Suitcase and World: This is Haida Gwaii. SG̱ang Gwaay.

Friday, May 6, 2022

This is Haida Gwaii. SG̱ang Gwaay.


he ancient Haida village of SG̱ang Gwaay Llnagaay (Nan Sdins or Ninstints) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (inscribed 1981) that is located in a sheltered bay on the east side of SG̱ang Gwaay Island (formerly Anthony Island) in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site (established in 1993). Did you follow all that? 😀

The village is simply known as SG̱ang Gwaay ("skung gwhy") was at one time one of the most prosperous Haida villages. Evidence of human habitation dates back nearly two thousand years. Starting in the mid 1800’s, however, diseases like smallpox began to tear through villages like SG̱ang Gwaay. By the late 1800’s, many Haida sites were abandoned, and survivors relocated further north in places like Moresby and Graham Islands. 

Today, we had the opportunity to visit SG̱ang Gwaay and what we saw were the remains of large cedar long houses, together with a number of carved mortuary and memorial poles. They are the only reminders of the art and way of life of the ancient Haida and most importantly, speak of the Haida’s relationship with the land and sea. It also offers a visual key to their oral traditions.

The Haida Watchmen

Three human figures wearing high hats are often carved at the very top of Haida poles.  These are known as watchmen.  In the past, Haida watchmen were posted at strategic positions around a village to raise the alarm in advance of an approaching enemy.

The carved figures crowning the monumental poles stood sentinal over the village.  The three carved watchmen form the symbol adopted by the Haida for the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program.  Today, the Haida Gwaii Watchmen have their own management structure and they are funded by Parks Canada.

From May to October the program has provided seasonal employment for Haida men and women as young as 16 and as old as 78.  The watchmen offer a first-hand introduction to Haida culture by sharing their knowledge of the land and sea, their stories, songs, dances and traditional foods. 

Fittingly, I have used the Watchmen logo as the closing image for my Haida Gwaii posts.  I like the idea that they are watching over the post.   

In order to come ashore at any Haida heritage site, including SG̱ang Gwaay, our boat captain, James had to coordinate with the local Haida Watchman, on site, on exactly when we could visit. The procedure for visiting all sites within the protected areas is to contact the Haida Watchmen on VHF 06 before coming ashore.  If the site already has visitors, the Watchmen will ask you to stand by until the previous group has left and your group can come ashore.

James found out that, Paul, the Watchman for SG̱ang Gwaay would arrive on May 5 so he timed our visit for the next day. To complicate matters, James had gotten wind of the arrival of an 80 passenger NatGeo/Linblad Expedition tour group that was headed to the area. Given that only a maximum of 12 people can be at each Haida Heritage Site at any given time, 80 people would have shut us out of visiting SG̱ang Gwaay on the day that James was planning to do so. James was determined to get us ahead of the NatGeo/Linblad group! Luckily for the six of us, because of his long standing friendship with Paul, we got first dibs to go on shore. In fact, we were exactly the first six visitors of the season! 

We donned our PFD's (personal flotation device aka life vests) and rubber boots and boarded the skiff for the short ride, from the MV Atlas, to the shore of the island.

Once on shore, we shed our PFDs and my brother, who smartly brought along his hiking shoes, changed into them.  The rest of us continued with our rubber boots on.

From shore, we followed James on a short hike, along an elevated, moss covered, boarded walkway. James warned us it could be slippery to walk on. Most certainly not easy with our rubber boots on. By now, the heavily moss covered, lush green temperate forest of the Pacific Northwest was a familiar sight to me though I still found it hauntingly beautiful and at times, otherworldly. I could not stop taking photos. 

We soon reached a small, seemingly recently built cabin, perched atop a small hill with a wonderful view of the water. There was also an outhouse, store house and helipad. There is no running water and the only electricity is provided by solar panels. This was the summer home, more like a tranquil summer cottage for Paul, the Watchman and his wife. Staying with them temporarily was another Watchman, Dave, who would soon be departing for his own site. Inside were enough modern amenities for Paul and his wife to have a comfortable life here.  According to Paul, the Canadian government poured well over a million dollars into building and outfitting the complex.  No doubt, that the Watchmen who get to stay here are the lucky ones!

James introduced us to Paul who was really happy to see us!  I think since we were the first group of the season, he was not yet tired of seeing tourists.  Hopefully, he has the same enthusiasm for the last group of the season!

Paul told us that he is Haida and from the Eagle clan.  Clan members cannot marry someone from the same clan so his wife is from the opposing clan - she is a Raven.  Because Haida is a matriachcal society, his son will claim membership into the Raven clan.  There's a lot to Haida culture and we were just making a small nick into understanding it.

The group with James and Paul who is sitting with his back to me.

Before we got going, we were asked to sign the visitor registry. My brother and I were the first two names to be recorded for the season! The date is May 6, 2022. 

After everyone had signed the registry, James left us in the care of Paul whom we followed down another path through the magical woods.  This is Paul's backyard! 

