Beyond Eden

🕔Dec 15, 2009

“We weren’t too late. Everywhere there was a wealth of wonderful detail, powerful wings and feathers, huge impassive eyes, little crouching figures. The jungle growth of the North Pacific had almost reclaimed some of the poles . . .” said Bill Reid in his narration of a CBC television documentary about a 1957 expedition to “save” the decaying poles at a Haida village then known as Ninstints.

As the monuments were gently lowered to the ground, each member of the group may have wondered whether they were doing right or wrong. After all, the standing poles honoured the chiefs, clans and carvers of a once mighty village. Many had died of smallpox or other diseases, and in the mid-1800s those who were left moved to Skidegate. It was due to these tragic circumstances that the village, known to the Haida as SGang Gwaay or Red Cod Village, had been left to the ghosts.

Roy Jones Sr. of Skidegate, whose 54-foot seiner carried the anthropologists, a filmmaker and Reid—then a CBC broadcaster—to Anthony Island off the far southwestern coast of Haida Gwaii, remembers the trip well. He and his brothers Clarence and Frank helped set up the camp, rig the lines, and make the actual cuts that brought down poles that were up to 50 feet tall. Jones, who was a 33-year-old fisherman at the time and the only team member still alive today, says he walked up one of the poles like a logger walks up a spar pole to get a line around the top. “Loggers have spikes though. I had gumboots and a rope around my waist.”

Jones reflects on the experience, having enjoyed the physical work and the time spent with members of the crew. But what about cutting the poles? “It didn’t feel right,” he says. But the Skidegate Band Council had approved the work and “it was something we had to do.” Besides, he says, “If it wasn’t for that, the carvings could have been lost.”

Changing attitudes

Barb Wilson, the cultural resource manager responsible for Haida heritage sites in the southern half of Haida Gwaii (now Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site), says a different approach is taken today.

“In 1995, we took all the chiefs that were alive then and talked about what could or couldn’t be done.” The chiefs decided that because the poles left now are mortuary poles and it was the scene of so many deaths, that the area should be treated like a cemetery. Some poles that were badly leaning at the time were straightened, but now the only conservation measures that Parks staff members are allowed is to clip new plant growth from the tops or the faces of the poles.

“But the poles are slowly disintegrating, much to the visitors’ distress,” she says.

Replacing poles has been discussed, but the money is not within reach. And the question still remains: “Does the site have the essence that people go there for?” she asks.

It is this age-old question of whether the poles should have been left or not that will be explored in a new piece of musical theatre by composer and playwright Bruce Ruddell.

Ruddell has been working on Beyond Eden, which opens January 16, 2010 at the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad, for 20 years. He first became intrigued by this dilemma thanks to his long-term friendship with the late Bill Reid. In 1957 Reid had yet to become the iconic Haida artist we know of today. He was a radioman, aware of his Haida heritage, but only beginning to embrace it. So, when he had the opportunity to join anthropologists Wilson Duff, Michael Kew and Harry Hawthorn on this trip to the remote ancient villages of his ancestors he jumped at the chance.

Haunted by voices

Ruddell says the trip (and a similar 1954 reclamation project at the villages of Tanu and Skedans) dramatically changed the lives of at least two members of the expedition—Reid and Duff—and it’s these two men who became key characters in his fictionalized play.

The primary character is anthropologist Lewis Wilson, the expedition leader and a man who becomes haunted by ancient Haida voices questioning the morality of his life’s dream—to rescue these poles and bring them to safety and increased visibility in an urban museum setting.

Wilson Duff was a curator of anthropology at the provincial museum in Victoria from 1950-1965 and later joined the faculty at UBC. He was passionate about northwest coast art, and his discoveries inspired many anthropologists to see deeper meaning in the images carved in stone, wood, antler or bone. Well-respected by people up and down the coast, he was also an expert witness for the Nisga’a land claims case, wrote extensively of the impact of the white man on aboriginal people, and led several other pole removal expeditions.

Haida Gwaii Museum director Nathalie Macfarlane moved from Ontario to Vancouver in the mid-1970s because she wanted to learn from him. She had read his seminal work, Images: Stone: B.C., which delved into the symbolic rather than just functional aspect of a group of prehistoric stone carvings.

“It was quite radical at the time to present pieces as artworks as opposed to mere functional representations,” she says.

He was also a very popular lecturer, and his third-year anthropology course at UBC was always packed. “He was known to come to the lecture theatre and say, ‘Professor Wilson Duff isn’t here today, but Charles Edenshaw [considered one of the great Haida masters of the 19th century] will take his place’. He would then speak to the students as if he were Charles Edenshaw,” she says.

In 1976, she started a job at the museum and he was to be her supervisor, but Professor Duff, who after the expedition had never gone back to Haida Gwaii, committed suicide that summer. It is this arc of Duff’s passion, quest and death that Ruddell has sped up and fictionalized in his play. John Mann—of Spirit of the West fame—plays the troubled anthropologist.

Max, the carver (based on Reid, who quit his CBC job to focus on art soon after the trip), is haunted by the ancestors’ voices too, but this is overshadowed by his desire to have poles brought to the city where they will be close to him, so he can learn to carve.

“See how deep this cut, how the plane runs vertically. See how deep this cut, how the form arcs beautifully…Teaching these hands to see…” he sings in one of the many original songs Ruddell composed for the work.

White man’s perspective

Director Dennis Garnhum says the musical, which also stars aboriginal actor Tom Jackson (as the Watchman), is mostly told from the white man’s perspective. “It’s a different community looking at a story from a different vantage point. Our unique challenge is finding the spirit of the truth,” he says.

Two Haida women, Raven Ann Potschka and Erika Stocker, will make their professional theatre debut singing as ancestors that haunt the team.

“It’s an important story in Canadian history. They thought we were a dying culture and wanted to preserve the art…but we are still alive and thriving!” says Potschka of why she got involved.

Garnhum admits he fell into the same trap of wanting to rescue the poles still left at SGang Gwaay when he and his production team toured the islands last spring. “Seeing what’s left…it’s sad, but beautiful,” he says, reinforcing the clash between the European culture’s need to preserve things and the Haida decision to let the poles return to the earth.

But posed with the question of whether poles would be taken today—if say an intact village was miraculously discovered in a remote bay—Wilson offers no simple answer.

Instead, she says a huge discussion would be held and the debates would be heard by all within the Haida Nation. She suspects that the answer would be “no,” but if a decision was made to take the poles down, within that discussion would emerge a way to make it right. Perhaps a ceremony would be held and replacements would be made—but the community would find a way.

Beyond Eden
Vancouver Jan. 16 – Feb. 6, Calgary Feb. 16 – March 17
More info on the play:
On SGang Gwaay: