On the inlet

🕔Dec 15, 2005

Storytelling may be undergoing a renaissance elsewhere in the world, but on Haida Gwaii, people have always passed on their oral traditions.

Okay, maybe not always.

If you ask Skidegate storyteller Captain Gold, he will explain how the first Haida had no oral history. Later, waves of migrants came to live with them and thanks to these folk we know stories about the first people on this land. If you sit with him for a while, Captain Gold will tell you much more.

He may say, as you drink coffee and look out at the salty inlet between Graham and Moresby Islands, that long ago, this body of water was a fresh water lake, drained by a small creek. This, he knows from a story about a young man who used to leap across the creek to visit a girl in the old Haida village where the town of Sandspit now sits.

After crossing the creek, the young man would walk along the reefs collecting giant red chitons (marine mollusks) for his lady love. Amused by these gifts, she began calling him Skeeda gits or “child of the chiton” and this is how Skidegate got its name.

For Gold these stories are not just entertaining tales, they are his history documented in spoken words and passed down through millennia.

Lucille Bell of Old Massett has embarked on a project to record some of these ancient words with the help of modern technology.

Bell and colleague Candace Weir are working on a project that will give the community a CD set of 10 stories told by elders in English and Haida. Some of these stories will also be dramatized for CBC radio in the new year (see sidebar).

Although her work will give more people in the community access to the stories, she doesn’t subscribe to the view that Haida oral traditions need preserving before they fade away in modern age.

“I really don’t support the idea that things in our culture are disappearing. There’s a false idea out there that ‘Oh we better go and save this because it is not going to be here any longer,’” says Bell.

She was surprised by how many stories were in her head when she started the project, and now she’s been galvanized into a lifelong project of gathering her own clan stories.

“Every clan has their own stories,” she says. “ Like origin stories of how the clan came to be and how they got their crests…These stories tell me a lot about who I am and where I come from. I know there are a lot of cultures out there who do not have that.”

Bell says there are three different types of Haida stories, known as q’iigang, q’iyaagaang and gya.ahlaang in the Old Masset dialect.

Q’iigang are legends or myths that are so old some elders equate them with Bible stories, she says. Q’iyaagaang are lineage histories, handed down through the clans. Gya.ahlaang, she says, are contemporary stories of life experiences.

Leona Clow, a 65-year-old woman from Old Massett, has her own stories to tell. Not the ancient tales of her people’s origins, but things she feels children ought to know.

“I think it would be important for the younger ones to know how the elders lived, what they experienced, and what stories they’d been told,” she says.

She says children aren’t aware that years ago there was no electricity in the village. They don’t know about the men going up the inlet during the big tides in October to gather floating logs for winter firewood or about the fruit trees the settlers left on the other side of Masset Inlet. Her father used to climb up into the branches and shake all the plums out, which they would gather up to make jam.

“We made work fun. It wasn’t like something we had to do,” she says.
She remembers going out to Tow Hill on North Beach where there used to be a cannery. Her auntie had a restaurant beside the Hiellen River. Another aunt had a restaurant further up the old road that goes out to East Beach.

“Haidas were so tough. They used to walk along the beach all the way to Skidegate to go and pray there. That’s how strong they were,” she says.

She remembers the winters were longer and colder when she was young, with snow so deep on the path, most people walked along the beaches instead.

“They used to wait for winter to move headstones, because they used sleds. There were no vehicles in those days. When I was in Grade 6 there was only five vehicles in Masset and that wasn’t down in the village, that was in New Masset.”

“[Young people] think we’ve lived like this all of our lives,” she says of present days. “Uncles used to take their nephews into the basement to tell them stories of how things were, how canoes were made, and everything men do. Now people don’t pass the stories on as much as before.”

Many stories were passed along when people worked together. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Haida built fishing boats rather than canoes, and in this history more stories were made.

Captain Gold can tell stories about boat building. He spent hours helping his father hammer the oak ribs to the outer planks of various crafts, not to mention the summers he spent aboard the trollers the men of Skidegate made.

He counts himself lucky, because during the hours he spent tucked into little coves in isolated parts of Haida Gwaii while waiting out storms, he heard his people’s stories told time and time again.

Since 1974, he has been involved in archaeology on the islands as well. He found a site laden with ancient black cod hooks, and he has seen evidence that his people used to take shelter in caves.

“This placed me in the unique position in life to have culture stories ringing in my left ear, and archaeological research I helped in, ring in my other ear,” he says.

Putting the oral traditions of the past in context with the archaeological, environmental and geological record of Haida Gwaii has been a 30-year preoccupation for Captain Gold. And with every passing year, he becomes more and more convinced the oral traditions of his people have something earth-shattering to say.

He tells the story of two brothers, called Tow and Towastin, who lived by a lake at Juskatla.

Tow wanted to be closer to the seafood he liked, so he decided to leave. Captain Gold points to the long, narrow channel of Masset Inlet to show Tow’s path to the sea.

Of course, Tow continued moving until he finally settled where he is today at the edge of North Beach, the well-known landmark Tow Hill. And his brother, who still sits at Justkatla beside the hole where Tow once was, is now next to the sea as well as Masset Inlet filled with sea water and flowed into the once freshwater lake.

Captain Gold believes that scientific research will prove this ancient story is geologically true. He also believes this type of research will bear out his theory that Haida have been on these islands for at least 47,000 years, or since the second last ice age, his best possible guess of when the rock must have moved.

“There is enough detail in the story, they had to be watching that,” he says.

Captain Gold has turned his thoughts about the history of Haida Gwaii into a book of fictionalized accounts of how his people may have lived so many years ago. The Golden Years: Grandfathers and Grandmothers of the Haida is his self-published work available through the on-demand publishing house, Trafford.

CBC Legacy Project

Leah Shaw was working as a reporter for CBC in Nunavut when the idea for the Legacy Project struck her.

“I wanted to learn more of the stories and I was frustrated that I didn’t know enough Inuktitut to understand them well,” she says. She decided to ask some elders to help her prepare a radio drama from the original legends.

The success of the project in Nunavut, encouraged Shaw to approach CBC with a proposal to record legends and produce radio dramas in 12 First Nations across the country.

Last June, the CBC team was in Old Massett recording stories about Baby Octopus, Raven Steals the Light, Bear Mother and more.

Shaw says her team worked with local people to develop the script in English with Haida sprinkled throughout and in full Haida as well. The roles are cast within the community.

“We try to find young people to do these roles. It gives the young people a reason to respect the elders and bridge that gap that exists in every culture,” she says.

Ultimately the project generates short-term jobs and gives people the opportunity to learn some practical skills and be exposed to new fields like acting, writing and technical production.

CDs of the finished shows will be available on the islands, and the dramas will debut in spring of 2006. Listen for the stories of the Shuswap Nation on CBC’s Ideas at 9 p.m. Dec. 14.