Sunday, September 28, 2014

Gwaii Haanas: Hard to Spell, Harder to Explain

Gwaii Haanas, AKA “Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site” is a protected archipelago of southern Haida Gwaii.  The best way, or indeed the only way, to see Gwaii Haanas is by boat. We chose a sail trip. Or maybe the sail trip chose us. In September, when the kids [are supposed to] go back to school, most charter trips dry up. But there was one last trip going out, and it was on Sail Piraeus, a 44’ wooden ketch that immediately makes me want to channel my inner Captain Jack Sparrow. 

First morning is nothing but fog

 Aside: We had the great good fortune to be the only 2 guests on the sailboat, so we had the deluxe treatment. Bunks were in the bow, so our feet were slightly above our heads. This, plus the total darkness, turned my sleeps into blank unconsciousness. Jack on the other hand kept having bizarre dreams which he would promptly forget, but would wake in a surreal afterglow. Or maybe it was the Dramamine. He, unfortunately, was not born with the gene that let’s Garcia girls love all swing-set, swoopy, roller-coastery things. In any case, despite a foggy start day, which introduced us to the otherworldliness of the place, the weather gods blessed us. Day 2 included a 6 or 7 hour tack with all 4 sails unfurled, port-side gunwales buried in the waves.

 Anyway, back to Gwaii Haanas: When Teddy Roosevelt originally envisioned the National Parks system in the U.S., it included allowing the natives to continue living their traditional way of life within these areas. It didn’t happen, but this is some of what Gwaii Haanas tries to be. The only people who live there, outside of some grandfathered privately held parcels, are known as “Watchmen”. These are Haida people who hold the responsibility of on-site stewardship of the ancient Haida villages, now ruins, which are dotted throughout the park. They live in modern-ish cabins, with only radio contact to the outside world. No alcohol, no internet, no family, just a few other Watchmen for the duration of the summer.
Watchman in training

Their job includes touring guests through the village sites and explaining some history, making sure the sites are cared for, but not preserved. While there’s a willingness to slow the decay by cutting grass etc., the notion of preservation has been rejected. Wooden things decay, the forest eats them up. That’s the way it goes. And goes quickly in the rainforest. Long-house sites are now most easily distinguished by the 4 trees, one on each corner, where a seed fell on an upright corner post, took root, and took over.  
former location of a long-house corner post

decay happens
If they were living in the longhouses, things would be different. But the poles, call them totem poles, but that doesn’t seem quite correct; the poles have a life and a lifespan that will end. If people were still living in these places, the poles would fall, but a new and updated one would be carved and erected in its place. With no one present it makes no sense to erect a new one. The pole would have said who lives at this house, who they married, their ancestry, and anyone approaching would know whether or not they would be welcome. If no one lives there, what’s the point?

a Tanu long-house
There is actually one new pole, the Legacy Pole, which was erected in 2013 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the successful Haida fight to end clear-cut logging on Lyell Island.
"5 Good People" on the Legacy Pole represents the elders who linked arms to stop the logging. (Note the gumboots)

Also, the notion of collecting or preserving things is not really a Haida thing.  Intellectual copyright, however, is incredibly important. The notion of dancing a dance, singing a song, or telling a story that is not yours is just not acceptable. I sympathise.  I’ve had the experience of someone telling me one of my stories, and I was quite quick to say, “That’s MY story!” Intellectual copyright seems to be a newer thing to western culture, but here it is ancient.
Haida Historian, telling THEIR story

Still, reading “Klee Wyck” by Emily Carr, I realize how quickly things have degraded since her time. Her descriptions of Tanu and the totem poles there make me wish I could see them as she did. But like the joke says, “Did you hear about the new Buddhist vacuum cleaner? No attachments!” Visiting Tanu, I am quickly brought to the real issues at hand. The captain of the Piraeus, Bill, had missed a dinner invitation by one of the Watchmen here. It’s a sore point. Hospitality is not readily rejected and it takes a lot of explaining as to why he needed to get his sailboat out of harm’s way of a projected storm. Mary is not entirely placated, but the sore point quickly has become a butt of a joke. It’s become a means to create further connection, and therefore commitment, between people. If I am obligated to you, then that means that we are a community.
Watchmen at Tanu

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