Gwaii Haanas

🕔Sep 24, 2007

Roy Jones Senior spent years fishing off the west coast of Haida Gwaii and never getting off his boat.
But on a recent trip, instead of racing out to his favourite spot the night before a fishery opening, filling the hold and heading back to Skidegate, Jones was able not only to go ashore and explore the homeland of his ancestors—he was instrumental in helping to give every point, rock, lake, river, and watershed on the southern half of Moresby Island a Haida name.
For several years, the staff at Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site have been working with elders to preserve the Haida language and put more Haida place names on the park map.
Sometimes these elders, who spend every day speaking and recording Haida words at the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP), go over a name for more than three hours, turning the word over in their minds and on their tongues, knowing it isn’t quite right.
Diane Brown, a fluent speaker who also runs the program at SHIP, says there have been times when elders have thought about a word all night, and finally a memory of their father or grandfather’s words comes. In that way some place names on Haida Gwaii have been confirmed.

Journey into memory

A recent sea journey into Gwaii Haanas with seven elders, four Parks staff, and crew on the 68-foot Island Odyssey helped accelerate that hard work.
With only 26 fluent Skidegate Haida speakers left, Brown says the group—including Jones, his wife Grace, Ernie Wilson, Betty Richardson, Captain Gold and Harvey Williams—was gathered in the nick of time. “I don’t know any other group that could look at the land and get a feel for it like this one.” Harvey and his brother Percy circumnavigated the islands at least twice during the seal-hunt years; he recognized every nook and cranny, she says. Roy and Ernie fished in the area, Captain Gold explored it, and the women, too, had spent time there.
Brown estimates the group placed 16 Haida names on the first day and many more after that. Every river, point, rock and bay in the areas they went to by boat now has a Haida name, she says—and that is a powerful thing.
The Haida names are so much more meaningful than names of explorers, royalty or other European dignitaries that now grace the islands, creeks and mountains of south Moresby.
Many Haida names had been recorded on old maps made by some of the first Europeans who came to the area, and part of the challenge was figuring out how to say these written words and what they might mean.
Breaking the code of the explorers wasn’t easy, says Ms Brown, but where no name was documented, a Haida word came easily to the elders. “I feel in my heart our ancestors helped us,” she says.
She and others on the trip say they gained a whole new level of respect for the Haida who came before them.
Barb Wilson, a cultural resource manager at Gwaii Haanas, was also a key player on the voyage, which started at Moresby Camp and moved down the east coast and up the west side in 12 days. She says mornings always started with prayers to the creator and to the Haida ancestors.
It was amazing to witness the number of words that came to the elders during the long days of hard but rewarding work. “Things came out of the ether . . . the words just flew through them and onto the maps.” The trip brought up memories and words that elders hadn’t thought about since they were little kids, she says.

Stories to tell

The course was set the night before, and the group made sure to visit every old village site and the places with stories associated with them, such as the village site with the story of young boys who were being disrespectful to frogs.
Jones says on the first couple of days out on the water, the group looked all over the Cumshewa area for a balancing rock, much like the huge one along the shore just north of Skidegate. He’d never seen it before, but he knows it was there because his father talked of it. The rock was never found and now Jones wonders whether a logging company for some reason pulled it off its perch.
For Judson Brown, son of Diane and a warden with Gwaii Haanas, the trip brought a whole new perspective. “For me, it was like we were giving life back to the land.” Although Judson describes himself as having a very scientific, analytical mind, going to these places where he has been so many times before and seeing them through the elders’ eyes was “something else.”
At one point he showed the group a site where old fish weirs buried under the clay have been uncovered. He wasn’t prepared for the feelings it brought out for the elders. None of them had ever seen fishing like this—they’d only heard stories about it.
His mom, who picked up one of the wooden stakes floating in the creek, says she couldn’t believe she was holding a point made so long ago by her ancestors. The number of weirs at the site indicated to her that at least 300 people had to be involved in the processing of fish caught there. To her, it was evidence of how well populated the area must have been.
She was reminded of a Haida word for a bundle of 40 dried fish—Chiina K’uusk’uu. The last time she’d seen a bundle like that was in the time of her grandmother, Susan Young.
“It’s not easy to get fish dried right through,” she says. But if there is a word, it must have been a common thing.
Brown thinks the weirs predate the glaciers, and a piece of the weir has been sent for carbon-dating to figure out how old the human use of the area is.

Rekindled interests

For 72-year-old Betty Richardson, the trip was a very spiritual and healing time. Although in the past she had spent time fishing with her husband on the west coast, and as far down as Hotsprings Island on the east coast, she had never been to many of the places she’d heard about for so long, like SGang Gwaay.
Because of the trip she remembered there is a mountain named after her grandfather, and her interest in that history has been rekindled.
She is finding her children are starting to show an interest in the Haida language as well. “A lot of good comes from everything,” she says. “When a student is ready to learn, the teacher appears.”
Judson is also motivated to learn more Haida and says he has downloaded all the language recordings done by SHIP onto his iPod, so he can listen to them every day.
The names may have come easily, but for every hour the elders worked, he and his mom and SHIP teacher Kevin Borserio spent two hours poring over the old maps, documents and interviews with Haida to collate the information.
It was also a challenge it was to work with the Gaang.xid dialect. The place names in what is now known as Kunghit Island were very well marked, but no one knows anymore what these words mean. The team worked hard to record them again, so their ancestors know they stayed true to these names.
Another goal for Gwaii Haanas Park, says Wilson, was to spend time on traditional knowledge, which will help the staff make management decisions, especially for the marine conservation area.
She has marked many of the traditional harvesting areas on the map and is working on questions like, “how did people decide how much to take?” and “what are the indicators for when an area is becoming healthy?”
When the boat anchored at Burnaby Narrows, Jones, who used to go there with his family every spring between the ages of 8 and 25, remembered with sadness how much abalone they used to harvest. The species is now deemed threatened and harvesting is prohibited, but when he was young, Jones’ family could wade in the water and gather enough to dry for the winter.
“I wish [the Department of] Fisheries had known,” he says of the over-harvesting in the 1970s and 80s that brought on the population crash.
All in all, the trip surpassed all participants’ expectations. Going on a beautiful sailboat to see the villages and lands where Haida elders lived was a great privilege says Jones, who had never been on a boat with the motor shut off.
“I’ll never forget that trip,” he says, “or the crew.”
For Diane Brown, the adventure brought a renewed reverence for her Haida ancestors, who numbered in the thousands and lived and named every nook and cranny of these precious islands. She was also reminded of how far her people have come since the turn of the 20th century, when their population was less than 500 strong.
“We’re up to 10,000 again, and I give thanks to the ancestors every day for the strength it has taken to get there.”