Haida Gwaii

Ancient Mystery

Experiencing the passion of a people and the beauty of their land

by Tim Johnson

I walk among historic totem-like standing poles, some proudly upright, others slowly collapsing, and I can almost hear them whispering to me. They tell the story of a mighty nation once battered but not broken, pressured but never shattered.

S’`ang Gwaay Llanagaay is a special place, one that has long been sacred. As I walk along the site — a clearing of dewy green grass holding firm against encroaching firs on one side and the churning sea on the other — I can feel the power and strength of the Haida people.

I’m on the southern tip of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. The archipelago of about 200 islands is separated from the mainland by Hecate Strait. Haida Gwaii’s lower third is dominated by Gwaii Haanas, which preserves the territory from the mountaintops to the sea floor. Acting as guardians from spring to fall, Haida Watchmen oversee the area and educate visitors about the park and its history.

Beginning in the north, at the Haida community of Skidegate, I had slowly made my way to the extreme southern edge of these often misty, always mystical islands.

On my first night, Roberta Olson, owner of Keenawaii’s Kitchen, greets me with a feast. For more than 20 years, Olson has welcomed visitors and friends into her seaside home in Skidegate, serving up hearty Haida meals with a side order of culture.

“As I walk along the site — a clearing of dewy green grass holding firm against encroaching firs on one side and the sea on the other — I can feel the power and strength of the Haida people.”

On this night, a couple dozen hungry travellers from across North America listen to traditional songs played by three generations of Olsons on her back patio overlooking water and mountains, then move inside to a long table for a dinner of fry bread, seafood chowder, smoked sockeye salmon, black cod and roasted sea asparagus.

Later, I chat with Olson, who notes that her cooking played a part back in 1985 when the Haida reasserted their purview over logging on these islands. Seeking to stop the cutting of old-growth forests on Lyell Island, protesters formed a human blockade, winning a big victory there, which led to the creation of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. “I did a lot of cooking at the blockade,” Olson tells me. “I realized that this soul food builds up people’s spirits.”

The soul comes through in art, as well. A little farther up the road, I visit Ben Davidson, son of renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson and a master in his own right. Davidson shows me his work — masks and totems, each intricately carved, dramatically painted and imbued with both passion and history.

I ask him about the Haida’s long legacy of excellence in artwork. The unique qualities of Haida art have earned it numerous accolades and fame. Notably, The Spirit of Haida Gwaii by Haida artist Bill Reid once appeared on Canada’s $20 bill. “The idea here is to bring in what was done in the old times in the villages,” Davidson says. “But at the same time, we had a succession of people pushing to go further. That’s why it’s evolving.”

“The idea here is to bring in what was done in the old times in the villages. But at the same time, we had a succession of people pushing to go further. That’s why it’s evolving.” — Haida artist Ben Davidson

Davidson’s All About U Arts gallery is one of the first fine art studios on the islands, and perhaps the only place where you can see works in progress. After dealing with drugs and depression, Davidson says he was saved by a good woman, and now pours his life into his family and his art.

“Some people say that I was lucky to open the gallery, but they didn’t see me hanging the drywall myself. It was built with blood, sweat and tears.” Now, visitors and locals come to truly experience Haida art. “We want people to sit and soak it in — there’s no pressure to buy.”

Inspired, I feel compelled to seek the art’s roots, and for that, I head south. First, I get a little background at the Haida Heritage Centre, an impressive museum where I learn about the Haida’s difficult history.

Once one of the dominant nations on the west coast, the Haida were decimated by diseases brought here by Europeans in the 19th century. Survivors were eventually forced north, coalescing in two villages: Old Massett and Skidegate.

The remains of traditional villages are still here, hidden among tall trees and veiled by mists on the islands now protected by the government of Canada and the Haida Nation.

I sign on for a Zodiac tour with a company called Moresby Explorers (often shortened to “MorEx”), pulling on gumboots and a long raincoat and, accompanied by an experienced guide and about a dozen other fellow travellers, launch deep into this enchanted wilderness. We spend four days motoring between sites of cultural and natural significance, overnighting at either MorEx’s comfortable, floating lodge in the north of Gwaii Haanas or a guesthouse in the quirky little community of Rose Harbour.

A former whaling station, Rose Harbour is now just a small scattering of buildings inhabited by a handful of year-round residents, who make a pioneer-style life on the southern end of the islands.

Along the way, we tour places like Skedans, a once-robust village hit hard in the 1880s by a smallpox epidemic that killed some 90 per cent of Haida Gwaii’s inhabitants. We view black-and-white photos that testify to its vibrancy, showing a line of homes crowded onto a sweep of beach, each one paired with a pole. Some of those remain to this day, and we walk among them, learning that they’re purposely left to decay, following a pattern traced by all living things.

Skimming across the water, often surrounded by pods of orca and humpback whales, we lunch on isolated beaches, scarfing down healthy, hearty fare while sitting on driftwood. We tour abandoned logging camps, now overgrown and in the process of being reclaimed by nature.

And we visit S’`ang Gwaay Llanagaay, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place of beauty and palpable spiritual power. Here, poles still stand in a long line like sentinels, figures of eagles and ravens representing the two Haida clans, as well as bears and other animals, still distinct in the weathered wood. We learn their cultural significance — some preserve family histories; others serve as a standing testament to a particular deceased person.

For our final stop, we land at Windy Bay, a site sheltered by massive Sitka spruce trees where the beautiful new Legacy Pole stands. While the rest of the group takes a hike, I chat with the two Haida Watchmen posted there, James Williams and Vince Collison, who invite me into their on-site residence and explain the significance of these carved poles. “They’re what we had instead of history books,” Williams says.

The Legacy Pole, they add, commemorates the agreement that created Gwaii Haanas. In it are embedded eagles and ravens, of course, as well as a representation of those brave Haida who stood against the loggers. For Williams and Collison, being a watchman is more than a job, it’s a way to honour their forebears, as well as those who fought more recently to protect and preserve this land.

“Both of my parents were arrested at the protests on Lyell Island — they suffered indignities so my kids and Vince’s kids could experience this one day,” Williams says contemplatively. And the fact is, their sacrifice has allowed me, too, to see all these beautiful and deeply spiritual places.

Collison sums it up well: “See those spruce trees outside? They’ve seen so much history, and here you can reach out and touch it. They’ve been here for so many years, and now they’ll be here for so
many more.”