Three Books on Haida Gwaii

✍️ 🕑 June 2022 • Series: Towards the Beautiful Islands • Tags: Haida Gwaii

I’ve told you that I’m finally going to pick back up my series of posts about traveling around British Columbia and Haida Gwaii in May and June of 2022.

Well, I am going to do exactly that. But before I get started, I thought it would be a nice idea to write a little something about Haida culture and history, and how things came to be in the modern era. Instead of covering these topics directly, I’m going to do so by reviewing three books about different facets of Haida culture and history.

Specifically, I cover:

  • Raven’s Cry by Christine Harris, Young Adult-oriented fiction covering 175 generations of Haida history.
  • Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony by Sarah Flourence Davidson and Robert Davidson, a book on indigenous pedagogy, filled with memories of cultural reawakening.
  • Athlii Gwaii: Upholding Haida Law on Lyell Island, a collection of memories and photographs that provide primary source accounts of the successful grassroots effort to stop logging and get the Canadian government to recognize Gwaii Haanas.

I finished each of these books during June of 2022. Each of the three is extraordinary, and well worth reading.

Raven’s Cry

My friend (and Haida Gwaii native) Jess was reading Raven’s Cry during our tour group’s visit to Gwaii Hanas, and she recommended it to me highly. She said it was so sad, but also so gripping. Easy to read, and hard to put down. Given that the book covers a long period of Haida history that I wanted to learn more about, I was definitely interested in giving a read, and I would add my recommendation to hers. It’s a good book, and an important one.

Book Information
Author Christine Harris
Title Raven's Cry
Year 1966
Genre Fiction / Historical, Young Adult
Check out the book review index for information on more books!

The book was written by non-Native author Christine Harris, after she did research for a radio series on a number of Canadian indigenous cultures, and was disappointed that she “could not uncover enough information about one gifted Haida artist, Charles Edenshaw, to fill a half-hour of airtime” (XVII). With grant funding, and the assistance of gifted Haida artist Bill Reid (who provides illustrations, and is also Charles Edenshaw’s great nephew), Harris got her book written, for a 1966 release. In the introduction, noted Haida artist Robert Davidson shares, “it’s a very good attempt at trying to look at history from a native point of view. For myself, being a native, it helped to give me an idea of why we are such a devastated people, spiritually and culturally” (VII).

The book covers Haida history, from 1775 to around 1950. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and the book does a reasonably good job stepping through the ages. Sometimes the characterization is a little thin, but since they’re living, growing old, and passing on within the span of a few chapters, that’s to be expected.

What isn’t thin is the portrait of history. Starting with first contact with Europeans, we have astonishment about the iron men and their flying canoe:

“How could this be? There were no trees in the world big enough to make the canoe he saw before his eyes.” (14)

This turns into a source of great joy, and a status symbol for young Haida Yatz, who was brought aboard the Europeans’ ship and gifted a small axehead.

Eventually, things turn for the worse once the Europeans exert an increasing influence on society, paying a pittance for otter pelts, introducing alcohol and firearms, and eventually, Christianity and smallpox. The Europeans denounce the Haida for the instabilities that they introduced.

Arguably, the book culminates with the distorted vision of famous medicine man Kwanduhadgaa:

Alarmed, his spirit self flew right around the Haida islands. But where were the villages? There were no houses at Tanu. No totem poles. Nor at Skedans, or Cumshewa.

There were no Haida settlements to be found, except at Massett and Skidegate.

“What has happened to the villages?” he implored the black man whose hands were grown to the musket.
“God has wiped them out because He does not like two things: the heathen totem poles of the Haida, and the smell of the corpses in the mortuary poles.”
“The Old-Man-with-the-Beard,” the black man explained, “as mighty as the Power-of-the-Shining-Heavens.” He opened the gate to show him.

