We’re flying at two thousand metres, 160 kilmometres off the North Coast of British Columbia, and just off the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Our destination is shaped like a bird. Europeans named it Anthony Island; those who lived here called it SkungWai On these islands a unique and energetic civilization has endured for thousands of years.
This is the most distant outpost of the Haida, isolated from other villages by wind and weather, and days of hard paddling. The village of the Konghit Haida is called Ninstints, after the name of its last chief. Decimated in the 1800s by war and disease, it has been deserted for a hundred years. In 1981, SkungWai and the village of Ninstints were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only a handful of visitors have ever seen this site, one of the last remaining stands of totem poles in the world to inhabit its original location.
Ninstints was once a thriving community of 400 people. This beach was lined with cedar canoes, and massive planked houses once stood on the crest above the shore where today there are only trees and a strip of weather-beaten poles. For years, Ninstints has been exposed to the elements; many of the poles have disappeared or rotted away. In 1957, afraid that the poles might be lost forever, a team from museums in Victoria and Vancouver embarked on a salvage operation. With Haida carver Bill Reid and Anthropologist Wilson Duff, they assessed the damage caused by the encroaching forest and years of winter storms. Many of the poles were in surprisingly good condition. Creatures released from the wood a hundred years before seemed as fresh as the day they were carved.
Most of the old stories have been forgotten. One of the poles seemed to represent the Bear Mother: according to legend, a girl berry picking in the woods is kidnapped by men who are bear people in disguise. She marries the chief of the bears, and has two half-bear children before being rescued by her brothers. The children return home with their mother and become ancestors of the family that owned this pole.
In 1957, it seemed the best way to save these monuments was to remove them. Altogether, eleven poles were taken down. Some were nearly 16 meters high and weighed several tonnes. Each of these poles is an irreplaceable example of Haida sculpture, work that is today acknowledged to be among the finest of its kind. The artifacts have become soft and fragile, and require great care. Each pole was sawn off at its base and, once lowered to the ground, cut into sections for easy shipping. They were boxed carefully and towed out to a waiting ship. From here the poles were taken to museums in Victoria and Vancouver. The acclaim given to these crates of decayed wood sparked a renaissance of Haida art, injecting new life into a tradition that had almost disappeared.
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would live here. For much of the year, the island is unapproachable. Nothing could have suited the Konghit Haida better. They were an independent people; they spoke a different dialect from the Northern Haida, and like all West Coast tribes, they were frequently at war with neighbouring villages. SkungWai offered a safe, defensible position to fall back on. Here at the end of this sheltered reach, the Konghit Haida built their homes and erected the monuments celebrating their supernatural heritage for all to see.
It seems forlorn and deserted today, but SkungWai has been home to the Konghit Haida for thousands of years. At the time of European contact, there were as many as ten thousand people living on the Queen Charlottes, twice their present population: all Haida, all linked by language, trade and common customs. And if it is often wet and gloomy, life was good. Food is plentiful: birds, fish and sea mammals feed on the plankton churned up from the bottom by summer and winter storms. The carver Bill Reid once wrote, “Only a stupid man could starve on this coast.”
The Haida world was suspended between ocean and forest, two mysterious universes peopled with supernatural creatures. The old stories tell of adventures between the First People and characters like Raven, Grizzly Bear and Killer Whale. Images of these creatures evolved into stylized crest figures, and referred to an ancestral encounter in mythic times. Each crest thus reflects the power and prestige gained in the encounter and passed down through generations. The pole was an object of pride owned by a clan and contributing to its wealth and esteem.
Ninstints was a permanent village, occupied during the winter by several kinship groups, or lineages. These photographs, taken at the turn of the century, show the village twenty years after it was deserted. Ranged along the beach are the tall house and memorial poles and in front of them the shorter mortuary poles that once identified every village on the northern coast. Mortuary poles held the bodies of the powerful and wealthy chiefs, who in this village must have been numerous. An opening was notched into the top, the body was placed in a cedar box and a crest attached to represent the chiefs’ supernatural ancestors.
