Adventurous Learning: A visit to the Islands of the People

Touring Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People), formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, has been a long deferred goal of the Fletchers (my wife Marty and me) for many years. It was part of an extended celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary and reflected a long-standing interest in the First Nations of the British Columbia coast.

When my niece recommended Ageless Adventure Tours (a division of Mandate Tours), we signed up immediately for a 7-day adventure. The group – made up of 20 people almost all of whom qualified as seniors and included a number of academics – flew from Vancouver to Masset on Day 1 (July7).

The archipelago is about 350 kilometres north of Vancouver Island. The southern islands are part of the National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Haida Watchmen supervise the site and control access to beaches, wilderness trails and ancient, abandoned Haida villages.

Culture and Art
For those interested in culture and art, the tour was a great success. The learning – as much as could be crammed into seven days – began on the first day. After flying from Vancouver to Masset, the group lunched at Agate Beach and visited Naikoon Provincial Park. But the day’s highlight was a visit to the home and studio of April While, geologist, community leader / activist and artist. She works in a variety of formats, illustrating not only the traditional designs of the Haida people but also the continuing dynamism of Haida art, which speaks not only of their history and traditions but also to the present and future.

After dinner in her home, April answered questions about her art and her work at the University of B.C. and with government agencies on the future of the fishery. She delivered an amazing impromptu lecture on the environmental situation in Haida Gwaii (logged out; depleted herring fishery). (At least this former professor in environmental studies with a long interest in the B.C. coast was amazed.)
April White (from her website)

Later we learned from April’s cousin, Christian White, a community leader and renowned carver, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find trees (cedar or spruce) big enough for the traditional Haida dugout canoes and totem poles. Through co-management, 50% of islands are now protected, but the cedar stock has been decimated or worse; clear-cutting continues and the industry does not deliver many jobs to Haida people.

More Art and History
Our second day in Masset featured visits with renowned Haida weaver Georgia Bennett, the Dixon Entrance Maritime Museum, and a traditional Longhouse and carving shed hosted by Christian White, a well-known carver and community leader.
Georgia Bennett combines the traditional Haida art of raven’s tail weaving with modern colours, creating a whole range of “traditional wearable artwork “(dance skirts, robes, sashes, etc.) One of her blankets is pictured here:
After a stop at the Dixon Entrance Maritime Museum – which had many artefacts of
European settlers – we moved on to a gift shop and then to the Longhouse and carving shed.

Totem Poles
At dinner in the Longhouse, we were fortunate to have Christian White join our table to share with us as much Haida history and culture as we could absorb. He told us about the important role played by totem poles, story poles (historic event, achievement etc.), memorial poles (life stories) mortuary poles (grave markers), family poles (lineage), all repositories of historical memory. Recently, there have been several pole raisings as the Haida Nation reclaims its territory.

The evening included traditional music, dancing, ceremonial story songs and dances (translated for us), one of which involved cultural relearning from the Coast Salish people on the mainland.

In the carving shed, we were able to see Christian and his apprentice carvers working on a 50-foot pole for an important area of Haida Gwaii, probably in Gwaii Hanaas, but not yet decided.
Much of Day 3 was taken up by travel from Masset to Queen Charlotte City, soon to be known by its Haida name, with stops for a walk on the Golden Spruce Trail, a logging museum and, happily, a happy hour at our new abode, a chance to compare notes with our fellow adventures. We learned the sad story of the Golden Spruce, an ancient and sacred tree, felled in 1997 by a mad anti-logging activist trying to make a point. Reflecting the forward- looking spirit of the Haida Nation today, a sapling from the Golden Spruce has been planted and looked after at a church in Port Clements.

Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay
Day 4 began with a visit to the famous Balance Rock at a local beach, one of those oddities of nature that we all like to see. Much tomfoolery ensued as various members of our group pretended to hold the rock in place.

The Heritage Centre has an important story to tell and does it well. “Cultural ambassadors” interpret the five totem poles on the grounds and artefacts in the museum. The focus is on the resilience of the Haida people in the face of disease brought by European contact, natural disaster and cultural oppression. The Haida were a trading (and raiding) people who travelled long distances in their large dugout canoes. They acquired sail technology on their travels, which ventured as far south as what is now Mexico.

For those of us hoping to gain a little better understanding of current issues, the explanations of the potlatch and the notion of cultural ownership were particularly helpful. The potlatch – widely misunderstood and even banned by Canadian governments – is explained as a gathering of the clans for legal judgements and agreements, installation of elders as community leaders, community discussions and decisions, marriage and celebration. The exchange of gifts marked the acceptance of judgements and sealed agreements. Gifts also demonstrated social status and were a form of redistribution of wealth.

