as he carved, to hear how he honed his thoughts, each a story as sharp as a knife, was a privilege I won’t soon forget.

As the rain began to fall, we returned to the canoe house for a final blessing from Christian and his family, a glorious spread of salmon, herring roe, seaweed, and crab prepared for us with kindness and generosity by some of the most wonderful people I will ever have a chance to meet.

Nat Geo Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis is an anthropologist, writer, photographer, and filmmaker whose work has taken him all around the world. Follow his adventures on Twitter @authorwadedavis.

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