At The Edge Of The World
Image Credit: Bill Read's 'Raven and the First Men', image by D. Gordon E. Robertson, CC BY-SA 3.0

At The Edge Of The World

A journey to the Haida Gwaii 

Kathleen Jones

I’m in a Zodiac with five other people bouncing up the Hecate Strait off the west coast of British Columbia. We’re doing about 30 knots against a flood tide with a strong southwesterly wind behind us. Some of the other passengers have faces the same colour as the ocean. But, although I’m soaked with spray, I feel more exhilarated than afraid. Dan, the Haida pilot in charge of the boat, is a former coastguard. This turbulent ocean is home ground for him.

These remote islands are called Haida Gwaii, which simply means ‘the islands of the people’. They are poised between the northernmost fringes of Canada and the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean. ‘Where your world ends,’ the Haida say, ‘ours begins.’ This is wilderness, and I’m so far out of my comfort zone I hardly know who I am. I’ve become a character in an unfamiliar narrative. And it’s not the one I came to write.

Two years ago, living in Britain, and depressed by the gathering storm of climate change and economic instability, I stumbled on a translation of oral poetry transcribed by a maverick anthropologist more than a hundred years ago in Haida Gwaii. It was literature from a very different tradition to the one we’re used to in the west and it offered an alternative way of looking at the world we live in. The Haida have no word for nature because they see themselves as part of it, not superior beings in charge of something they regard as ‘other’. In their interconnected mythological world human beings can metamorphose from one creature to another by an act of will.

Haida mythology became the starting point for a collection of poems, but I knew that I would have to visit Haida Gwaii in order to understand the Haida way of thinking more deeply. I was particularly fascinated by the character of Raven who, like human beings, is mischievous, unreliable, greedy, adventurous and sexually voracious.

The Haida have lived on these islands for more than 10,000 years. Their language is unique, an ‘isolate’, and their culture contains echoes of the Pacific Islands and Asia. They live in harmony with their environment, believing in the principle of Yah’Guudang — respect for all living things. This is the ‘Haida Way’, embodied in a document called the ‘Land Use Vision’, which proposes introducing an environmental commitment into every national constitution to protect the rights of land, sea and sky from human exploitation.

I eventually arrived on Haida Gwaii just as a Commission, established by the Canadian government, was due to report its findings. Called Truth and Reconciliation, it had been set up to investigate the dark history of colonisation. The results are shocking. ‘Cultural genocide’ is the phrase used to describe what happened when an immigrant population, largely British, began to arrive in significant numbers in the late nineteenth century.

British Columbia was not then part of the Canadian Federation but a Crown Colony. Land was taken from the indigenous peoples, their languages suppressed. Even after British Columbia became part of the Canadian Federation, in 1871, the infamous Indian Act of 1876 gave them the legal status of children. It has never been repealed. The colonists also stand accused of deliberately spreading diseases to wipe out communities. Whatever the truth of it, the ‘Great Dying’ of the period reduced the population of Haida Gwaii from perhaps 20,000 to around 500. The survivors were herded into two reservations on the northernmost island leaving the rest of the terrain free for settlers, loggers and speculators.

Confronting the actions taken by your own government and compatriots, even if it was three generations ago, is not comfortable. But that’s what I’m doing on this boat journey. My Haida guides are taking me to one of the abandoned communities in the southern islands. They are both men in their sixties, the sons of hereditary chiefs, and they have a story to tell me.

We’ve been on the ocean for about two hours when the boat slows and we round a spit of land into a sheltered bay where the forest creeps down close to the shore. This is Skedans, a heritage site gradually being absorbed back into the forest as the remains of buildings decay. I stumble over the side into shallow water, clumsy as an astronaut in my deck boots, padded trousers and flotation jacket.

Around the bay the last carved totems of what was once a long parade lean away from the prevailing wind. The shapes of ravens, killer whales, bears and beavers are now blurred by erosion. I’m taken from one to another and told the stories of the families they represent. One of the houses is called ‘the sound of clouds rowing across the sky’. The original three-tiered building, erected by a great chief, and once big enough to hold several hundred people, is visible only as a deep pit, criss-crossed by fallen beams, covered in moss. The men tell me the story of the Great Dying, when so many people died at once that there was no-one to bury them. Their bones still lie under the vegetation that covers the forest floor.

