Haida Gwaii: The Legacy, The People


by James Eke

“A few fragments of memory, a few bright glimpses in the writings of the past, some old and weathered totem poles in the storage shed in the moldering remnants of the once magnificent carved post and the houses on the site of an old village — those are all that survive of the tribe and the village chiefs Kuuya and Ninstints. 

What was destroyed here was not just a few hundred individual human lives. Human beings must die anyway. 

It was something even more complex and even more human — a vigorous and functioning society, the product of just as long an evolution as our own, well suited to its environment and vital enough to participate in human cultural achievements not duplicated anywhere else.

What was destroyed was one more bright tile in the complicated and wonderful mosaic of man’s achievement on earth.

Mankind is the loser.

We are the losers.”

This is from a 1957 Royal B.C. Museum report on the deliberate introduction and impact of smallpox to Haida Gwaii in 1862 which nearly exterminated the people from these amazing islands in the pacific off of mainland British Columbia, Canada. As I mentioned in part one of the podcast on Haida Gwaii, the population went from 30,000 to only a few hundred scattered around the many villages that make up Haida Gwaii.

If you have never been to Haida Gwaii or never heard of it, don’t feel too bad. Off the grid, remote and somewhat untouched and unspoiled is how most people like it in this neck of the woods.

My first time on the islands that make up Haida Gwaii changed me in a profound way. The place got under my skin so when I found myself back a few weeks later I dove right in to see what else this magical place would do to work its wonder on me.

Without getting into the politics of why, the southern half of Haida Gwaii is a National Park protected area better known as Gwaii Haanas, or Islands of Beauty in the Haida language and encompass almost 140 islands and an area of almost 5,000 square kilometres which is one of the only areas in the world protected from mountain top to ocean floor.

Throughout Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas are literal scores of ancient village sites. Some known only to locals and some, thankfully open to the public to view what remains.

As I said, the area is remote, even by coastal B.C. standards. Only a couple of flights come in from the outside world and locals probably like it best that way. Travel to Gwaii Haanas though isn’t much a trouble. There are a few local guides and companies that will not only take you into the area but provide you with an experience you aren’t going to forget.

If you know of the amazing Canadian painter Emily Carr, you’ll likely know of a few paintings she did of the villages of Haida Gwaii, mostly in the Gwaii Haanas area on two trips she made around 1912. One of the main stops she made was a village known as K’uuna or sometimes Skedans which means ‘village at the edge’. 

In Emily Carr’s paintings from over 100 years ago, the village still stands. Today however, as you approach the village remains — guarded by Haida Watchmen — you won’t see any of the longhouses, long ago taken over by the forest or raided by those looking for keepsakes or whatever you would call taking things by other definitions.

Deedee, the Haida Watchman who met us when we landed on the beach by boat is the grand-daughter of the past chief and sister of the current one and simply one of the most welcoming and beautiful people I have ever met in my life.

Taking our small group around the remains of the village, she told us of how many of the poles that once stood on the site have found their way into museums around the world and while I have to admit this idea bothered me, because in the Haida tradition, a totem pole is to stand and then fall and eventually return to the earth, much like all of us, but Deedee or Gitin Jaad, which means Eagle Woman said she is good with it, explaining that it makes her, and would make her Chinaay, or grandfather, happy, knowing that people from around the world see and experience Haida culture. 

Deedee explained that her Chinaay told her that people need to remember that we are all one. All people who walk on two feet are one people and it doesn’t matter where they are from and that we can all learn from each other and having people come from all across the globe to their village to see what was would make them all way back, very happy.

That said, she also told me that some people who in the past visited the village and others, took not just totem poles for museums but some people took human remains.

As disturbing as this is, many of these are coming home to Haida Gwaii now too.

Life is about change Deedee said to me. Not everything in the past is roses. Some of it is very sad, like how smallpox almost destroyed everything, or how settlers wanted to take all the natural resources from the land and from the sea. But that too changes and today the Haida people are making the best of things, they carry no grudges and welcome the world to see the rich and beautiful story that life on this archipelago that has been home to the Haida for at least 14,000 years has unfolded.

To me, this is a story worth telling and worth remembering. 

It is easy to dwell on the past. 

It is easy to choose resentment and anger when terrible things are done to you.

While I was on Haida Gwaii, actually the same day that I was heading to K’uuna, I saw a post on social media that said;

“When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you. The misinformation will feel unfair, but stay above it, trusting that other people will eventually see the truth just like you did.”

To me this was synchronicity. The same lesson that I’d learn from Deedee. 

On our trip out were two people from Germany, people whose grandparents my own grandfather might have met in battle not all that long ago during the war. But for Deedee and for the lesson of the Haida that I took away with me, we are all the same. We might have different accents, different languages but if we walk on two legs we are all the same. 

We get better and stronger when we learn to appreciate each other and work together. 

It is the same in Jiu-jitsu, you can only get better and excel when you have other people to work with. It doesn’t matter the colour of their skin any more than the colour of their belt. Together we become better.

We can judge. 

We can look at one another with disdain or be critical of someone but we should never judge anyone too harshly. What we will find, when we look closely, when we walk the ground where people once lived, is that we will learn about ourselves. 

There is truly only one race of people on this planet, the human race, the more we learn to appreciate one another and what we each bring to the table of our planet-wide family are stories that we can all relate to. In fact we will often find that the ancient stories of one people, like the Haida, might echo with the ancient stories of, say, the Norse. There is only one mountain that we are all climbing but different paths that go up. 

I’ve found that studying and immersing ourselves in a culture helps to not only keep that culture alive but makes you better in ways you don’t even realize.

My Jiu-Jitsu teacher, Professor Jean Jacques Machado told us once that the true test of Jiu-Jitsu isn’t what takes place on the mats but how you take the knowledge you have gained and integrate it into your life off the mats.

Jiu-Jitsu teaches us that people matter. You can’t learn Jiu-Jitsu without them. Deedee would likely agree with this concept and I’d venture to guess that she would tell me that the lesson to learn from what remains of K’uuna and all the other Haida villages and the work being done to bring new life to them and to let the world know that the Haida people and Haida Gwaii are here to stay is found in exactly that same lesson — we can’t live in the past, we have to move on. Us humans are in this together, for better or for worse — we can live in the past and let old sores fester or we can learn, we can become better today by understanding where we came from, the connections we have with one another and with the land and sea and all the myriad of things that make up this small beautiful ball soaring through the universe.

That is the lesson I have taken back from Haida Gwaii, Gwaii Haanas, the people, the land, the sea and the magic that lives here.


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