Haida Gwaii

Shadows cast by the mellow evening light sharply defined the ridges, rolls and peaks to the west of the ferry landing at Skidegate on Graham Island, the largest and most northerly of the 150 some islands that make up the Haida Gwaii archipelago, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Driving the few kilometers into the ambitiously named Queen Charlotte City, I was immediately struck by indicators of the region’s independent spirit—a selection of roadside signs that left no doubt about local attitudes toward a northern pipeline.

Not that independence is a surprising characteristic for people who live at the farthest edge of Canada, separated from mainland BC by often-stormy Hecate Strait. For millennia before contact the Haida made such a handsome living from the abundant sea that their population likely topped 10,000 and they had plenty of free time for artistic pursuits. They developed a distinct language and mastered their isolation by carving superb canoes to carry their expert paddlers on regular trading missions to the area of present day Prince Rupert and as far along the coast as Alaska and Mexico.

The art and skill of canoe carving was nearly lost, along with so much of Haida culture, as successive waves of smallpox depopulated whole villages, reducing the population by as much as 90 per cent. Bill Reid is remembered for helping to reclaim that heritage with his famed canoe Loo Taas. A major focus of our trip was to learn more about current canoe carvers and to investigate Haida culture in general.

We took advantage of a rare sunny day to start by photographing a replica of Loo Taas, floating at a mooring in the bay facing the glass and beam longhouses of the Haida Heritage Centre. We spent time shooting the outdoor totem poles, but didn’t explore the interior exhibits because we planned to return for the Loo Taas 25th anniversary celebration in two days.

We spent those days exploring along Highway 16, a coastal road squeezed between pebble beaches and the practically impenetrable forest of towering cedar and spruce before it swings inland to the village of Port Clements and finally north to Masset and, at the top of the island, the Haida village of Old Masset.

There we met renowned argillite carver, Christian White, who is also well known for his work in wood, including poles and canoes. He was immensely generous with his knowledge of Haida people and ways, illustrating every major point with a story, his delivery echoing the oral tradition of his ancestors. Christian passed us off to John Bennett, a carver and boat builder who invited us to join his family for Friday night dinner, Haida style: fresh crab, three salmon dishes and huckleberry pie. Later we spent the night with Christian’s cousin, April White, an engineer turned artist whose work lines the walls of her Eagles Feast House B&B and sells from major galleries.

In our travels we found that artistry is imbedded in the Haida DNA. We expected talent from Christian, John and April. But what about the two-storey totem in John’s living room, carved as an Emily Carr art school project by his son, and the eye-popping textiles designed by his wife Joyce who has been exhibited at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. At the Haida Centre, interpreters and even the manager all mentioned aspirations to attend or having already attended Emily Carr in addition to other degrees and qualifications. And being a part of the celebration at the Haida Centre drove the point home even more strongly as every generation proudly paraded in their best regalia.

Seeing the living culture of today made our daytrip boat tour with Moresby Explorers from Morseby Island to the abandoned village of K’uuna Llanagaay (Skedans) on Louise Island even more poignant. As Haida watchman Walter Russ escorted us around the site, explaining the purpose and original appearance of the few standing poles and moss-covered remnants fast being reclaimed by the forest, I was haunted by the specter of a great culture nearly destroyed—and immensely heartened by it current strength and sense of renewal.

First published in Okanagan Life magazine, March, 2013. Download PDF.