Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Totems of Haida Gwaii

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Totems of Haida Gwaii

Article excerpt

The once colorful totem poles of the Queen Charlotte Islands, now bleached and cracked, stare out to sea with quiet dignity. They have borne witness to the tragic decline, and then hopeful resurgence, of the Haida people.

The Queen Charlotte Islands, or Haida Gwaii in the Haida language, are located off the coast of northern British Columbia, Canada. The native Haida thrived on these islands for perhaps ten thousand years. Their near decimation took only a few decades. The grief for the loss is palpable. The abandoned village sites, once teeming with activity, sit quietly as nature reclaims the ruins.

The Haida culture was shaped by nature. The Haida's closeness to the sea, sky, and nature is evident in their art, mythology, and cosmology. Orcas, bears, eagles, ravens, frogs, moons, rainbows, and humans grace the towering cedar totem poles, telling the history and lineage of a family or an individual. Intertwined are mythical animals, such as Sea Wolf, reflecting the Haida belief that there is no separation between the natural and supernatural worlds. The Haida did not consider themselves superior to animals; rather, they traditionally viewed animals as possessing attributes of, and souls like, humans.

One image flows into another on Haida poles. The watchmen may flow into the eagle, who flows into the frog, who flows into the thunderbird, who flows into the whale. Each figure had meaning, similar to a family crest. The work of the carvers was likewise intertwined. A master carver carved one side of the pole, and an apprentice carved the other side, copying the master's work as perfectly as possible. Consequently, new master carvers were trained and standardized ways of illustrating figures passed on.

These totem poles have captured the hearts and imaginations of people far and wide. The first photographs of Haida villages, taken in 1878, show imposing arrays of totem poles. The villages were located by the shore, sandwiched between the dense forests and the abundant seas. The totem poles, following the contour of the shoreline, faced out to sea. Boldly painted in primarily red and black, these stunning poles displayed the prestige and wealth of a village and could not be missed by anyone passing in a canoe or boat.

Europeans had been in contact with Haida villages since the late 1700s, when a fur trade was established with the villages. Contact with these outsiders had an irreversible effect on Haida society. The story of Chief Koyah of SGang Gwaay is illustrative. In 1789, Chief Koyah was engaged in fur trade with John Kendrick. Kendrick became enraged when he discovered that the villagers had pilfered some minor items of linen from his boat. Seizing Koyah, Kendrick bolted one of his legs to a gun carriage, tied a rope around his neck, whipped him, painted his face, cut off his hair, threatened him with death, took away his fur skins, and turned him ashore. This humiliation caused Chief Koyah to lose his standing with his people. He became an Ahliko, or one of the lower class. This story is often repeated on Haida Gwaii and is a story that resonates. Ultimately, the entire Haida people were forced to become a lower class. Shortly after the humiliation of Chief Koyah came devastating epidemics of smallpox and tuberculosis, contracted from the outsiders, and outright massacres by these same outsiders. The loss of life was so profound in the southern villages that the few survivors could not maintain village life and so migrated north to the less-remote Haida village of Skidegate. …

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