In the beginning, it was: “What can I do for Haida Gwaii?’’ It soon turned into: “What can Haida Gwaii do for me?’’ Through my immersion in a wild part of B.C. during a summer trip, I experienced fascinating culture and traditions.
Discovering sea birds through volunteer work
In July 2022, I departed for Haida Gwaii, an archipelago situated 1,226 km away from my residence in Victoria, British Columbia. I had offered myself up for volunteer work with the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society, based in the village of Daajing Giids—the pre-colonial name of Queen Charlotte.
After landing in Sandspit in heavy rain, I arrived at my B&B, which was provided by Moresby Explorers, a tour company offering boat tours in Gwaii Haanas, a Parks Canada National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. It rained through the night.
The next day, I met with the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society team, including biologist Rian Dickson, with whom I was going to spend a week on East Limestone Island in order to work as a volunteer helping with their biological research on seabirds. Laskeek Bay is one of the 18 Important Bird Areas (IBA) on Haida Gwaii.
We departed by boat and sailed for an hour and a half to reach East Limestone Island, a small, remote place where the field camp base is situated. The last part of the boat trip happened in pouring rain, I had to keep my head down to avoid sheets of harsh rain against my face. Despite the deluge, the scenery was stunning. At some point, we witnessed white plumes on the water and heard some kind of exhalation sounds. “Those are the blows of humpback whales,’’ said Rian Dickson. Never would I have imagined seeing something like this. I felt exhilarated.
“Those are the blows of humpback whales.” Never would I have imagined seeing something like this. I felt exhilarated.
The field camp was basic—the crew camped in tents but had electricity provided by generators. The island, with its beaches, thick green moss, and huge trees, is preserved and feels like a haven. The following days, I walked around the island and learnt how to observe seabirds. The island is home to eagles, crows, oystercatchers, Pigeon Guillemots, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Rhinoceros Auklets, Marbled Murrelets, and Pelagic Cormorants. Some songbird species can also be observed on the island, such as the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Awainson’s Thrush, Townsend Warbler, and Hairy Woodpecker.
In addition to bird surveys, I did squirrel surveys; uploaded data in the database; dismantled and carried infrared cameras on a cliff; and reviewed the camera’s intake. The scientific experience was very fulfilling. Overall, it was a very enriching experience and I didn’t miss having no access to a phone signal or to the Internet. I very much enjoyed the authentic atmosphere on the island and immersed myself entirely in nature.
During the course of my field work, I was very lucky to be able to visit the island called Ḵ’uuna Gwaay, which is outside the boundaries of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, but is within the Haida Heritage Site. Ḵ’uuna Llnagaay, on Ḵ’uuna Gwaay is one of five Haida village sites where Haida Gwaii Watchmen live and work during the summer months. They can only be visited under the supervision of one of the Haida Gwaii Watchmen. The Haida Gwaii Watchmen program, which is managed by the Council of the Haida Nation with support from Gwaii Haanas, has been in place for more than 40 years and is viewed as a model for guardian program initiatives internationally. I met with Deedee (Gidinjaad), one of the five Watchmen (Grandma), and two youths in training, Dotsie and Jessica.
Learning about Haida customs and beliefs
When the week of volunteering was over, we loaded the boat and sailed back to the main island, witnessing the white blows of whales again in the beautiful silence of the sea.
I went back to Daajing Giids and attended Skidegate Days (called Singaay ‘Laa for the greeting ‘Good day’ by the Haida). I was introduced to Nang Jingwas Russ Jones, who is a Hereditary Chief of the Haida Gwaii Eagle moiety and has worked with the Haida Nation on marine planning since 2009. We went for a walk on the beach and, after observing some eagles hovering above the sand, we sat on some driftwood logs to talk. Russ began to share some basic principles of the Haida culture with me.
In Haida Gwaii, the Haida people are Eagle or Raven and belong to one of these two moieties. Hereditary Chiefs participate in political decisions according to the Constitution of the Haida Nation through a Hereditary Chiefs Council. The Haida people have an elected government called the Council of Haida Nation as described in the Haida Constitution who address reconciliation of Haida title and the Crown’s interests in Haida Gwaii. Some of this work includes establishment of protected areas around Haida Gwaii as well as forestry planning. Other work includes marine planning that outlines how rebuilding should be assessed and when commercial fisheries can reopen. Currently, work is underway with Canada to develop a rebuilding plan for Haida Gwaii herring.
Haida traditional knowledge and beliefs are incorporated into these plans. Russ explained further: “There is a belief that everything has a spirit; living things, but also even mountains or reefs can be the homes of supernatural beings. Our traditional beliefs translate into the way we interact with other living things and the environment. When we started working on the marine plan, we sat down with a group of Chiefs, Elders, and leaders in the Haida community to talk about how we should be working together. We identified some principles with that group that we called Haida ethics and values.’’
The Haida ways of being consist of six principles:
Yahguudang or Yakguudáng: Respect
‘Laa guu ga kanhllns: Responsibility
Gina ‘waadluxan gud ad kwaagiida: Interconnectedness. Everything depends on everything else.
