Our Haida Gwaii/Gwaii Hanas adventure continued:
On our way by zodiak to the most southern tip of Gwaii Hanas, we visited ancient village sites and remnants of totem poles in several sites: Skedans, Tanu, S’qang Gwaii, Rose Harbour and more. Each site has its own intrigue and charm. Skedans is a village site with house remnants and totem poles, but not as many as in the most southern tip S’qang Gwaii. Here, a mystical and misty atmosphere enhances the site where old spirits dwell and history is tangible. The bleached and weathered totems lean against moss covered house beams. The beach still tells stories of canoe runs between rocks, where the “Vikings of the Pacific” showed their power by rowing their long boats far east, north and south, taking slaves as they encountered other nations.
I was intrigued to learn that a Haida Chief could marry a slave woman, thus making the former slave the most powerful matriarch of the clan. In this matriarchal society, men do as the leading woman dictates and children are part of their mother’s lineage.
I also learned about different totem poles: the shortest one were usually house poles, depicting the family’s clan and history. Tall plain poles with rings are potlatch poles, showing how many potlatches, or celebrations, have been held. Some poles are a memorial for a particular person, sharing his life story while yet others have a hollowed out square opening at the top housing a bentwood box of bones: a burial pole. Their silent stories are impressive and pay tribute to a society that lived here long before “contact” – as the period after the arrival of European explorers’ ships is called.
Houses were large, sometime dug down to allow for more space. Immense ceiling beams were held up by corner posts and closed by cedar walls. Now, all that remains is rounded beams covered in soft green moss, often with a new cedar tree growing on each corner as the trees reseeded. Slowly and silently, history is swallowed up by the rain forest. The Haida people have chosen to let their history return to the earth, as it always has, rather than have Parks Canada follow their usual mandate of preserving history.
We were most impressed by the Watchmen. This ancient term refers to Haida who spend the summer in each historic location. They are provided with a small house with a wood stove and basic comforts. Here they work for the summer, hosting visitors. They are extremely well spoken, gracious hosts with a wealth of knowledge about their people. Each host told us amazing stories. Haida Gwaii is made up of stories and the oral history seems alive and well. We heard stories of how people first came to populate the earth when Raven found a clamshell full of little people on Rose Spit. He pried open the shell and the people spilled out. Raven also brought light to the world.
Bear married a woman who gave birth to bear cubs and in return he gave hunting powers to humans. There are many tales of super natural beings in this land. Mostly, these are people wearing animal cloaks. Eagle, Raven, Whale, Bear – they all have specific powers and fascinating stories. Haida also strongly believe in reincarnation.
One of the men who told stories, told us of the impressive oral history. “When I was about 10 years old,” he said, “my uncle called me into his house and told me a 2 hour story. The next night I had to come back and tell the story back to him without embellishing, best as I could.”
This repeated night after night until he had memorized much of his own history. The tradition continues today as he tells his daughter the ancient tales and makes her tell them back to him.
We learned to chew spruce tips and licorice root. Even ate herring roe on kelp… As far as wildlife goes, we saw many, many eagles. A few glimpses of whales as well as two bears.
One overnight was spent in Rose Harbour, an old whaling station. Much debris, buildings and rusty tools remind of an era when people caught and processed whales for oil. I found it a sad place to be. The lone woman who lives here, offer a guest house and meals to Moresby Explorers. We ate green from her immense garden and freshly caught ling cod. In the morning she ground grains on her converted exercise bike to make us pancakes with rhubarb sauce from the garden. An outhouse and wood heated shower made it into a rustic adventure.