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An Adventure in Haida Gwaii

Author: Liam Devany
Year: Adventure

I would like to tell you about my unforgettable experience of visiting a native chief of the Haida Gwaii tribe on Graham Island, located 200 km from Prince Rupert on the coast of North Pacific Canada.

I had been working on an exchange programme on many of the small islands wedged between Vancouver Island and the mainland for several months when I started hearing tales of the native Indian tribe who lived on the furthest island within the boundaries of Canada.

The more I heard about this island the more I wanted to go – but it would take some persistence! The chief was not an easy man to get a response from. It was not difficult to find his email address but after receiving no response to several polite emails, I decided a different approach would be necessary.

I sent a longer message telling him about my Scottish ancestry and how my grandfather had taught me about all the special properties of plants in the wild and why I was interested in learning about the sacred plants of Haida Gwaii. This time I was successful and the chief made arrangements for me to come and stay at his compound in Old Masset at the very northern tip of the island, which was a closed native community.

The Haida were once a warrior tribe who developed quite separately from other natives in the general region. Their native dress was cloth made of red or yellow from cedar bark and they had, quite independently of Western influence, learned how to make houses built from planed wood to keep the damp climate out. This was a more effective solution than the early settlers' log cabin structures, which have very thin contact points, where one log meets the other, and damp can easily intrude.

I stayed with the chief for two weeks and was the only white man in the settlement. He was a very talented silversmith and made custom jewellery on demand from a contact on the mainland. He introduced me to many of his cousins, some of them were canoe builders and one was even the chief totem pole carver, who was just completing a thirty foot specimen carved from cedar while I was there.

I helped clear some land the chief was planning to extend his building on and he took me on several trips to find some exotic plants, specific to the climate there. We had many talks each evening about each plant’s properties and how they used them.

One evening, when the chief was satisfied that I was knowledgeable in the subject as I had claimed, he produced a long tribal peace pipe which was adorned with intricate carved images of many native animals, like eagles, salmon, wolves and bears.

He carefully loaded the bowl with a delicate mixture of several dried herbs and I was expected to take long inhalations, as we passed the pipe back and forth to each other. Before long I was transported to another reality where I was flying through the air pursued by another bird which I soon realised was him. Just as he caught up with me we were now running fast on the ground and seeing the landscape through what I perceived to be the eyes of a wolf. This time we stayed in that form until we reached a rocky outcrop and surveyed the sea from a high plateau. We communicated by thought; no sounds or words were uttered. I learned the history of the area, about a unique golden spruce tree that all living things paid homage to, and the family of wolves we belonged to. He was the wise alpha male of the pack and I was his heir. He had much to teach me and transmitted that information through his piercing eyes.

Suddenly I was back in the chief’s house, not realising how much time had passed. But I certainly felt tired and exhausted, as if I had been running for hours. Not a word of the experience was uttered between us but the chief told me to sleep it off and be up fresh for daybreak the next morning.

I thought the pipe experience would be the highlight of this wonderful trip but one more surprise lay ahead. The next morning we loaded up the chief’s canoe with provisions and headed out from Old Massett round the bluff and past their most remote village called Kung.

We continued down the Alexandra Narrows to a really ancient settlement, abandoned for almost two hundred years. It was located in a perfect semi-circular cove and was the sacred gathering place of the Haida tribe, where the elders convened at the turn of the year to make important decisions about tribal matters.

It was quite eerie as everything looked like it had just been recently abandoned, but on closer inspection there was obvious wear and tear on the buildings and the largest totem poles were hanging down at forty five degree angles. The chief informed me they were actually mortuary poles which contained the mummified corpses of ancestral shamans. They guarded the village and eventually the poles would sink back into the earth, reminding us where we were all destined.

As I walked around I was overcome with emotion, never expecting to have the privilege of seeing the Haida’s most sacred place. The chief explained how the village was arranged. Canoes were pulled up onto the beach sand and tethered. The buildings were just far enough back to stop water encroaching, and behind them were vegetable growing patches, shielded from the salt of the ocean. At the very back were the smoke houses for preserving game and fish for winter, and behind these was the wild forest for hunting and firewood. In other words, a perfect ecological system as we would describe it in modern language. It was an adventure I would never forget for the rest of my life.