Giid tll’juus: Balance. The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife.
Gina k’aadang.nga gii uu tll k’anguudang: Seeking Wise Counsel
Isda ad dii gii isda: Giving and Receiving or Reciprocity
The first principle, Respect, means respect for yourself and for other people, the environment, and animals. This principle has been used for forestry planning, along with the reciprocity principle. “You don’t just take,” Russ told me, “There are reciprocal relationships. If you are taking cedar bark from a cedar tree, you will say a prayer before to thank the tree for providing material. These ethics and values are expressions of our relationship with the natural world and are principles that guide the way that we interact with each other.’’
The Haida principles are expressions of a world view, which the Haida Nation has incorporated into various management plans in the area. “These different marine and forestry plans resonate with people in terms of describing the Haida way of living. It’s a reminder that there always has to be a balance in life,’’ Russ underscored.
There is a Haida story about someone who walked on a board that was only a few inches from the ground. He felt safe, but then slipped, fell, and died. It’s a reminder that something unexpected could happen and that you have to make sure that you maintain that balance in what you do or how you deal with things.
Take only what you need and seeking balance are examples of these principles in action. Russ offered some stories: “There is a Haida story about someone who walked on a board that was only a few inches from the ground. He felt safe, but then slipped, fell, and died. It’s a reminder that something unexpected could happen and that you have to make sure that you maintain that balance in what you do or how you deal with things. Another Haida story is about some children who were making fun of a fish, disrespecting it, and then they went back to their village and the whole place had burned to the ground; there was only one survivor, who passed the story on. If you don’t treat animals right, bad things can happen.”
The supernatural is a thread running through many of Russ’ stories: “Supernatural beings can take on the shape of human beings, strangers. You never know if you are dealing with a real person or a supernatural being, so you have to be very careful about how you interact. In another story, a boy was disrespecting salmon. He disappeared in the water and became the salmon. No one knew what happened to him. The next season, when the salmon came back, a copper from the boy’s necklace was found inside the fish. So his family knew the boy had transformed.’’
Russ ended our talk with a story that the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program uses as a reminder about the Haida language and the necessity to preserve it. “It’s an old story about a supernatural crab that would come down and pinch you, as a reminder not to forget your language. You hear these stories while you are growing up and they are an expression of the way you should be acting, or of what to watch for.’’
Seeing how artwork connects people to the land
The last person of interest in my journey on Haida Gwaii was Gwaii Edenshaw-Hluugitgaa, a pole carver whose workshop I visited at the edge of New Masset. Starting an apprenticeship at 16 years old, Gwaii carved his first totem pole with his father, a carver as well, when he was 19.
Gwaii told me that “poles serve many purposes” and “they are still used as heraldic monuments or memorials, which are a testament to the person they are remembering. They are also, in a more contemporary sense, used to mark important moments in time and to tell a story.’’
Gwaii’s art pours out of a belief in the supernatural world and is a manifestation of the spirit of Haida Gwaii: “I feel like all the pieces that come together from gathering the wood and getting it down to the shed; milling and carving the tree; interacting with the people that come and go while we carve; and finally gathering the people so that we can raise the pole, all go towards my own connection to my community. But also, the thing that is special—though not unique—for our people is the connection that we have to the specific land around us. Carving poles connects me to this land.’’
In Haida life, the supernaturals will often wear the skins of animals, and so will be appearing as those animals. This recommends that we be wary as we interact with other animals on the land because we never know if they are a supernatural. It is part of a general state where we are to be respectful of the world around us.
The animals represented on local poles are sprung from the various stories of the Haida people. At times, there is a need to represent a certain moral or element of a contemporary story that has a historic analogy. The stories stay vital in this way: “In Haida life, the supernaturals will often wear the skins of animals, and so will be appearing as those animals. This recommends that we be wary as we interact with other animals on the land because we never know if they are a supernatural. It is part of a general state where we are to be respectful of the world around us. It is a way of being called yahlguudang in Haida,” explains Gwaii. “Every figure on a pole represents a story equally important to one of the families; it’s just a question of whether there is anyone still around that remembers it. We keep these stories alive by telling them on poles like these and in dances, maybe even in cartoons these days.’’
Totems are generally not prayed to unless in exceptional circumstances. Gwaii offered an example: “It is generally understood that we did not and do not pray to our poles, but when our people were kidnapped and taken out to residential schools outside Edmonton, sometimes they would run away and visit a pole that was in the Jasper train station. They would visit this pole because it gave them a sense of connection with Haida Gwaii.”
As my visit came to an end, I was grateful for having been so warmly welcomed by all the people I met and am thankful to both Gwaii Edenshaw-Hluugitgaa and Russ Jones for their inspiration and for sharing their knowledge with me. I am certain that more adventures and meetings still await for me there, in the mists of Haida Gwaii.
Julie Valet on Instagram: from_victoria_with_love