Suitcase and World: This is Haida Gwaii. Skedans.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

This is Haida Gwaii. Skedans.


oday, James arranged for us to visit Skedans, another of the Haida heritage sites that is part of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.  It is a National Historic Site of Canada though it is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site like SGang Gwaay.

The Haida name for Skedans is K’uuna Llnagaay (Village at the Edge) but the village had several other names as well, including Huadji-lanas (“Grizzly Bear Town”) because of the large number of grizzly bear carvings found there. Visiting fur traders named it Skedans, a corruption of the name of its chief, Gida’nsta which means “From His Daughter”, a title of respect used by children when addressing a person of high rank. 

View of Skedans village from the eastern end.
Photograph by George M. Dawson, July 1878.
National Archives of Canada 249.

Skedans village faces south onto Skedans Bay and is situated on a small peninsula. At the opposite end of the peninsula is a high rocky bluff filled with caves that were undoubtedly used as burial chambers.  Today, the Watchman cottage is located on that bluff - it was a spectacular view of the water.

In the mid-1800s, almost 450 Haida lived here in about 26 longhouses. Records indicate there were 56 monumental cedar sculptures, including 22 frontal poles, 18 single mortuary poles, 3 double-mortuaries, 5 memorial poles, and 5 mortuary figures. Of these, at least 10 items are preserved in museum collections and about the same number can be found, in varying states of deterioration, at what remains of the village. 

Skedans is one of the few remaining village sites with some standing poles and remnants of large longhouses. Crests featured on the poles, such as rainbow, frog, eagle, beaver, and two-finned killer whale, signify which the old village allows you to appreciate the artistry of the poles, now in varying stages of decay, and provide a glimpse of what Haida life might have been like many years ago. 

From the MV Atlas, we made our way to shore on the skiff.  It was a cold, blustery day and we all tried not to shiver as James threw down the throttle and skiff Zoomed ahead.

Waiting to greet us was as we got out of the skiff was Dee Dee, the Haida Watchman who is temporarily living on the site with her husband, Eric.  

View back to the water.  That's the MV Atlas in the distance.

Standing on the beach, the chilly wind cut through all my layers of warm clothing like a sharp knife.  I couldn't wait to get further inland where I hoped the trees would block some of the wind.  Brrr.......

As we walked towards the forest, I noticed the remnants of a beach fire pit - no longer burning but I wished it had been just so I could warm up for a few minutes.

Dee Dee gathered us around a large pit, all that remains today of the floor of a Haida house. 

There, she explained to us about the construction of the home, pointing out the now fallen support beams and cross posts.  She had drawing that illustrated how the house would've had looked.  This was very helpful as it's incredibly difficult to look at logs, now partially submerged into the ground and covered with a thick layer of moss, and see a full Haida log house.

Her husband, Eric, also chimed in with information that further helped us to understand how the houses would've have been built back then....especially difficult when there were no metal tools available to do something as simple as chop down a tree, let alone fashion it into a cross post!

We also got to know a little bit more about the couple.  It was obvious just from her facial features that Dee Dee is Haida and from Eric's, that he is not.  They met in Victoria and he decided to follow Dee Dee to Haida Gwaii.  Just before they got married, her Haida aunt adopted him into her family, thus making him an honorary Haida.  He has since learnt a lot about Haida culture and history and seems to enjoy being with her as she educates visitors like us.

The moment I looked at Dee Dee face on, I noted the tattoos on her face.  She has 3 turquoise colored dots running down her nose.  Those represent the spine of a sculpin which is fish that can be found in the waters here.  The sculpin is a common family crest used by families from the Haida.  It is closely associated with Komokwa, the King of the Undersea World. The sculpin has an affinity to copper and to treasures.

She recently added a tattoo to her chin.  I found it to be incredibly beautiful and even more so after she explained the significance to me.  On the right side of her chin is the Raven and on her left, with the hooked beak, the Eagle.  These are the two most powerful Haida clans and they are rivals. The design of her tattoo is to symbolize the joining of the two clans and their existence in harmony with each other. While many Haida seem to be proud that the two clans are separate, it seems like Dee Dee prefers to see them as one big family and not divided.  There's a good message in that thought.

As we continued our walk to the final house pit, we could see Dee Dee and Eric's cottage nearby and beyond that, more water.  That's when I realized we were standing on a narrow peninsula.  What a great location for both the village and the Watchman cottage!

This last house pit was a very deep one.  Dee Dee went on to explain that some of the larger homes essentially had a living space that was partially underground which probably not only gave the Haida more space without having to construct a second story but also allowed them some protection from wind and may be even rain.

Dee Dee then walked us over to a partly leaning over potlatch pole with 13 notches ringed around it signifying its chief as being a very wealthy one!  She told us there were several potlatch poles in the village but this is one of the few, if not the only one, still upright.  I can't remember if any of the other potlatch poles were taller or not.

By now, we were all frozen to the core.  You know it's bad when even the native Haida woman has on a thick, heavy Canada Goose down jacket!  Dee Dee invited all of us to come with her to the cottage.  No one said no.  We all quickly made our way inside to a lovely 2 bedroom, with outhouse, cottage.  It was very bright inside and although small, felt spacious thanks to tall ceilings.  A wood burning stove provides heat and solar panels, the electricity needed to run their appliances.  Personal touches filled the space and it most certainly felt like they had been returning back to this cottage for quite some time - it's like their summer home.   

Dee Dee and Eric had just recently arrived from Skidegate and were preparing for their two grandchildren to come visit.  They must all have a fun and carefree time here together, in the summer.  She told us that she would be here until August at which time, she and Eric will be swapping locations with Paul and his wife in SGang Gwaay.  I think these two Haida Heritage sites are the primo spots and only the more experienced Watchmen get to occupy them.

From their living room, they have a wonderful view to the water.

We all signed the visitor registry book and spent a few minutes chatting with Dee Dee.  She was showing us her Haida language book - she's trying to learn how to read and speak the language which was something she did not get to do in her younger years.  The Haida are making a strong effort to revive their language and maybe one day, it will be part of the school curriculum....if not mandatory, then at least optional.

When it was time to leave Dee Dee, we all thanked her for her time and wished her and Eric well.  She was such a lovely, friendly woman.  I can understand why the Watchman Program elected to have her work and live here. 

Back on the beach, we spotted Eric and James standing by what is now a lit beach fire pit.  James never came along with us on our walk and I suspect it was him that got the fire going.  

 Can't blame him because even he was cold enough to put on his jacket.  James rarely had a jacket on!

By the time we were ready to return to the MV Atlas, the skiff had decided to beach itself.  It took several of the guys to get it back into the water.  As Eric pushed us off, we waved him goodbye.  It was a short but fun and interesting visit to Skedans!

I hope that the summer goes well for Dee Dee and Eric and that they enjoy their time with their grandchildren and all the visitors who come to see the village and them.