The Konghit Haida left behind them an astonishing twenty-five mortuary columns twenty carved house and memorial poles. The tall house poles depicted the lineage of their owners and stood at the entrances of their houses. Interior poles were shorter and erected near the back door. In a sense, it’s not hard to see that what we now call totem poles were very similar to family coats of arms. House poles were hollowed out at the back and, after carving, were painted. Haida art is concentrated and adheres to formal concepts developed over hundreds of years. Within these stylized forms, Haida carvers were free to move beyond decoration and to interpret the universe in unlimited variations.
In a Haida village, life took place entirely on the beach. Here families built their houses, carved tools and implements and steamed open their long seaworthy boats. The old canoe channel still cuts through rich clam beds. These were a seafaring people; of all their achievements, some would say the most perfect was the canoe. Hollowed out from a single log and finished with a handdads, these were graceful, ocean going craft built for the unpredictable weather of the North Pacific. Canoes were indispensable for fishing and hunting and for berry picking in the summer months. Fitted with sails, they could travel from island to island and over to the mainland for trade and ceremonial gatherings. In their canoes too, the Haida searched the coastline for their most precious resource: the cedar tree.
Haida carver Bill Reid writes, “These monuments were the work of master carvers and apprentices, who brought to final perfection an art style whose origins lie deep in the past.” Theirs was an austere and a sophisticated art; its prevailing mood was classical control, yet it characterized even the simplest objects of daily life. Using tools made of stone, antler and the occasional piece of steel or iron washed in from the Orient, the Haida developed their art in isolation from the rest of the world.
The sudden arrival of Europeans in 1787 marked the beginning of what has been called the Golden Age of Haida carving. European traders were looking for sea otter furs, and the Haida were happy to oblige. The traders offered good prices and paid in tools and manufactured goods. At first the relationship was stimulating: with their wealth and sudden leisure, the Konghit nobles commissioned poles and paid their carvers handsomely. In a few years, using metal axes, chisels and adzes, these carvers brought this art to its highest level of expression.
But the men who brought tools and European contact also brought liquor, firearms and small pox. In 1884, only thirty people were left alive at Ninstints. The remaining Konghit Haida packed their belongings and went to live with their old enemies in the northern village of Skidegate, leaving a row of mortuary poles behind them.
Once there were seventeen houses running along the shore. Each contained several families. The cedars used for these houses were brought from off island; some were 500 years old with grain so straight that with a stone tool and a wooden wedge you could split them into fifteen metre planks. A few of these great houses measured up to fifteen metres long, and fourteen metre wide with clear roof spans.
In 1957, this smaller house was still standing in the village of Tanu. It was so fragile it shook with only a gentle push. Between the two center columns would have stood a carved frontal pole, raised with all the ceremony and glamour of a potlatch. A house was like a model of the cosmos, with its floor the earth and its roof the sky. It functioned as a dwelling for both the living and their ancestors. Each house represented the center of the world for the lineage that owned it. Everything was done with an eye to prestige and importance. Gone were the days when people referred to their homes with names like Thunder Rolls Upon It or People Think of this House Even When They Are Sleeping Because the Master Feeds Everyone Who Calls.
A few years ago, these poles were hidden from sight by scrub growth and tall devli’s club. Today the site is being restored. Conservators from the British Columbia Provincial Museum visit SkungWai each year to protect the poles from further damage. The brush is cleared away and burned. Slowly, the remaining village and its poles are beginning to emerge. Damaging vegetation is removed from the tops of the mortuary poles. The soil is sifted and examined for artifacts. The condition of each pole is studied. With careful control of the environment, these monuments could endure for another 150 years. The restoration of the site is not entirely a museum task: Haida Dick Wilson has been coming here for several years now as self-appointed guardian of SkungWai.
We cannot help but see these poles today through a mist of time and history or relate to them as ruins from a lost and somehow inscrutable age. They were objects of pride and wealth; symbols of the world tree that unites beneath its branches a universe of animals, people and natural phenomena. What remains in the memories invoked of pride, wealth and supernatural passion is evidence of a brilliant and fragile civilization. In the words of Anthropologist Wilson Duff, “The Haida were a people of high culture with an elaborate ceremonial life and a passion for making their social and religious worlds visible through the plastic and graphic arts.”
These faces return our glances; they seem to be looking beyond us at something we are unable to perceive. Images seem to speak to the eye, but they are really addressed to the mind. They are ways of thinking in the guise of ways of seeing. The eye can sometimes be satisfied with form alone, but the mind can be satisfied only with meaning.