But Kwanduhadgaa could not see God, at first. He saw only a burning lake. People screamed in the flames; screamed to die in the burning lake, but they could not die. (77-78)

The book does a great job showing the resilience of the Haida, their bafflement and responses to settlers’ failing to grasp their traditions. Innovations in response to settlers: new types of pole carvings, new artistic creations that won a home in the Smithsonian Institute. These art provide foundations for the continuation of Haida culture today.

“No!” said Da.axiigang. “The stories are not evil. And totem poles are not evil, either.” Every time he carved another beautiful little black totem pole, he knew that they were not evil. (129)

As the book goes on, it becomes sadder and sadder, and perhaps more moving. I found the sections depicting the life of Charles Edenshaw to be most moving.

Wanduhadgaa’s vision also came to pass: 70% of the Haida population was wiped out by smallpox, and the only villages left inhabited were Massett and Skidegate. The elders who presented the most resistance to new, Europeanized ways of life eventually passed on.

Away from Haida Gwaii, white men heard of the smallpox epedemic, but they did not understand what a catastrophe it was. They did not realize that a great culture was dying from shock. In fact, few suspected there was a culture to die. (129)

Yeah, this is a great book.

Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony

Sitting at the Moresby Explorer floating lodge, with rain dripping outside, I turned my attention to the bookshelf. It was full of interesting looking books about Haida Gwaii. One caught my eye, Potlatch as Pedagogy, by Sarah Flourence Davidson & Robert Davidson.

Book Information
Author Sara Florence Davidson & Robert Davidson
Title Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony
Year 2018
Genre Non-Fiction / Indigenous Education
Check out the book review index for information on more books!

One look at the title, and I thought “oh, this must be a dry, academic work.” And so, I was immediately surprised when I found myself incredibly moved and gripped by the pages I was flipping through. This is not a dry academic work. Rather, it’s a conversation between father (Robert) and daughter (Sarah) about how traditional knowledge was preserved and re-awakened despite gaps in practice.

If Raven’s Cry focuses primarily on assimilation and the end of traditional ways, than Potlatch is a book on resilience, on what was kept, and how it can continue to be passed down and shared. And it’s a book on pedagogy too. More specifically, indigenous pedagogy, with an eye towards highlighting traditional ways of learning and teaching that could potentially be be used in a classroom setting.

In 1884, the Canadian government passed the Potlatch Ban, making all traditional cultural practices illegal with an eye towards making it easier to convert indigenous groups to Christianity. Sarah believes it is a direct result of this ban that her father did not hear a Haida song until age 16. (28)

After a trip to a Vancouver museum, young Robert becomes inspired by Haida art, and seeks to build his first totem pole. The goal was to fill the void in the community. Together with his elders, Robert looked at selecting the right sort of tree. One of Robert’s anecdote particularly stuck out to me:

And I would go and help Naanii [grandma] and Tsinii [grandpa] at the Yakoun on weekends and, you know, Tsinii was 89 years old and still fishing. And he said, “WHen I’m done here, I’m gonna help you,” and I just couldn’t comprehend that ’cause he was so old and had a hard time walking around. And Tsinii, every time would say that. And I knew later on, it was to encourage me to carry on. And a couple times, he said, “You’re doing a great thing,” but I didn’t know what he meant. I had no idea [about] the impact the art had on our culture. But they did. They knew. And finally at the end of Naanii and Tsinii’s fishing at the Yakoun, I could still see Tsinii walking up. He was carrying a hammer and a chisel, and walking up from their house to where Reg and I were caving the totem pole. And, I am embarrassed to this day. I had no idea [about] Tsinii’s accomplishments. Like he carved two major dugout canoes and built umpteen fishing boats, one sixty-foot seine boat. And a master carpenter, built their house, and here I was, I was afraid of him ruining my log. And finally about half an hour into [carving] he said, “I can’t see.” But he still cared. (38)

And the beautiful stories of cultural reinvigoration continue with stories about feasts and dance groups. The final pedagogical conclusions: that learning occurs from strong relationships, authentic experiences, curiosity, observation, contribution, recognition and encouragement of strengths, and so forth are well supported by the narrations. As I am not currently a teacher, nor one engaged with First Nations communities, this aspect of the book is perhaps less useful to me.

