“It’s Sunday so they’re a bit busy. But we have permission to land,” captain Tom told us as he piloted Ocean Light II to our first stop: the abandoned ancient village of Skedans sheltered on the northeastern coast of Louise Island in Haida Gwaii.
Would you be surprised to learn that permission may have been granted by a sixteen-year-old girl? In her second summer as a watchman?
The Haida started a voluntary Watchmen Program in the 1970s. Two decades later they began working with Parks Canada, which now funds the program and provides logistical support. From May to September, two to four watchmen are onsite at the five most prominent ancient villages on the South Moresby Archipelago.
“I’m here for two weeks this summer,” said Camellia as she introduced herself. “I still have a lot to learn but I’ll do my best.”
Haida society is based on a matrilineal system of descent. Property, titles, names, crests, masks, performances and songs are passed from one generation to the next through the mother’s side. A moiety of two complementary tribal subdivisions, all Haida families are divided into Eagle and Raven, following the mother. If one is born Raven, he or she must marry Eagle. Camellia is the great-great-great granddaughter of the matriarchal Raven chief of House 15, the Big House at Skedans. How big? About seventeen metres by seventeen metres and three metres deep, the Big House once accommodated seven hundred people at a potlatch.
Bordered by the ocean on both sides, Ḵ’uuna Llnagaay is the ancestral name of the village, which has also been called Skedans (a name corruption of Chief Gida’nsta), Qoona, Kona and Grizzly Bear Town. At its height in the late 1800s, twenty-seven longhouses fronted the ocean (The Raven occupied twenty of them) and a population of 738 people inhabited this wealthy, winter village.By 1884 only a dozen people called it home.
Camellia said people believe a killer-whale spirit dwells under a rock behind the old village and guards it.
More than fifty sculptors worked on “a thicket of poles:” twenty-two frontal poles, eighteen single mortuary poles, three double mortuary poles, five memorial poles and five mortuary figures. “I come from a family of many artists,” Camellia smiled. Sadly, all that remains of this artistry are grey corpses of decaying mortuary poles patched with moss.
Camellia explained the different poles and their carvings of local wildlife (including grizzly bears, proof that at one time they were on Haida Gwaii) and supernatural beings. She showed us how to determine village wealth by counting the notches on totems as each one indicates a potlatch—one pole has fourteen!
Frontal poles stood seventeen metres tall up against the outside of the house, hollowed out at the back to reduce their weight and keep them from splitting. Contrary to today’s meaning, “bottom of the totem pole,” at the base was where you’d find the family’s most important crest.
Portal poles had an oval entrance cut through the base, a special entry for ceremonies. You had to crouch, a Haida security design to make it easier to lob off the head of an unwanted intruder. In such emergencies, the women and children would rush to the back walls, remove them and run away. Every summer the walls of the longhouses would be pulled up and put on a canoe or catamaran for each family’s voyage to its designated fishing camp.
Mortuary poles were built for those of high esteem. These elevated tombs had large inverted chambers cut into the top end to hold bentwood boxes, a finicky process that took a year to complete. Shamans preserved the bodies, “just to prevent odours,” Camellia explained before placing them in the fetal position in bentwood boxes. When ordinary citizens died, their bodies were placed in grave houses. Only criminals were buried.
Someone, likely Judith with her inquisitive intellect, asked Camellia to explain the process of creating totems. The Haida searched the forest for a suitable tree, usually red or yellow cedar, then lit a fire at its base. If smoke rose, they’d use it; if it didn’t, it meant the tree wasn’t healthy. When a tree was selected, they built a strong fire at its base to start the sap running and weaken its structure. After felling the tree, they pulled it out of the rainforest with cedar ropes. One-third of the tree’s core was cut away to reduce its weight before it was totemized. While the carver controlled the design after consulting with the family re its stories and wishes, it was the chief who decided on the figures and their order. The pole’s progress was hidden from view by a screen of brushwood. Securing the pole deeply in the ground and raising it up to the sky required the community effort of a hundred people.
Why didn’t the Haida do more to save these majestic totems? “They didn’t worry about saving poles because it suggested you didn’t have the money to erect new ones,” Camellia told us.
Ḵ’uuna Llnagaay attracted the attention of Canada’s famous artist Emily Carr, who after a visit in 1907 wrote in her autobiography Klee Wyck that
…no matter how drunken their tilt, the Haida poles never lost their dinigty. They looked sadder, perhaps, when they bowed forward, and more stern when they tipped back.
She returned in 1928 and 1931 and wrote that “Some of the mortuary poles were broken and you saw skulls peeping out through the cracks.”
If Camellia represents the youth on Haida Gwaii, the kids are all right and the future of this precious corner of Canada has a strong voice. When she graduates, Camellia will be given a new name. ”I can help choose it if I want but I’m going to trust in whatever they give me.” Is there a Haida word for wisdom of the young Raven?
Totems from Skedans are scattered around the word, but a mortuary pole is right here in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
Smyly, John and Carolyn. Those Born at Koona The Totem Poles of the Haida Village Skedans Queen Charlotte Islands. Victoria, BC: Hancock House Publishers, 1973.Ḵ’uuna Llnagaay, Koona, Skedans—this village was so important that it was modelled by John Smyly for the provincial museum in Victoria. Later, with his wife Carolyn, John wrote this invaluable book about the village totems. Their research is founded on the remarkable photographs taken by George M. Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1878.