What are those totem poles all about? Kayaking Day 1: K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans)

Awake at 5:30 am to pack my drybags, squeezing tights, raincoats, trailmix and ziplocked notebooks into 5 tiny 10L rolltops. Cross the 20 minute ferry to Moresby Island, my first time on the southern island of Haida Gwaii, and get to know the rest of my kayaking group in a 14 passenger bus as we bounce over the old logging road to the boat launch 1 hour away.

Our crew consists of 6 other participants and 2 guides: a brother/sister pair from Germany; a recent retiree from Vancouver; a Swiss fundraiser; a young social worker; and a single mom from northern BC. Surprisingly, we all work in the social field, either as youth workers or community development workers. This means we automatically have tons in common (and are generally hardworking, tough and empathetic by nature). A perfect combination.
We pile into a zodiac (an inflatable speedboat) and ride an hour in the unexpected sunshine to our first stop. Sea blends seamlessly into sky, typical for Haida Gwaii which in classical Haida was called ” Xhaaydla Gwaayayy” – The Islands on the Boundary Between Worlds”.


Classic Haida Gwaii: blurring the boundaries between worlds, between sea and sky, between material and magic.

We spot a cave hidden in an island, beneath a pair of eagles fishing from the cliffs.


Our first stop is Skedans (K’uuna Llnagaay in Haida), an ancient village site which in its prime had 26-30 longhouses. In the 1800s, it was recorded that it had over 50 huge sculptures, including 22 frontal poles and 25 mortuary poles. Subtle remains hint at the former scale: massive depressions from old longhouses, leaning or fallen poles betraying hidden figures under moss and decay. IMG_7698Longhouses were the home of entire extended families, sometimes with dozens of people in each. We see remains of two types of longhouses: a basic two beam constriction, and a more complex version with six roofbeams and ornate joints.

The Haida Nation is divided into two moieties (clans): The Ravens and the Eagles. Ravens only marry Eagles, and vice versa, to keep the bloodline strong, and lineage is passed through the mother: if your mother is an Eagle, you are as well, and you will marry a Raven. The son of a Chief’s sister (his nephew) inherits the Chieftanship, rather than the Chief’s own son. Dances, songs, crests, and names are passed down through the lineage, or gifted to outsiders and other clans through ceremonies like potlatches. When a new longhouse is built, people of the opposite moiety are paid to gather the wood and materials necessary to build the house, a tradition which ensures the movement of wealth between clans.

In Haida society, wealth is measured not by what you own, but what you give away. Hosting a potlatch marks important events like marriage or naming a chief’s successor, and witnesses from clans far and wide are given potlatch gifts as reciprocity for sharing the story. Accepting the gifts is a legally binding contact to share the event accurately, and in this way the oral tradition records history through generations.

IMG_7711The poles themselves record history as well. The number of rings on a pole records the number of potlatches held (to give context, a potlatch today can distribute $20,000-$100,000 of an individual’s wealth). Representations of human, animal and supernatural beings record the stories of a clan, family or individual.

IMG_77074 types of poles serve 4 different purposes:

  1. Memorial Poles memorialize a person of distinction (a Matriarch, Chief, medicine person, or other person of status) whose remains were lost at sea or put to rest elsewhere. Usually a single crest figure representing that person adorns the base of the pole, followed by the number of potlatches held (represented by the rings), and topped with an eagle or a raven, representing the person’s clan.
  2. Mortuary Poles hold the physical remains of a person of distinction. When a person dies, their remains are put into a bentwood box within a manda, a large carved figure (often a supernatural being), which carries the person to the afterworld. Years later, once the mortuary pole has been carved (a multi year process) and the body has decomposed, the bones are transferred within the same bentwood box into the top of a mortuary pole. Usually the deceased’s eldest sister’s son would carve the mortuary pole and host a potlatch to raise the pole after amassing the required wealth to pay the witnesses at the potlatch. Oral history describes a 2 year time limit – if the nephew cannot carve the pole and host the raising potlatch in 2 years, the task will be transferred to another relative to fill the role. Both the pole and the bentwood box it holds bear the crest of the deceased person, and they were carved with the based of the tree as the top of the pole.

    Remains of a manda of a Wasco, half wolf half killer whale.
  3. House Frontal Poles record family history. When you arrive in a village in your canoe, you can tell by looking at the frontal poles where your family lives; they acted like house numbers today, orienting you in a village of thousands of people. Most poles had a hole at the base which served as the front door, allowing you to enter the home. These holes weakened the poles, which today means there are no standing frontal poles in Gwaii Haanas (the protected area of Haida Gwaii), as all have returned to the earth through decomposition, or been transported to museums.
  4. Interior Poles were sometimes carved to mark the crest and status of the Chief and clan leader of the house.IMG_7715

Simon Fraser University provides a great summary of why “totem poles” is inaccurate (check that link to see photos of the different types of poles too):

The use of the word “totem” to describe the carvings historically found along the Northwest Coast is somewhat misleading. Even the earliest explorers recognized that the poles did not depict gods nor were they objects of worship. Rather the totem poles of the Northwest Coast are heraldic. These monumental carvings are better understood as physical manifestations of the owner’s family histories and rights. The images displayed are crest figures, many of which represent supernatural beings, or ancestors who encountered supernatural beings, from whom hereditary rights and privileges were obtained. These rights include lands, resources, house designs, images, names and ceremonies including the songs, masks, dances and regalia that are shown in the ceremonies. Poles proclaim and validate a person’s lineage and importance.

We continue south to our first campsite, a pebbly beach surrounded by the perfectly round mini tree islands, behind them jutting mountains covered in trees. little islands
As we enter the inlet, the kundalini mantra I haven’t used in years (OM SAT NAM) appears in my head and I repeat it blissfully until we land, watching the colours amplify the longer I repeat the mantra.

At our beach, cedars and spruce fall out over the waves in perfectly straight lines, expertly carved by the daily tides, like someone carving icing on a cake.cliff trees

I drop my bags and fall into a mossy glen surrounded by giants, sprawling out on the soft bed and drifting into a tree-focused meditation.

My guide Amy finds me in the moss and says, bewildered “I, uh, didn’t know where you were…and didn’t expect you to be laying here in the moss by yourself…uh…want to come see the campsites?” IMG_7727

Hahaha later in the week another participant asked if I wanted to camp near her and Amy interjected “Nope, that girl needs to frolic. She will be camped in the woods under the biggest tree, on the mossiest moss. That’s where we know we can find her.”

We go on a practice paddle to perfect our strokes, eagles flying all around us and seals popping their heads up to say hello.

seals in water.jpgThis first night, I camp right beside the water (resulting in my half-asleep freakout that the new moon tides will wash me away), overlooking the bay we practiced paddle strokes in a few hours earlier in the fading twilight. I sit on a log with my new friend, sweet and lovely Anne from Germany, and we chant OM SAT NAM until our minds are cleared of thoughts and we drift into meditation. It’s so wonderful to have a hippie friend.IMG_7735

Our guides cook us fresh fish, kale, rice and beans over the fire and we do introductions and early group bonding. The group is quiet and chill, an unspoken kindness filling the space between us wordlessly. I can tell I’m gonna like it here.


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