This book is hopeful, inspiring, and never (and I mean never) dry and academic. It is spirited and wondrous, showing how one person can make a difference in cultural revitalization, and how communities can learn about cultural practices through their revival.

Athlii Gwaii: Upholding Haida Law on Lyell Island

In 1985, the Haida people took a stand, blocking logging vehicles from working on Lyell Island, part of the area now known as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage site. This book provides an account of the fight to preserve this area, with a combination of photographs and recollections from people who took part. Like Potlatch as Pedagogy, it’s moving, and ultimately uplifting. How many times do you get to read about a fight for cultural and environmental preservation where the right side wins?

Book Information
Title Athlii Gwaii: Upholding Haida Law on Lyell Island
Year 2018
Genre Non-Fiction / Memoir, Environmentalism, Politics
Author Jisgang Nika Collison (Editor)
Check out the book review index for information on more books!

In order to fight this fight, and to win, there are a few common threads throughout. First of all, the Haida on the line respected their elders, and took advice from them. Both the protestors, and the logging workers were respectful. The Haida cultivated a true community effort. Food, shelter, driving, donations were all built and sustained through donations from the Haida nation. People from all walks were eager to get involved. There was also support from other Native groups in Vancouver.

“The Elders said we have to conduct ourselves as Haidas, to hold our head up and walks strong and walk proud. We could not be physical or violent. We were going to conduct ourselves as Haidas.
The RCMP flew us out with the Sikorsky Coast Guard helicopter to the Queen Charlotte City jail. When we landed, UNcle Paul came bounding over and gave us all a hug. That was pretty emotional, too, because my cousins and I were arrested together. We stuck together, our family. We might have been in the jail an hour or so. Not too long, just for processing. (Adiitsii Jaad / Mami York (64))

The organizers of the protest were shrewd. They successfully moved court hearings to Vancouver, where they would have a greater outpouring of First Nations support. They centered their fight on land protection and administration, agreeing to set aside claims about who has the title. They utilized the publicity of Bill Reid, Pete Seeger, and others who were eager to stand as allies on a broad stage.

The blockades continued until the Christmas break. In the New Year, it was hard to gather people – the boats were getting ready for the herring season, seaplanes were expensive and many of our people had work to do. Then the whole BC forest industry went ons trike, and we were relieved. But the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), who always say how much they support Aboriginal Rights, gave Frank Beban Logging Ltd. an exemption the strike (…)
We tried to think of who could get media attention and help mobilize people, and decided to ask Bill Reid. (…) Bill said “Yes” right away. We took him down to Sedgwick Camp, carried him in his wheelchair up the muddy trail to the road, built him a little fire and put him on a bench. So Bill Reid is sitting there, in the dark of the morning, and of course he’s got his jackknife and a piece of yellow cedar. The trucks come up and see some guy in the middle of the road. The boss jumped out, walked up and realized it was Bill Reid. He said, “Oh, Mr. Reid, what are you doing?” Bill replied, “Oh, just whittling.” THe guy turned around and went back to his truck. All of the trucks turned around and went back to camp and never showed up again. Bill was the last blockader.

(Kilsli Kaji Sting/Miles Richardson Jr. 23)

Ultimately, their work was successful, and it helped cement culture. Gwaii Haanas is co-administered by Parks Canada and the Haida Nation, along the lines that the Haida wanted for their land. It is not a nature preserve devoid of people, but rather, a protected area for nature and Haida cultural practices. It is an absolutely beautiful area, and learning more about its inception was a joy.

The book, with its photographs, is just also super cool and lovely and one that I will treasure owning.

Hopefully, by talking about these books, I’ve helped give you a little bit of a sense about Haida Gwaii, and the some of the amazing, vibrant people who call it their home.

Frankly, it’s an astonishing place, and oen that I’m very glad to have visited.

Thanks for reading!

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