Sailing Across a Splendid Forest & Mountains View – British Columbia

We pulled up to a red-ocher pictograph on a rock face on Berry Island, and Willie cut the engine. The image de picted Baxbakwalanuksiwe’, a crucial figure in Kwakwaka’wakw spirituality. Bestowed with the power to transform himself into multiple man-eating birds, and adorned with mouths all over his body, his imposing presence on the rock meant burial sites were nearby.

We finally put down anchor in a small inlet on Village Island, or Mimkwamlis. It was here, in 1921, that government agents raided a potlatch and arrested the hosting chief and 44 other members of the community.

Of those arrested, 20 did time in a B.C. prison for the offense. We walked inland on a damp soil path that gave a little under each footstep, surrounded by the smell of blackberries ripening from their springtime red. We

were headed toward the potlatch site, the remnants of a longhouse—a traditional family dwelling where up to 40 people would have lived. “Longhouse is a new term,” Willie told me. “To us they were just houses.” All that was left was abeam and some fire-cracked rock. “Deeper down,” Willie said, “you’ll find the ash and fish oil, the evidence of everyday living.”

The site was lush and green, the silence softened by the faint buzzing of bees. I tried to picture the ceremony that ended so badly that day. A member of the community, who is rumored to have been a Christian convert, had informed the police. The authorities forced the Kwakwaka’wakw to surrender their masks and carvings or go to jail. If entire tribes gave up their potlatch paraphernalia, individual members would have their sentences suspended. The objects from the raid were only recently returned to the community.

“People lived a dual life,” Willie explained. “I had an uncle who became an Anglican priest and also potlatched—he was a hereditary chief.” We remained at the site a while longer, and I tried to imagine the informer sitting among their people, torn between her two worlds.

Back in Vancouver that evening, I dined at a restaurant called Salmon n’ Bannock, which has WE GOT GAME written proudly on its sign. Inez Cook and Remi Caudron opened the place when they realized there was no indigenous food on offer for the tourists who came to the city for the 2010 Olympics. Their remedy is a menu that includes bison, sockeye salmon, bannock {or unleavened bread) and even oolichans like the ones I saw glittering in the sunlight on the dock in Port McNeill.

I met a friend at the restaurant, an academic who works at a local university, and explained to her that the oolies on the menu were wondrous fish that were probably being plucked from the maws of angry sea lions up in Kingcome as we spoke. When conversation turned to aboriginal tourism, she was skeptical. “I don’t know if there is really such a thing as cultural tourism,” my friend said as we ate the oolies, which were oily and smoky and delicious. “Whose life, after all, gets marked as ‘culture,’ and whose remains unmarked?”

I spent the night across town at Skwachays Lodge, which advertises itself as a “fair trade gallery, boutique hotel and an urban aboriginal artist residence.” The building, owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society, contains 24 shelter-rate apartments for aboriginal people at risk of homelessness. There are 18 hotel rooms on the top three floors, which has walls hung with works by a team of aboriginal artists. My suite was near the smudging room, where cedar, sage and sweetgrass are burned during traditional cleansing rituals.

The next morning I caught a flight to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of around 150 islands that sits at the north of B.C.’s coastline, just south of Alaska. The islands are separated from the mainland by the capricious waters of the Hecate Strait, named after a British vessel that bore the name of the Greek goddess of magic and witchcraft. It’s a region where weather slips around from hour to hour, and rain might appear six times in a day. Even the name of the islands has shifted—they were known as the Queen Charlottes after their “discovery” by the British in 1787. In 2010 they were renamed Haida Gwaii, or “Islands of the People.”

The Haida are one of the most celebrated, and perhaps infamous, tribes of the Pacific Northwest. They’ve been dealing with the vagaries of the chilly Pacific for thousands of years and were known for their lightning raids up and down the coast, the islands acting as their launching points and fortresses. They are said to have traveled in canoes wrought from a single cedar, each warrior rubbed down with grease and charcoal and wrapped in the hides of sea lions and elk to keep the elements at bay.

At the time of first colonial contact, in the late 18th century, there were around 10,000 Haida, and the remoteness of the islands meant it was tougher for missionaries to spread the word to Haida Gwaii, though they did eventually make the journey. As did smallpox, which decimated the Haida in the 1860s. The population dipped to amere 500 in 1900. Nowadays, signs of resilience are evident across the archipelago. When I was there, the carving house at the Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay, an ancient village site, contained two new totem poles, the curving beak of an eagle emerging from fresh cedar shavings.

I was staying in the town of Skidegate, on Graham Island, the archipelago’s second largest. At my lodgings, Jags Beanstalk, I was met by the proprietor, Jags Brown. Arangy man with salt-and-pepper hair, Brown is a member of the Juus Xaay da clan; his Haida name is Yestaquana. When he was young, he became one of Haida Gwaii’s first Watchmen, a group that protected the community’s ancient sites. On his early travels around Gwaii Haanas, the island’s national park, he would find bones and other moss-covered remains of smallpox victims in the brush; in one cave, he found a cedarwood box containing a shaman’s wand. Back then, his group protected the sacred sites from looters and vandals. Today their role is to educate, offer marine forecasts and make sure visitors don’t leave any traces behind.

If you want to go somewhere in Haida Gwaii, it’s best to learn the original name. Skedans, for example, comes from a European rendering of a chief’s name; the traditional name, K’uuna Llnagaay, means “Village on the Edge,” and in the 19th century, this wind-whipped peninsula was the winter home of around 450 Haida. Early one morning I headed there in a Zodiac, out past the village of Sandspit on a thudding journey of extraordinary beauty, islands looming and receding through the mist. Along the way a rainbow formed, and, in the waters just past Sandspit, I saw a humpback breach.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *