Queen Charlotte Islands, now formally known as Haida Gwaii, is an archipelago off British Columbia’s west coast, in Canada. Haida Gwaii means “Islands of the People.” Approximately half of the islands’ population is of the Haida people. Haida Gwaii consists of two main islands: Graham Island in the north and Moresby Island in the south, along with approximately 150 smaller islands. Haida Gwaii is considered by archaeologists as an option for a Pacific coastal route taken by the first humans migrating to the Americas from the Bering Strait. It is unclear how people arrived on Haida Gwaii, but archaeological sites have established human habitation on the islands as far back as 13,000 years ago. Wildlife-rich Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site include remote islands and temperate rainforest.
We chartered a de Havilland Beaver floatplane and flew about 30 minutes south of Queen Charlotte City to a long-abandoned Haida village on Louise Island that is part of the Haida Heritage Site. Once one of the largest native Haida enclaves in the region, K’uuna Llnagaay was built on a peninsula at Skedans Bay, overlooked by a rocky cliff. We toured the old village with a native Haida guide who lives in a small house on the island and, with her husband, serve as watchmen over the historic site. Virtually all of the old Haida village houses, massive carved totem poles, memorial poles and mortuary poles (reserved for the remains of chieftans) have slowly eroded, collapsing and returning to the earth from which they came, just as Haida custom intended. On some of the poles, despite their weathered, moss-covered appearance, evidence of the decorative carving remains visible.
“The Haida, a North American native culture, settled in the Canadian Queen Charlotte Islands and Alaska area over 8,000 years ago. The rugged terrain, abundant wildlife, cedar forests and proximity to the sea were elements that enabled the Haida to survive for centuries. Their continued survival depended on good stewardship of the land and the Haida culture is one of respect for the earth and its inhabitants. At least 14,000 native people have lived in the 126 known villages in the area. The numbers dropped dramatically upon the arrival of European settlers until in 1911 only 589 native people lived in Old Masset and Skidegate.
“Of all peoples of the North West coast the Haida were the best carvers, painters, and canoe and house builders, and they still earn considerable money by selling carved objects of wood and slate to traders and tourists. Standing in the tribe depended more on the possession of property so that interchange of goods took place and the people became sharp traders.
“The respect the Haida culture expresses for its surroundings have been represented throughout their history in their expression of art and literature. Symbolism plays an important part in these displays. The original Haida family structure divided the members into two groups, the Raven and the Eagle. These groups were further divided into many clans. The members of each group proudly displayed symbols and crests representing their membership. Both symbols are well represented through Haida history. Perhaps the most visible of the Haida art form is the totem pole. Carved from giant cedar trees, the totem poles often depicted the animal life around them…
“Haida society is based in a matrilineal system of descent. Property, titles, names, crests, masks, performances, and even songs are among the Haidas’ hereditary privileges. These are passed from one generation to the next, through the mother’s side. All families are also divided into one of two groups, Eagle and Raven. Every Haida is either Eagle or Raven, following from the mother. If one is born Raven, he or she must marry Eagle.
“Canoes were to the people of this coast what the horse became to the [American] Plains Indians. They were hollowed out of single logs of cedar, and were sometimes very large. Houses were built of huge cedar beams and planks which were worked out with adzes and wedges made anciently of stone, and put together at great feasts called by the whites by the jargon word ‘potlatch’. Each house ordinarily had a single carved pole in the middle of the gable, presented to the beach. Often the end posts in front were also carved and the whole house front painted.” – www.http://discoveringourstory.wisdomoftheelders.org
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