I was writing a piece for English class the other day about Why We Write? It was interesting to see where my brain went when I saw the title. It went straight to the Haida people. I wrote about how they had no established written language, and that meant the people just depended on stories passed down orally from generation to generation. The oldest nephew of the chief would start memorizing all of the traditional stories at a very early age. He had to repeat the stories over and over again until he could do it without making any mistakes. It’s crazy to think that those boys didn’t change even a minor detail that could turn out to be a large detail, and change the whole story.
Learning about the Haida people was really interesting; you feel so connected to their cultures when you are in the villages that they lived in.One Village that we went to was called SGang Gwaay. SGang Gwaay is on a little island that is now a Unesco Heritage Site and is the only Haida community that still has more than one totem pole standing. In fact SGang Gwaay has 12 standing mortuary totems.
At each site there is a watchman. The watchman, back when the Haida lived in the villages, were designated people who watched over the entrances to the villages, to see if they were going to be attacked . They were very much respected for their hard work and loyalty. Watchmen now are people who are chosen to educate the people passing through about the Haida people. The watchman that was at SGang Gwaay took us around the village and explained the village, traditions, history, and the totems. The watchman explained how the Raven and the Eagle clans worked, the idea was that there were two clans, Raven and Eagle, and Ravens always married Eagles and vice versa. The children always took after their mother, so if their mother was Raven the children would also be Raven. That would mean that if you were immediate family of a chief you wouldn’t ever become chief, because you would be the opposite clan, so the nephew of the chief’s sister would become the next chief. Yes, this is very confusing.
I learned a lot about totem poles; I had no idea that some of them were graves for the chief that had passed away! The Haida didn’t bury their people, because the ground was where the bad souls and things were, so they used totem poles. Once the chief had passed the people made a bentwood box and placed the body in the box in the fetal position, then they put the box in the top of the totem and put a layer of wood over the opening, then put rocks on top of that. Their method for putting the totem up and securing it was really confusing to me so I can’t explain that.
Although I did find the stories about the totems really cool, I don’t remember all of them because this was a few weeks ago but, one that stood out to me was one about a young boy. The boy supposedly drown,and he was going to be a chief someday so they made him a totem to honour him. On the pole was a carving of the sea monster/spirit thing that took their souls at sea or something like that, there was a killer whale, a child, and I can’t remember what else. It caught my attention because, it surprised me how they had all of these creatures for all of these different things, and how they were so respectful of their dead.
No one else was allowed to sing their clan’s songs or tell their stories. They were the property of Raven or Eagle clans along with their crests.
The Haida eventually became almost extinct when the Europeans came. 95% of their population died because the Europeans brought flu, small pox, and many more awful diseases. Imagine that, having 95% of your people dead from unknown causes, and you can’t do anything about it.
The Haida people that are now on Haida Gwaii are very proud of their heritage, they went through a rough patch after they came in contact with the Europeans, but they are making a strong comeback and are turning into a wonderful community.