Sunday, July 3, 2011

SGang Gwaii

Our last anchorage in Haida Gwaii was at Rose Harbour. We radioed ahead to SGang Gwaii and obtained permission to visit the following day. It is a short trip of a few miles round to the small anchorage off the island from where one can dinghy ashore. Sgaang Gwaii is one of the UNESCO sites of special scientific interest, since it is the site of a Haida village containing the largest number of mortuary and memorial poles still standing.

Nan SDins village site
In the mid-1800's there were some 300 people living in the village under chief Nan SDins. But in 1862 a ship from San Francisco brought smallpox to Victoria. From there the canoes brought smallpox to the Haida and they were already dying on the beaches along the way. Nan SDins was decimated and the surviving Haida in the islands all moved to either Skidegate or Masset, one for the Raven tribe and one for the Eagles. Around the turn of the century the village was used as a summer camp for hunting and fishing, and then finally it was abandoned for many years until is was almost forgotten.

In the early 1970's a young Haida called Captain Gold ordered a canoe from a Sears catalogue and paddled south to find the village that his elders had spoken about. He arrived at the village and found it decaying and overgrown. He conceived of the idea of the Watchman program; now all the ancient Haida sites have a small team of resident caretakers to look after their heritage. Here at SGang Gwaii the lead Watchman is Shirley, Captain Gold's brother, and the guide is her son, Jordan. And an excellent job they do.

Jordan is your guide here

Jordan does all the caring for the
A mystical place
  poles which contain the remains of his ancestors;
carefully removing the trees and bushes which seed into the poles and strengthening the foundations of the poles that lean from the wind. He is in an eternal battle with the force of nature which will eventually consume the village.

In the 1950's some of the poles were removed
and these can be found in museums around the
world. And Jordan will tell you about every single
pole in the village, including the missing ones which
can be seen in old photos of the site. Interesting debate - should the museums have removed any of
the poles? Should more preservation work be done
or should nature take its course? Jordan will even show you where one pole was damaged by a museum curator who sawed a carving off as a souvenir.

Travelling here to these islands has been a highlight of 2011 for Susie and me. Digging into the history and culture of the Haida and seeing their village one can almost imagine the great canoes drawn up on the beach; the fires keeping the massive long houses warm; the ancestors looking out for the village from their resting places.

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