The Guardian Watchmen

🕔Jun 02, 2010

Crouched human figures with tall hats stand atop many a totem pole on Haida Gwaii. These are watchmen, and they gaze out over the land, sea and sky, representing those who watch over the Haida villages.

Today the Haida Gwaii Watchmen are guardians of the old village sites on the Islands, especially in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Their primary mandate is to protect these sensitive areas by educating visitors about the natural and cultural heritage.

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve’s cultural resource manager Barb Wilson says the Skidegate Band Council started the Watchmen program in the early 1980s because they wanted more people out on the land.

People had always been out on their territory, but around this time a lot of “pot hunting” was going on—people digging for artifacts and taking them without permission, she says. Some even cut pieces off monumental poles that had fallen. In fact, the Haida Gwaii Museum has a pole fragment on display that was recovered from a tourist’s yacht after a Haida noticed them at the dock in Prince Rupert.

At first the Watchmen were volunteers, using their own boats to get to old village sites, bringing their own food and stringing up any type of shelter they had. Then around 1991, Parks Canada entered into a contract with the Skidegate Band Council to pay the Watchmen.

The trick now is to provide all the necessary knowledge to the young people who spend their summers out on the land. There used to be a knowledgeable elder at each site, she says, but as the older generation passes on, that isn’t always possible.

Not only has Wilson been working to create a resource book about Haida lifeways, but in coordination with Northwest Community College she has created a curriculum for a cultural module of the Guardian Watchmen Certificate program.

Like grandparents
Wilson’s focus is Haida culture—be it training in hands-on skills like weaving or gathering traditional foods, or knowledge-based things like clan histories and family genealogies. “All the things you’d learn if you had grandparents who knew these things,” she says.

The cultural module of the certificate program was offered on the islands in spring 2010. James Williams took the course, and although he’d already worked five seasons as a Watchman in the southern half of Haida Gwaii, he says learning about the history of his clan and family was amazing. Before that, he knew he was a Masset Raven, but he didn’t know his clan was once from the west coast village of T’saahl (Chaatl) and had migrated up the west coast in ancient times.

This kind of information is important to him because he and his counterparts are sometimes the only Haida people visitors to Gwaii Haanas ever meet. What a Watchman says and does can influence a tourist’s entire perception of the Haida. “You are like an ambassador,” says Williams. “And when they leave, they have a different and deeper idea of what Haida culture is.”

The full NWCC certificate program is offered through the Terrace campus and covers sustainable resource management practices in forestry, fisheries, tourism and parks, along with safety courses in wilderness survival and operating small boats. The program was developed with involvement from the communities of Bella Bella, Klemtu, Bella Coola, Skidegate, Old Massett, Wuikinuxv, Kitimaat, Prince Rupert and Terrace, and program coordinator Ken Downs at NWCC says they are also starting to reach out to First Nations in other parts of BC.

Chris Wilson took the training in Prince Rupert recently. He now works with the Kitimaat Village Council, but he’s been a Watchman in one capacity or another for many years. He says the focus used to be on the Kitlope, a north coast valley that was slated to be logged until, after years of public campaigning, West Fraser voluntarily relinquished its tenure there in 1994. Then there was the Kawesas, another watershed threatened by logging until the Haisla Watchmen erected a cabin on the edge of the estuary, right at the proposed site of the log sort. They wouldn’t go away and the logging company gave up on that watershed too.

Now, says Wilson, the Watchmen are changing their focus to monitor the entire Haisla territory, covering marine and land areas from Kitimaat to Kemano, the Kitlope and halfway to Hartley Bay.

Long days
He hopes that Watchmen programs in coastal communities will help keep young people employed at home. “Hopefully we get more people interested. It seems like a lot of younger people move to the cities.” Some go out and food fish, and cultural knowledge is passed on that way, he says, but many young people never even see parts of the Haisla’s far-flung territory.

A day in the life of a Haisla Watchman is diverse and long. They work with Fisheries folks walking streams for fish inventories, do test plots with the Ministry of Forests staff on biogeoclimatic zones, maintain cabins on the various trap lines in the territory or check on cultural sites like burial areas and petrogylphs. Wilson says some of these pictures pecked into stones aren’t seen around anymore and were likely taken by boaters.

No matter how much training gets done, Watchmen are sometimes still left with frustrations not only around how to make people follow the rules, but more importantly who gets to make those rules. Wilson says the Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network, a project of the Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative, is helping different groups work together to face some of these frustrations.

“It was kind of like being in a bottle,” Wilson says, with different groups thinking they were the only ones with similar problems. Now, with the network, Watchmen up and down the coast can check in about solutions tried in different areas and work things out together.

Coastal First Nations have always had the right and responsibility to develop and enforce stewardship policies and rules in their territories, but for decades that right was not recognized by the federal and provincial governments, says Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations.

“Thanks to successful court challenges and political negotiations with Canada and the Province, things are changing,” he says. “Coastal First Nations are re-asserting their stewardship authority and conservation responsibility.”

And as Williams on Haida Gwaii points out, the Watchmen program is inspiring indigenous people all over the world. A group of Maoris from New Zealand have been to Haida Gwaii and Williams was invited to the Northwest Territories to help kick-start a program there too.

For more information:
Haida Gwaii Watchmen
Coastal Guardian Watchman Program at NWCC
Coastal Guardian Watchmen Network