Earlier in our trip, James had told us about the project work that he undertook with a friend to hand build the new walkway at SG̱ang Gwaay. As we tread across the new walkway, we couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride that this was the handiwork of our boat captain. Not that I’m biased on anything but I think James and his friend did a magnificent job and I am sure that the walkway will be standing for at least the next decade or so! 

The anti-slip strips were a brilliant idea!

Nature left alone.  This is the way it should be.

Skunk cabbage.  It does stink though not too badly.  😬

More of James's handiwork.  You have to agree.  It's a well built walkway!

Sooo much moss!

Wee little, tiny moss gametophytes about to release their spores.

It wasn’t long before we reached the site of the ancient village which today consists of the remains of 10 houses and 32 mortuary poles, all of which have nearly been reclaimed by the land they reside on in the intervening century.  The ancient village was situated in small inlet but positioned in such a way that the residents could easily spot people (friends or foes) approaching.

Paul went about explaining to us what we were seeing and answered a ton of questions from us along the way. 

We started with the poles, all situated within a small area. Not just “totem poles”, the Haida erected poles for many different reasons. Memorial poles commemorate human, animal or supernatural figures. Decorative, frontal poles were also attached to the front façade of houses to indicate status or wealth or to convey the cultural history or spirit of the family living within.

Mortuary poles were built literally as the grave of a high-ranking person within that village. Carved out of the top of these poles was a large rectangular cavity where there would have been place a large bentwood mortuary box containing the remains of the deceased. Because it took time to carve the mortuary poles, the deceased would rest in the bentwood box for up to two years. In Haida tradition, the eldest son of the deceased’s eldest sister – his nephew – would assume his vacated role. His nephew was also on the hook, both personally and financially, for the mortuary pole. He was responsible for carving it, and for hosting an elaborate potlatch (or party) to celebrate the life of his deceased uncle. Guests attending a potlatch were often rewarded with gifts in exchange for telling, in detail, exactly what they had seen. This often increased the host’s social standings within the village, but also frequently left him teetering on the edge of financial ruin. Should the nephew be unable to shoulder the cost of paying for the witnesses at the potlatch – or carving the pole, or pretty much anything else – a relative could challenge the nephew’s status and vie for the role.

The remains of a mortuary pole.

With his knowledge of Haida symbols, Paul could easily identify the animals and supernatural beings that had been carved into each pole.

Another mortuary pole.

Looking at the poles at SG̱ang Gwaay and contrasting them with the newly carved poles standing in Queen Charlotte and Skidegate, you can see just how less defined the images are and that’s because back in the day, the poles would have all be carved using just clam shells. It wasn’t until the arrival of European settlers that metal tools became available and only the wealthiest chiefs could afford to have poles carved using metal tools.

Paul wearing his Haida Watchman sweatshirt; his uniform 😀

When it comes to the ancient Haida houses at SG̱ang Gwaay, all that remains today are little more than sunken foundations nestled in the mossy earth, but can still be clearly defined by their massive beams and crossposts, which lay where they have fallen, or which continue to rest in a triangle shape after one or more post gave way. 

I have to admit, it was difficult imagining how the homes once looked given Paul’s descriptions. It wasn’t until a visit to another Haida Heritage site, where the Watchman had a drawing of what an ancient Haida house looked like that what I saw at SG̱ang Gwaay made sense. Basically, the Haida built log homes using very large tree trunks as beams and support posts. Some of the homes were truly massive in size, easily accommodating one large or several small families.

I couldn't help noticing Paul's octopus.  Ironically, it's not one of the Haida animal symbols.

If you were the village chief, this would have been the view from your house.  Not bad!

Today, SG̱ang Gwaay is a haunting place as no efforts are being made to preserve the poles that still stand here, or the remains of the houses that once existed – everything is on the verge of being reclaimed by the earth from where they came. To let things be is Haida culture and I deeply respect that. Still, it is sad to realize that if I were to come back here in just 10 years, the landscape would likely have changed dramatically. Perhaps, only the walkway built by James and his friend would still be standing but then again, may not.

My tour mate, Paddy, walking the way back to Paul's cottage.

After our visit to the remains of the ancient village, we met back up with James and followed him and Paul back to the cottage that Paul and his wife will be staying at for the next few months. Along the way, they both shared with us stories of recent storm damage to the island and the efforts it has taken and continues to take to preserve the Haida ruins and the island, in general, as best they can.

Once we got back to the cottage, we wished Paul and his wife well and bid them farewell. Our time was up and it was back the skiff and the MV Atlas. For me, it was a really interesting visit. I’ve never spent any time with anyone from a First Nations community and I really learned a lot. The Haida don’t live an easy life but they do live a sustainable one. That’s something that many people, including myself, are striving to do and so there are many lessons to be learned from their way of life. I admire their passion to reclaim and preserve their heritage and the lands they call home.  This place has indeed captivated my heart and I hope to return one day!