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Haida Gwaii

Mon Feb. 15th 2016

HAIDA GWAII July 12, 2011


Dearest Family and Friends
John and I flew through the sky last night and arrived in at 5 a.m. from our trip to Haida Gwaii (ex Queen Charlotte Islands), reeling from the 8 days we spent on the Island Roamer, a 70ft ketch that transported us on one of the big experiences of our lives; a truly madly deeply moving step back in time to glimpse lives lived with sea, rocks, earth, sky, spirits, trees, animals and humans, to say nothing of shamans and mythological creatures, woven seamlessly together. I'm going to TRY to write a letter because it was so precious to us, we want to share just a little, somehow, with you all.

The first page of my journal records this:
“You’re Eagle?”
“Yep, I’m related to half of Masset.”
This conversation I overheard at Skidans, the first ancient Haida site we visited where once mighty tall tall totems marked the living and the dead of a busy village--- I hope you have all got your Google maps out so you know where Skidans at Haida Gwaii is by now. We flew out in a float plane from Prince Rupert (British Columbia); an hour’s flight over the Hecate Strait, named after the Goddess of Sorcery, a goddess of the dark hours, because the tides and currents and winds that rage there make this one of the most ferocious passages for ships (and canoes in ancient days) on the planet. Of course, with two “Blue Skies Girls” on board (me and Annie Porter) we struck sunshine and gently swelling seas looking hand-adzed by the wind. I saw two long blue sausage-balloon shapes together in the water which the pilot later assured me were whales.

So, who is the Eagle? She is Evelyn Vanderhorn, a Haida woman weaver who joined us on the Island Roamer. Her mother, aunt and sisters are all master weavers and she has shifted from a career as a water colourist to follow a traditional path of weaving. She has been to NZ and had close links with Maori women weavers. Her “band”, her clan, her crest is Eagle. It is an absolutely everyday greeting for Haida (as with other Indian/First Nation/ aboriginal people; all words were freely used) to first checkout your crest. Eagle or Raven are at the top of the totem pole, the highest rank in the lineage. Then, depending on life events and kinship, you might have Bear, Frog, Whale, Beaver, Wolf, Thunderbird….a complex mix of real and spirit creatures.

I won’t try to impart my tantalsing snippets of knowledge (you’ll be relieved to know) but this tiny incident is typical of the layers of learning we immersed ourselves in.
Our party on the Island Roamer was 15 guests and four crew. The Skipper Steve was young and keen; his first time as captain and a big event for him. Whenever we saw a whale or a bear Steve would gill around for an hour or more, following their course. His most glorious moment on our week was a late afternoon with sunshine, full (three) sails up and whales humping and harrumphing and blowing as they lazily surfaced near us. With the long summer nights it meant we sometimes didn’t have anchor down till 9.30. Steve relaxed with enough of his guests being experienced sailor-types on board to break his “No alcohol before anchor down” rule several times. Guess who were quick off the mark to help break that rule?
The first mate was Neal, a guitar-playing South African-born ballad singer with a Brazilian wife, who loved to linger in the forests, finding us a half-dugout mighty cedar on its way to becoming a canoe before the scraping and burning was abandoned to the moss, or a tree with a hand-adzed square deep into its heart, a tester to see if it would be seaworthy, maybe 200 years ago. He managed to get us all to sit in silence under the cedars, spruce and hemlock (we can now tell the difference) among the moss-cloaked fallen giants, listening for birds, tingling for sounds of bears. No, we didn’t strike a bear in the forest, but we did see a very sweet sleeping hole in the roots of a forest giant with VERY FRESH bear pooh alongside. I have a photo for Eiji and Naoki to prove it.
The Cook was Janelle from Mistaken Identity vineyard on Vancouver Island. She fed us far too well; inventively, lovingly, heartily. Her recipe book is a great addition to our shelves because it is full of photos we can share with you if you are not bored with my letter!
The resident expert was Robin Wright, curator on NW Indigenous Art from the Burke Museum, Seattle. She showed us slides every night of the ancient sites we visited, taken from riveting late 19th century photographs; talked us through the calligraphy of totem poles and how people “read” them; gave us a lesson in the “formline” of the carvings and even a drawing lesson, with stencils, so we can understand better what the hand and eye are bringing to the mind (or is it the other way round?). Annie and I would have liked more of that.
The other guests I will not document, except to say that Annie helped bring the average age DOWN and unfortunately John and I fitted into the demographic! One guy, an LA lawer had been 21 times with Blue Water Adventures! Tommy Joseph was a marvelous addition– a carver from the Tlingit people in Alaska who has ALSO been to NZ and in fact recently completed a totem with an Oz Aborigine, a Maori, and a Samoan. I need to go to Gisborne to see it!

