Watching Over the Past
Guarding the five ancient village sites in Gwaii Haanas National Park, Haida watchmen provide a living link to the rich cultural heritage of the Haida Nation—a heritage my husband, Brian, and I have enjoyed learning about.
The park is located at the southern end of Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) off the northern coast of British Columbia. It was created after the 1985 standoff on Lyell Island between the Haida people and the logging companies operating in the area. International attention encouraged the government of Canada to meet with the Haida Nation and agree to designate an area of the islands as a national park.
The Haida Watchmen Program, however, began in 1981, before the conflict. The Skidegate Band Council had become increasingly concerned as Haida Gwaii became an attractive destination for boaters, kayakers and tourists. In an attempt to protect their cultural artifacts and resources, the Haida Watchmen Program was formed.
From late spring to early autumn, two or three watchmen are stationed at three village sites: Windy Bay (Hlk’yah GaawGa), Hotspring Island (Gandll K’in Gwaay-aay) and Anthony Island (SGang Gwaay Llnagaay). Tanu (T’aanuu Llnagaay) and Skedans (K’uuna Llnagaay) lie outside the reserve but within the Haida Heritage Site. The prime responsibility of the watchmen is to guard and protect the natural and cultural heritage of these sites. The watchmen, who are all from the Haida Nation, are trained in wilderness first aid, marine emergencies, small vessel operations, bear awareness and cultural awareness, among other things. They also sometimes lead tours of the sites, though that responsibility rests mostly with the tour operators. The watchmen are a cultural contact for visitors, and also assist in any emergency situations that arise.
While some watchmen are shy and reserved, most are eager and willing to share the history of these ancient communities. While the totem and mortuary poles of the villages gracefully decay and the house beams are left to fall back to the earth, these modern-day Haida watchmen afford a bridge to their past. As you listen to your hosts, you hear the undertones of a deep respect for the Haida’s cultural past. There is a strong determination to preserve their heritage, language, crafts and culture.
Over the past few years, Brian and I have visited the islands several times by boat and have had the privilege of meeting several of these guardians of the past.
On one such occasion, we watched a young carver chip away at a cedar mask. The personable young man joked easily with us, his guests, as he constantly wet the mask and carved the designs that have been passed down through generations of Haida carvers.