And then they begin to tell me about the Schools of Sorrow. The Colonial Administration, committed to wiping out indigenous language and culture, set up residential schools. Children were forcibly removed from their families and sent there to be educated from the age of five. The aim was to ‘kill the Indian in the child’, break cultural links and produce a new generation of Christian Canadians speaking only English. Unfortunately, endemic neglect and abuse killed between 50% and 75% of the children. The last of the schools only closed in 1996 and the Canadian government has set aside more than two billion Canadian dollars to compensate survivors for physical and psychological trauma.

My two guides are survivors, and were lucky enough to have parents – themselves survivors – who were able to pass on their heritage of language, stories and traditions in spite of colonial pressure to abandon them. Unfortunately much was lost and this period of history is referred to as the Great Silence. The cultural damage was extensive. Links were broken, not only between children and parents, but between children and their communities. After three generations of enforced separation there is a noticeable legacy of poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and a high suicide rate among young people.

I sit on a pile of driftwood and talk to 28-year-old Dan about truth and reconciliation and the legal struggles of the Haida to get their land rights back and regain some control over their lives. Now, Dan tells me, they are using their legal resources to join with other indigenous people across Canada to oppose contemporary environmental threats to their way of life. Environmental activism is restoring a sense of purpose to the younger generation. The biggest perceived threat is the Northern Gateway Pipeline project and a proposed tanker terminal that would take oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the US. Any leaks might pollute pristine habitats and watersheds for decades, threatening salmon breeding grounds, the habitat of the rare white Spirit Bear and an ocean already stressed by over-fishing and other forms of pollution.

Sitting on this log, between the ocean and the forest, I realise that this is the big story that I should be writing. I share my thoughts with Dan. ‘You’ll need permission,’ he says.

This is my first brush with Cultural Appropriation. In Haida society stories and poems are ‘owned’ by families and handed down orally from one generation to another like heirlooms. There’s also a growing feeling among First Nations people that they want to write their own histories. For too long their culture, land and language have been appropriated by colonial immigrants who edited it as they thought fit. Dan tells me that I will have to visit the Chief of the Haida Nation, an elected government official, to ask permission for the story I’m burning to tell.

Back in the settlement of Masset, I make an appointment with the Chief. I shouldn’t have been surprised to meet a woman, as Haida society is matrilineal, but the fact that I was is a mark of how deeply western patriarchal culture is ingrained in us all. May Russ, whose Haida name is Halaa’ Leeyga, has a friendly personality, though I sense a certain reserve towards this British tourist who is daring to write about her people and their history. But, after we’ve talked, she thaws a little and says that, if I simply want to write about my journey and the people that I’ve met, it will be acceptable. For anything else, I need to apply to the Culture Committee of the Haida Nation and she recommends that I should formally seek their approval.

The subject of cultural appropriation is a minefield for the writer. I’m comfortable with the idea of oral copyright, but the idea of getting permission to write about a nation’s history seems odd to a European author used to discussing anything and everything in print. And what will I do if permission is refused? I lie awake that night thinking about my dilemma. I can understand that a people who have had every other aspect of their culture, their land and their basic human rights taken away, might be very sensitive about what outsiders do with their stories, but I don’t feel that we should be excluded from the conversation because of the acts of our ancestors — however terrible.

The following morning I send an email to May Russ, hoping that permission will be granted, if it’s needed. But, while I’m waiting, I edit what I’m writing very carefully because I know that, whatever the outcome is, I have to write about the Haida’s struggle and their reaction to everything that has been done to them. I find it inspirational that, despite the attempted destruction of their society, with its legacy of family disconnection and cultural damage, they can still respond not with bitterness or hatred but by advocating the ‘Haida Way’ of truth and reconciliation, gender equality and a determination to live in harmony with the natural world. These are the principles embedded in the mythology that took me to Haida Gwaii in the first place, bringing me face to face with the dark underbelly of my own cultural history. That part of the narrative, at least, is mine to tell.

Kathleen Jones is an English poet and biographer.