On the fabled islands of Haida Gwaii off the coast of northern British Columbia, ancient cedar forests are cloaked in incandescent moss and the sea is churned by a wailing wind. Many visitors are drawn to the archipelago by this wild natural beauty, which reaches a crescendo in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and the islands are often heralded as the Canadian Galapagos for their abundant wildlife.
But instead of making a beeline for the Gwaii Haanas, guests of Haida-owned and operated Haida House – where I’m staying in one of their new oceanfront cabins on the shores of the Hecate Strait – can opt to embark on a Haida art tour across Graham Island in the north.
Immersing guests in the Indigenous artistic traditions of the islands is part of the lodge’s artisan program, a partnership that includes residencies and temporary exhibits at Haida House. Important heritage sites such as SGang Gwaay (formerly Ninstints), a 19th-century Haida village, in Gwaii Haanas will give visitors a glimpse of Haida history. But in the villages of Skidegate and Old Massett, a thriving community of contemporary creatives is carving, weaving and painting the Haida art of the future.
Just outside Skidegate, at the wooden carving shed where master carver Garner Moody (also known as St’inll) works, yawning windows overlook a silver ocean and sky. Inside, mounds of red western cedar shavings fill the air with their earthy perfume. Moody, who has apprenticed under renowned Haida artist Bill Reid (or Iljuwas), is bent over an eight-foot sculpture of a bear holding a salmon, slicing off buttery slivers of wood to the tune of blues rock humming from a cassette player. Moody explains how the trees for poles are carefully chosen from a stand of old growth reserved for carving and removed from the forest with a ceremonial offering and song.
In this sense, learning about Haida art is not only enriching in its own right, but it’s essential to gain a deeper understanding of the landscape. The rich canon of Haida art is conceived in the forest and mountains, using sustainably sourced materials such as western red cedar and argillite. In fact, traditional crafts like canoe building were often carried out in the forest. Some of these unfinished canoes can be spotted in the Yaaguun Gandlaay Heritage Site and Conservancy, an important cultural and archaeological site threaded with one main trail for exploring. The flora and fauna motifs depicted on many works, like Moody’s bear and salmon, not only represent the archipelago’s wildlife, but the clan crests and oral histories that are rooted in the Haida Nation’s relationship with the natural world.
“Our culture is based on the mythology of our environment,” says Marni York (also known as Aadiitsii Jaad), our Haida House cultural guide as we stand outside the Haida Gwaii Museum, or Saahlinda Naay, later that day. As I crane my neck to look at the dizzying height of the six poles that stand in front of the museum, including one carved by Moody, York interpreting the cast of animals and crests. There’s a dogfish, a wolf, a transformational bear figure – in Haida mythology, animals and humans often shape-shift – and a raven, one of two moieties, or kinship groups, on Haida Gwaii and a particularly important figure in Haida creation stories.
“For us, there is no difference between art, culture and nature,” says James McGuire (S𝙶̲aan Kwahagang), the museum’s collections co-ordinator. “Saahlinda Naay is like a glossary for the broader museum of our territory; these works tell histories about actual places here on the island.” Later, on a hike up through the emerald forest of Tow Hill in Naikoon Provincial Park, I arrive breathless at a lookout where the treetops frame a view of Rose Spit. The fin-shaped strand of sandy beach is at the center of the creation myth of the Haida people, where Raven is said to have landed on an enormous clamshell, noticing small creatures dwelling within it. He coaxed them out, and they became the first Haida people.
“The relationship between animals and humans that you see in our art is the source of our ideas about the stewardship of the natural world,” says York. One of these fundamental beliefs is the law of Yahguudang, a respect for all living things and acknowledgment of the interdependence that binds us. “Hopefully at Saahlinda Naay we can paint a picture that helps people understand these philosophies,” added McGuire.
This worldview and the art it inspired fell into the shadows for centuries. The arrival of Europeans in the 1700s brought a devastating wave of smallpox, followed by government-supported 19th-century missionaries who removed most of the polish on Haida Gwaii, established a residential school system – now recognized as cultural genocide – and outlawed the Haida language, a unique language isolate, which means it’s not descended from any other language group. (Today, there are only around 20 people fluent in Haida.) Under the Canadian government’s Indian Act, the potlatch – a communal gift-giving feast that marked important life events – was banned until 1951.
It’s heartening to see the revival of carving, and just as art is essential for visitors to understand the islands, continuing these traditions is crucial for new generations to perpetuate Haida culture. The first pole raising in 100 years took place in 1969, and in Old Massett visitors can see the pole for themselves. A moving film screened inside Saahlinda Naay depicts the joyous event, with hundreds of people from local communities heaving on ropes to raise the pole, while singing traditional songs. The carver, Haida artist Robert Davidson, recalls the day in a clip: “There was a void, and I didn’t realize the scale of that void.” Davidson hadn’t heard anyone sing in the Haida language until he was 16 years old.
As the Haida people fight to reclaim and celebrate their culture, sharing elements of it with travelers is also a way to draw attention to the nation’s repatriation efforts. Up to 15,000 Haida artworks and artifacts still live in colonial museums around the world, but repatriation is becoming more frequent. McGuire notes that a visit to the museum is often the catalyst for people to ask questions around repatriation.
“Some of these works that have been repatriated also act as study tools,” says Danielle Louise Allard, whose Haida names are Skil Jaday and Ta K’udlan Jaadaas. The young painter and descendant of artists Charles Edenshaw and Florence Edenshaw Davidson has recently been commissioned to create an installation of painted elk hide drums that will be exhibited at the Vancouver International Airport, which is already well known for its landmark Bill Reid sculpture.
I meet Allard while visiting the home of Christian (Kihlyahda) White and Candace (Kaanii) Weir-White where a momentous pole raising and potlatch took place last summer. Inside their cavernous longhouse, Allard stands before a pyramid of feast bowls painted in delicate red, black, and turquoise outline designs that were used as part of the potlatch. “Here, art is intertwined with everything; many of these traditions served a utilitarian purpose to begin with, so in getting to know the art you get to know the culture,” says Allard.
In a place where art was developed in tandem with the rhythms of the ocean and forest for more than 13,000 years, understanding the landscape through Haida’s masterful art forms is not only inspiring, but essential. At the end of my trip, I walk along the beach as the moon rises over Hecate Strait, treated to what might be the islands’ magnum opus: the lambent glow of Venus dances on the black ocean and glittering bioluminescence washes over the sand, as brilliant as the stars overhead.
The writer was a guest of Destination BC. It did not review or approve this article.
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