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Posted by on Aug 8, 2013 in Featured, Travel |

Part 4 Hawa’a Haida Gwaii – A living culture

Part 4 Hawa’a Haida Gwaii – A living culture

As if the nature and the hospitality I drank in during my week-long adventure with Green Coast Kayaking were not enough of a blessing. I also had the opportunity to find out more about the original inhabitants of Haida Gwaii.

Culturally, the Haida Nation’s history and present were the constant backdrop of our kayak voyage. We paddled in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. We walked among the still-standing 150-year-old mortuary poles at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, SGang Gwaay. Our Haida guide wove anecdotes and jokes creating a tapestry-like image of life in the old village; and he gave us insight into present-day Haida culture.

His images were so vivid, I could see the people in the massive long houses, where members of the clan slept on one of the several levels of cedar steps depending on their status in the clan. The leaders and elders slept near the top and at the back, protecting them from the winds from the ocean and ensuring they kept warm by the rising heat. Cedar and otter pelts protected the long house from the elements.

commemorative poles

Haida society is matrilineal and consists of two clans – the Raven and the Eagle clan. Raven is believed to have discovered the first people in a clam shell at Nai Kun. Raven stole the light, and was always playing tricks. Eagle is the crest for the other half of of Haida people.

The Haida see all components of the ecosystem as equally important because its very existence as a culture is defined by the relationship to the land in its totality, not only to  isolated elements.

Before contact, Haida art was considered to be on par with the Egyptian or Greeks.  But their culture came under attack as missionary zeal drove the Haida language, art and its most revered ceremonies underground during a cultural prohibition that lasted almost a century. Haida children were sent to the dreaded missionary schools and were not allowed to speak their language. The Haida poles, an important identifier and honour recognition in the culture, were deemed idolatrous and chopped down. In 1884 the Canadian government  passed legislation making it illegal to hold important cultural ceremonies like the potlatch, and the Haida culture went underground for almost a century. In 1951 the potlatch ceremony prohibition was lifted.

Contact brought a great toll in terms of human life, too. After contact, in about 1860, small pox was introduced and reduced the Haida population of about 8,000 souls to not even 600 by 1915.

Today the Haida are coming back. Haida Gwaii has an established art scene, renowned for carving, cedar weaving, silver work and painting. The people are codifying their oral language in written form. In 2010, after 25 years of protests and legal wrangling, their land was renamed Haida Gwaii after an agreement with the B.C. government. Before that it was known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay ‘Llnagaay on Graham Island is a storehouse of historical artifacts, a natural history of the area and current art and political statements.

I was fortunate to chat with Jaalen Edenshaw, the head carver of a Memorial pole to be erected at Windy Bay in SGang Gwaay, while he was carving at  the Haida Heritage Centre. He was friendly and talkative, but didn’t stop his work during our conversation. He was on the final touches of carving and would be moved in a week to Windy Bay to be painted, then erected in a ceremony.

carving the pole

Image at lower left depicts the 1985 logging blockade on Lyell Island that began the movement to reclaim Haida Gwaii for the Haida.

This is the first pole raised in the Gwaii Haanas region in over 130 years, building a connection with the historic poles still standing in the village of SGang Gwaay. It tells the story of how Canada and the Haida Nation came together through an historic agreement to protect Gwaay Haanas. Part of that story is the historical 1985 stand off between the Haida and the loggers on Lyell Island.

The world watched as proud Haida — some elders in ceremonial button blankets — were arrested one after another for blocking a logging road somewhere out on the edge of nowhere. White justice and values squared off against aboriginal rights.

The defiant Haida won the battle with the logging company and the government; and thus began the process of government recognition of the Haida rights to their territory.

Serendipitously, I have a connection with that. In 1985 I worked for the Indian News Media in Alberta and I accompanied then chief of the Lubicon Lake Cree, Bernard Ominiyak to Graham Island on his solidarity mission with the Haida. He was also fighting big business and government to have his people recognized so they could fight the oil interests that were infringing on what they perceived to be their land.

We participated in a massive potlatch and saw firsthand the historical ceremony in a community hall complete with white table clothes and the finest crockery and china. Each family contributed fabulous fish stews and other Haida delicacies, blessings were bestowed, speeches were made, dancing and music ensued. It was a swirl of resolve, dedication, celebration and solidarity. No wonder  government authority was not absolute among these people. First Nations across Canada have taken inspiration from the determined Haida.

The Haida have experienced a cultural renaissance. They have been blessed with this abundance and their strength and resolve have allowed them to endure and take what is theirs, so they can protect it and live from and with it as they have for millennia.

moss-covered canoe


Life’s wonders explored

Haida Gwaii inspiration

ignites with each breath.


If you go

Book with Green Coast Kayaking:

Arrive in Sandspit by air with Air Canada from Vancouver:

Or by ferry from Prince Rupert:

Stay at Seaport Bed and Breakfast in Sandspit (Run by Moresby Explorers)

Eat lunch at Brady’s Bistro in the Sandspit Airport

Visit Moresby Explorers in Sandpit:

Visit Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay ‘Llnagaay on Graham Island: