ocean grew choppy and storm clouds darkened the southern sky as
we paddled the final miles toward an abandoned Haida village site
at the heart of a wedge-shaped archipelago 175 miles in length,
70 miles off the northwest coast of British Columbia. Until recently,
this remote chain of islands was known as the Queen Charlotte Islands,
but three years ago, the Haida Nation returned that colonial name
to the provincial government, in a ceremony using the same style
of bentwood box that once housed the remains of the dead. The place
is now Haida Gwaii (pronounced HI-duh GWY) Islands of the
People both officially and, unquestionably, in spirit.
The hillsides soaring above our kayaks, scraped bare by clearcutting
three decades earlier, were an emerald-hued crew cut, a fuzz of
young alder and spruce interspersed with occasional landslides.
On a distant ridge beyond stood the silhouettes of giants, stark
evidence of where logging had ground to a halt.
is an even older Haida name for this archipelago, which roughly
translates to "Islands Emerging From (Supernatural) Concealment."
It is an apt moniker. On these craggy islets perched on the
edge of the continental shelf and pressed against the howling eternity
of the Pacific life exists on such a ferociously lavish scale
that myth and dreams routinely mingle with reality.
For three days, Dave Quinn and I neighbors, friends
and longtime sea kayak guides had rejoiced amid a world of
windswept islets, breaching humpbacks, raucous seabirds, natural
hot springs and solitude. While it was glorious to return to waters
we knew so well, there was a deeper purpose to our journey: Paddling
from dawn until dusk and then some, we'd been racing north toward
Even as our kayaks crunched aground on its white shell beach,
elsewhere bags were being packed, boats readied, float planes fueled.
Two great war canoes long and colorful were plowing
southward from the traditional Haida strongholds of Old Massett
and Skidegate, crammed with youth. The next morning, we would all
converge here, to witness the raising of a monumental pole (a term
preferred by First Nation groups over "totem") in the southern archipelago,
the first such event in over 130 years, since smallpox decimated
the local population and left every village unoccupied. That fishermen,
loggers, police and government officials would join alongside the
Haida Nation in celebration, after decades of bitter land-use conflict,
marked a once unimaginable reconciliation and a way forward
extending far beyond these remote shores.
setting up our tent and brewing cowboy coffee, we set off on foot
toward the village site Hlk'yaah in Haida tucked in
an adjacent cove. Just a few steps into the forest, we paused in
awe. Arrow-straight trunks, the girth of minivans, rose like cathedral
columns from a thick blanket of moss cloaking the forest floor.
Drenched with an average of 250 days of rain annually, the conifers
of Haida Gwaii red cedar, Sitka spruce, western hemlock
attain storybook proportions. According to the West Coast writer
John Valliant, "These forests support more living tissue
by weight than any other ecosystem, including the equatorial
Forty years earlier, a logging company applied to move its
clearcutting operations from northern Haida Gwaii at that
time ravaged by industrial-style logging to this very soil.
As John Broadhead, a local conservationist, wrote: "The company
couldn't have been leaving behind an area of more ecological devastation,
or moving to one more pristine." Having witnessed the frontier's
rapacious appetite drive sea otter and whale populations to the
brink, the Haida voiced immediate opposition, but it seemed unimaginable
that anyone might deflect the logging juggernaut.
The '70s and '80s were a time of excess and frenzy on this
coast, when tens of thousands of dollars' worth of salmon could
be hauled from a single net, and the hewing of trees worth $20,000
each was not uncommon. While the Haida engaged in a decade of fruitless
committee meetings, negotiations and court cases, clearcutting crept
By 1985, the small nation was fed up. Establishing a remote
camp on Lyell Island, they settled in for the long haul, standing
arm in arm, blockading a logging road and day after day turning
back furious loggers who in many cases were neighbors, and even
friends. Beyond lay Windy Bay, and some of the last remaining stands
of "Avatar"-scale old growth on the coast. Tensions skyrocketed,
and soon national news outlets descended.
Eight months later a showdown took place and as police officers
moved in, a young Haida Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer was
forced to arrest his own elders. Over the next two weeks, 72 protesters
were shackled and led away. But the images that emerged changed
the mood of a nation, and led to an unprecedented agreement between
the Haida Nation and the government of Canada. Agreeing to manage
cooperatively what, in 1993, would become Gwaii Haanas National
Park Reserve, they created an accord now emulated around the world.
And while roots of the Haida revival can be traced back to the '60s
when the lost arts of canoe building, mask making and pole
carving began to re-emerge it was the blockade and the resulting
co-management of traditional territory that changed everything.
and I arrived at the once-abandoned village site to find a hive
of activity: electrical generators, an excavator and steaming vats
of seafood chowder. At the center of everyone's attention
though still horizontal the 40-foot Legacy Pole, celebrating
the 20th anniversary of moving from conflict to reconciliation with
the establishment of the park. Lying beside a recently constructed
longhouse, and surrounded by carvers, its 17 deeply incised figures,
all based on the traditional Haida ovoid form, sprang from luxuriant
Although the raising was just 24 hours away, plenty of work
remained to be done. Penciled design lines were shaved away, even
as traditional black and red paints were applied. (The red, interestingly,
was "Navajo" from Benjamin Moore.) Jaalen Edenshaw, the lead carver,
quietly shaped a raven's eyes as he told us of selecting a living
tree from the forests. Alongside two apprentices, he had shaped
the pole for an entire year. Among the many modern stories depicted
in his design was the blockade, symbolized by five protesters with
interlocked arms. With an eagle at the peak and a sculpin fish at
the foot, the pole also tells of Gwaii Haanas becoming the first
area on the planet to be protected from mountaintop to ocean floor
when a National Marine Conservation Area was added to surrounding
waters in 2010.
Amid the crowd was Guujaaw (pronounced GOO-jow), Mr. Edenshaw's
father and the widely recognized former president of the Haida Nation,
who had stared down decades of negotiators and became emblematic
of the Haida's dignified, nonviolent resistance.
above the hubbub, came a cry: "Guuj! How about a birthday song?"
The war canoes had arrived, and one of the young paddlers was celebrating
a birthday. Guujaaw raised a skin drum, its rhythmic beat echoing
through the forest like a heart. As he launched into a forceful
chant "Hey hi yo, ha wee ah" everyone joined in. The
young birthday boy rushed forward, dancing a traditional Haida stomp,
knees deeply bent, arms in the air. Then, as quickly as it began,
the song ended, and the carvers returned to their work.
The next morning we woke from our tent to find an immense Coast
Guard cutter anchored offshore, surrounded by an armada of smaller
fishing vessels. Zodiacs began shuttling dignitaries, elders, children
and curious visitors ashore. By noon, more than 400 people had gathered
unquestionably the most to stand on these shores since the
village was abandoned 150 years previously.
early afternoon the skies had cleared. Chiefs gathered in ceremonial
headdresses adorned with ermine skins and sea lion whiskers. Blessings
were given, speeches made. A bare-chested man in a nightmarish mask
danced to clear away malevolent spirits, and afterward, a matriarch
splashed water over the pole, purifying it. Children followed, tossing
handfuls of fluffy eagle down that floated on a soft breeze.
Six immense ropes two inches in diameter had
been lashed to the top of the pole, and at last the assembled crowd
was directed to find places on each. Weighing 7,000 pounds, the
pole was relatively light, but a weathered Haida fisherman explained
that any pole raising can be dangerous. The countdown began. Boots
bit into mud, backs heaved, and the great pole floated skyward.
In a blink it was up. A few more hoarsely shouted instructions
"Pull on the yellow rope! Ease off on blue" and it stood
vertical. Cheers erupted. Boulders were rolled into the deep hole
at its base, pounded in place with long wooden beams. Shovel after
shovel of gravel followed.
Two days later, Parks Canada and the Haida Nation hosted a
potlatch, or celebratory feast, and in Haida tradition, every person
on the islands was invited. The Canadian government outlawed potlatching
from 1884 to 1951, making the event a poignant symbol of progress.
In a community hall packed to the rafters, I found myself sitting
near Allan Wilson, a hereditary chief from Old Massett and the junior
Mountie officer forced to arrest his own elders at the blockade,
decades ago. He is a squat, powerful man, and his crew cut was peppered
with white. A tangle of necklaces hung from his neck. "To this day
I remember every step I took," he said. "My legs felt like they
weighed 300 pounds each." He paused, then laughed. "I was happy
it was raining, so no one could see my tears."
I asked about the pole. "It feels as if we've had a big pot
here on Haida Gwaii with a hole in it," he said. "Now that missing
piece has been put back in. The leak has been plugged. And all our
stories, from before and those still to come, can stay in there."
Later, 14 elders who stood on the line were introduced. As
drums beat and dancers danced, Miles Richardson who led the
resistance during the blockade uttered once again the words
heard on newscasts across Canada: "We are here to uphold the decision
of people of the Haida Nation. There will be no logging in Gwaii
Haanas anymore." The deafening applause was that of a nation whose
history now lies newly ahead.