The interpretive displays also helped us to understand the idea that clans “owned” their songs, stories and the symbols on totem poles and ceremonial garb. These cultural icons, drawn from artistic traditions and historical events, were traded and given as gifts, with exchanges involving clans and other peoples, such as those on the mainland coast. Unauthorized use involves not only lack of respect for sacred symbols but also a violation of what we might call “moral copyright.” This perspective is perhaps more helpful than the anthropological term “cultural appropriation.”

Free Day
Day 5 was a free day, with options that included a float plane tour of the archipelago and especially of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. The large national park is co-managed by the federal park service and the Haida Nation. There is an excellent account of the politics surrounding the park in an article by Sheila Delany, “Writing on the edge,” reprinted from the Simon Fraser University Retirees Association Newsletter in this Fall’s YURA Newsletter. Only four of our number chose the tour (at $700 each) but most participated in a guided hike around Spirit Lake. Marty and I chose to spend time with my niece and her husband on their 42-foot boat, which was docked in Queen Charlotte City awaiting permission to enter Gwaii Haanas. The float plane party returned with a favourable report of the adventure.

To Skedans by Zodiac
Day 6 was entirely taken up by an expedition to the Skedans Village site with Moresby Explorers. This involved a ferry from Graham Island to Moresby Island, a 45-minute van ride on a logging road to the Moresby Camp, where our zodiacs were waiting. At the launch site, we all donned ankle length heavy rubberized black rain coats, complete with hoods, over our cold weather gear – sweaters, coats, watch caps— and then added colorful PFDs. All decked out we looked some gigantic species of penguin. We zoomed around Moresby on a 12 person zodiac for about 45 to 50 minutes and arrived on a beach near the ruins of the village of Skedans, an important archeological site in the Gwaii Haanas Reserve. After lunch on the beach, we met our guide, one of the Watchmen at Skedans.

The Watchmen guard the site – described by Marty as a “place of power” — and interpret the history and artefacts for visitors. The village flourished before the population was wiped out by smallpox late in the 19th Century. Its location on a point of land on Cumshewa Inlet was ideal for trade, as well as hunting and fishing. We saw the outlines of longhouses, house poles, a pole in honour of the peaceful chief (who preferred trading to raiding), mortuary poles, memorial poles, etc. All are decaying. As our Watchman put it, they have either been stolen or have returned to the earth.

Our walk through the ruins was followed by a 1- hour zodiac run back to base; we returned by circumnavigating Louise Island through a channel too shallow at low tide on the way out
Having survived the return zodiac trip, we returned to Graham Island and a tour-end feast at Haida chef Roberta Olson’s Keenawaii’s Kitchen, which featured local products (salmon, halibut, venison and seaweed, to name a few).

Day 7 featured a tour of Skidegate, where the airport is located and a return flight to Vancouver.

Reclaiming the Name …with Grace
On June 17, 2010, then B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell joined leaders of the Haida Nation, Hereditary Chiefs, elders and community members in a ceremony in Old Masset to formally return the name Queen Charlotte Islands to the Crown and restore the name Haida Gwaii.
On June 3, the provincial legislature passed the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act that legally restored the name and created the foundation for joint decision-making between the government and the Haida Nation.

The name Queen Charlotte Islands was given to the islands in 1787 by George Dixon, a fur trader and captain of the vessel, Queen Charlotte, named for the wife of King George III. As Guujaaw, President of the Haida Nation put it that day:

“We received our life and our culture from Haida Gwaii. Haida Gwaii is not
only where we are, it is who we are. While we cannot unwind history, we will leave colonialism behind us, as we have laid the foundation for a respectful relationship into the future.”

In order to return the name respectfully, the Haida Nation had “Queen Charlotte Islands” inscribed on a scroll and placed in a bentwood box, much like the one pictured here. The box remained in the B.C. Parliament Buildings in Victoria (Mak’toli) until October 2016, when it was presented to the Duke of Cambridge to be taken back to Kensington Palace, from whence it came.

The full story is told in Gwaliga Hart’s film, “Giving Back the Name with Respect.”
Haida Gwaii currently as a population of about 5,000, half of whom are Haida. There are also significant Haida populations on the mainland and Vancouver Island.

The organization, the accommodation, the group, the food, the experience … were all splendid. The access offered by the tour would be difficult to duplicate privately. The tour was designed for active seniors and worked well.

For further information, consult the Ageless Adventures on the Mandate Tours website (

Further Reading
John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce: A true story of myth, madness and greed.
Glen Coulthard, Red skin, white masks. Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition.
Karen Duffek, (ed.) Bill Reid and beyond. Expanding on modern native art.
Dennis Horwood, Haida Gwaii: A Guide to BC’s Islands of the People, Expanded 5th Edition