Knowing that some of you only read texts and emails these days, I’m going to change style, like Basho, to fragments from the cedar-strip basket woven in my mind:

• Best waking moment: Out of the porthole, across green and golden reflections on the mirror-calm inlet sea, a big black bear was ambling along, sniffing out clams and crabs for his breakfast. Bears on Haida Gwaii have evolved to have longer jaws and legs to better themselves for intertidal food gathering and paddling.
• Kayaking for Trish, in the rain, against the wind and current, to Burnaby Narrows where the 21 ft tides leave rocks laden with crabs, weird long white anenomes, sea cucumber/slugs (we patted one), starfish with colours and shapes galore (I specially remember a perfect blue and purple pair, the saturation of their colours fit for a painter’s delight. We witnessed one big orange star in the act of slowly crunching up a mussel for breakfast.)
• Our two zodiacs were lashed together for the non-kayakers and we all went silent in awe as another bear went about his foraging on the shore while we floated near him, up and down the beach for half an hour.
• Hot pools on a tiny rocky island where, in the wind and rain, who should be soaking but David Suzuki and his wife Tara. (One of the world’s most renowned environmentalists.) Annie had just finished reading his autobiog and Ian was half way through, so of course he asked for a photo! Later, in a Haida cabin we saw David talking with an old Haida woman with his grandson, while his daughters were preparing fresh-caught fish, scallops, sea cucumber on the beach for their dinner. He told John and Ian (coz Annie and I were in another pool in rocks lapped by the waves at the time) he loved NZ, especially Wellington, and if he was younger would happily emigrate here! Tara and Robin examined each other’s Haida gold and silver bracelets, discussing the crests (i.e. raven, eagle, bear etc) on them as if it was their identity too.
• There was a terrific library on board to add to our enlightenment. Many records from the early traders, navigators, photographers who were the first Europeans to interact with the Haida. I loved reading the translated names of the chiefs and their wives and houses: “Grizzly Bear House owned by ‘Rolling from side to side like a huge log in a heavy sea’; the builder’s wife was called ‘Like a huge whale’; a house owner called ‘Come Here’ had a wife called ‘The woman who throws things away’ (must have been rich) and, richer still and my favourite: ‘Wife smeared with oolichan grease’. Now, this won’t mean anything to you all, but let me tell you, Annie and I have smelt oolichan grease, in a refined form. It comes from a small oily fish which is rotted down and fermented for use at feasts/potlaches and it smells DISGUSTING. Cleopatra would have stuck to milk, given the choice, I’m sure. The largest house in a village was”House Clouds Sound Against as they Roll Upon It.”
• At all the sacred ancient village sites we visited there are “Watchmen” who guard the land and guide the visitors (officially limited to a dozen at a time; very few a year). We were so impressed with Sean, a modern-day Raven Watchman who, with an impressive air of solemn authority told the long sad story of how smallpox DECIMATED the population (from around 12,000 to 500; 95% dead; some of the epidemics intentional as colonial agents knowingly gave infected blankets to a community). He showed not a flicker of anger or resentment or blame. When Annie and I talked to him about this, he expressed surprise. “I can’t understand why or how people get so angry now. They were different times then…”
• The cedar trees, like all the plants and animals, play a huge role in the magical mix that swirls through the sea, earth and sky. The fineness of the women’s weaving from strips of cedar bark is exquisite. The trees are known as ‘every woman’s elder sister’. Life sustaining. One Haida elder is quoted: “I don’t want my grandchildren to inherit stumps.”
• There are huge stories about the logging, the confrontations between loggers and logging companies, and the Indians---too many for here. But one: We all read a book, The Golden Spruce, which luckily, by chance, I bought in Vancouver for the trip. It is about a recent tragedy when a crazy?loner environmentalist one night chainsawed down a three-hundred-year-old unique golden spruce, before (probably) kayaking his way to oblivion across Hecate Strait. One of my best reads in years.
• Yes, we saw whales, close by and spouting in the distance. I don’t know how many, a dozen at least. One was swimming so languorously near Island Roamer our skipper said he was probably “asleep”. Along came a mate and suddenly, rapturously (at least we were!) he breached, his whole ginormous body thrusting clear of the water, SIDEWAYS, all along his great length. Never to be forgotten.
• We learnt a lot about the superb bentwood boxes made from cedar steamed and bent to have square corners, deeply carved and decorated. On our last night John said: “I felt I had opened a bentwood box and had a little peep ---and there were many many things in it.”

And I could go on and on. Haida have been on their islands about 10,000 years. Maybe some of their land escaped the Ice Age. Bill Reid, one of the most famous modern carvers (whose friend Barbara directed us to the Island Roamer, bless her forever, and who had us all to lunch in Vancouver to see one of his great carvings and meet with another artist who worked with him in the decade before his death), wrote this:

“It’s easy to become entranced by the soft curtain of age, seeing this instead of what it obscures……these carvings were objects of bright pride, to be admired in the newness of their crisply curved lines, the powerful flow of sure elegant curves and recesses---yes, and in the brightness of fresh paint.”

Though we loved our gazes through the ‘soft curtain’ we felt so lucky to gain a sense of the ongoing spirit of modern Haida.

Their philosophy is to let everything have its turn on the endless cycle of growth, flourishing and death, yes, even to let the chiefly markers of the magnificent totems decay back into the earth and become as fallen trees, cloaked by mosses when their time is over. Our mindsets and mindscapes have had a challenging adventure!

Bless you all if you have read this far!
Love Trish and John