Raising Hope, Raising Poles

In the Beginning

One hundred and thirty kilometres off the coast of northern British Columbia lies Haida Gwaii, known to Caucasian people as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Isolation and nature's beauty should safeguard the Haida but they haven't: the residents are subject to many of the same problems as mainland aboriginals. Unemployment is high, cultural traditions and native language skills disappearing; artifacts dispersed worldwide. In an effort to address these problems, the Qay'llnagaay Heritage Centre Society project (QHCS)** strives to create employment, reinforce cultural values, and bring artifacts home. As part of its strategy, from June 4 to 9 QHCS sponsored the raising of six monumental poles on the beach at Qay'llnagaay (Sea Lion Town) - one for each major southern Haida village. Traditional dancing, regalia, food, language and customs accompanied the momentous event.

In the big tent, local artisans sell carved argillite pole replicas, eagles and ravens, hammered silver whale earrings, finely embroidered raven and eagle vests, intricately carved canoe paddles and tightly woven spruce root hats. Food vendors offer juicy sockeye salmon burgers, fried bread slathered with creamy yellow butter and sweet sticky raspberry jam and fresh sushi sprinkled with crunchy ghow (herring eggs).

Rain gear-gumboots, Sou'westers and hats fend off the constantly misting rain. Dancers whisk by in hand-sewn red and black button blankets and buckskin hung clinking with tiny deer hooves. Chiefs' wooden headdresses sport eagle feathers, sea lion whiskers, ermine skins, leather thongs dangling colored beads as the men grip ornately carved cedar staffs. Host Chief Skidegate welcomes elders, carvers, guests and visiting chiefs daily. Chiefs and carvers bless the poles with beads, eagle down and tobacco.

Chiefs in Regalia

DAY ONE T'Anuu 'llnagaay (Tanu) Master Carver Giitsxaa, Apprentices Victoria Moody, PJ Ellis

Today 96-year-old Chief Gaathlaay attends an historic pole-raising; yesterday he graduated from grade 12. Lifelong learning is becoming the norm on this misty isle where Haida language classes and physics receive equal billing.

At 15.82 meters, the T'Anuu pole is the tallest and only solid pole, too heavy to be carried to location. Its 1.38-meter base already nestles in a pit waiting to be filled with stones and dirt; its head rests against wooden scaffolding.

Chief Skidegate opens with a Haida blessing, and gives head rigger Tucker Brown the nod.

"Pull!" Tucker commands, setting in force six dozen pairs of volunteer hands. Thick brown ropes haul backward, heaving the massive pole skyward. The pole cants crazily, threatening to slide off the scaffolding. Brown barks several rapid commands, the ropes are steadied, and the pole completes its ascent flawlessly. Cheers erupt from the crowd. The mellifluous singing, drumming and dancing which will be continuous elements of the festivities recommence.

The T'Anuu pole's creatures gaze out at the Pacific-the moieties Eagle and Raven with their crests-whale, wolf and shark. Soon the exhilarant crowd strides off to the potluck dinner where steaming soup, ghow, rice-filled rolls, savory brown turkey, smoked ham and stacks of homemade cakes await them. Dancing and singing resume at the feast, elk hide drums pounding, button blankets tilting this way then that, pearl and abalone buttons flashing.

Carvers Moody and Giitstxaa

DAY TWO Sgang Gwaii 'llnagaay (Ninstints) Master Carver Tim Boyko, Apprentices Eric Olson and Derek White

Loota Carries Ashore Hart

Carrying carvers to shore is Loota (wave eater), the fifty-foot, 1600-pound ceremonial boat cut from a single 700-year-old red cedar for Expo 1986. Boyko raises his adze signaling the beginning of the carvers' dance around the pole, "to chase away the bad spirits and feelings that occurred during the carving."

Boyko's hollowed out pole rises in only five minutes but it is another hour before Brown is satisfied with its position. When the rigger finally shouts, "Let go of the ropes!" two hundred pullers-men, women and children raise a mighty cheer. A costumed raven dances by, smartly clacking his wooden beak in approval.

Hoisting the Pole

DAY THREE K'uuna 'llnagaay (Skedans) Master Carver Jim Hart, Apprentices Mike Nicoll and Wade Collinson

Throughout the week, only three of the hollow poles are carried to the site: Hart's, Price's and Guujaaw's. Boards placed beneath the poles extend outward as handles. Carriers position themselves, knees bent, and with a communal grunt, hoist the heavy burden to begin their trek.

Shaking a cedar branch about the pole, Hart lays beads at its base to allay the spirits. Although Hart won't say how many, it is clear the carvers invested many hours in the K'uuna pole with its intricate multiple crests: grizzly bear sticking out its tongue, raven, ebony-horned mountain goat hanging by the tail of a two-finned killer whale, moon amid cumulus and cirrus clouds, and Haida watchmen guarding their people. Seemingly out of place atop this intricacy is an ermine-hung stick. The carver laughingly explains that he added the stick because Guujaaw bragged his pole was taller.

Then Hart, also hereditary Chief Edenshaw, solemnly explains the significance of the week's events, "We're here to stay. That's what it means to me."

Volunteers Carrying Price's Pole to the Site

DAY FOUR Hlkinul 'llnagaay (Cumshewa) Master Carver Guujaaw, Apprentices Wayne Edenshaw, Jason Watts and Gwaii Edenshaw

Two "wild men" (Humayuu) dance up the back of the Hlkinul pole; white eagle down drifts across salty air. Joyce Bernet reads her moving poem "You Were a Warrior" ending proudly, "You are a warrior."

Gujaaw addresses the crowd. The week's carvers are fascinating with their different personalities but shared purpose: to create the best monument possible for the good of their people. Although the QHCS selected the master carvers, those carvers selected their own apprentices. Guujaaw explains he knew that the right people for his project would have to work crazy hours and keep him moving when the village women made fun of him for taking so long. Speaking both as carver and president of the Council of the Haida Nation, he added vehemently, "The poles are the crests of the people. It's about our relationship to the land. This is why when we see our forests being deliberately ripped apart and our seas being depleted, we stand up and say no!"

Atop the Hlkinul pole, three watchmen in copper-plated hats guard their carver's principles.

Guujaaw's "Taller" Pole

DAY FIVE T'saahl 'llnagaay (Chaatl) Master Carver Garner Moody, Apprentices Billy Bellis and Tony Green

The T'saahl pole's distinctive five-finned killer whale is ready for the day's dampness. It's raining again. Haida Gwaii residents say, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." It's true the weather here is changeable, but the rain is rarely gone.

The carvers join the painted T'saal clan with red/black/red bars on their right cheeks. Offshore two gray whales frolic, spouting their approval of this latest pole.

Clearly, these memorial poles hold great meaning for their carvers. Moody explains it is like the thrill a new father enjoys, and a dream come true. "All my life I've dreamt of raising a pole in Skidegate," reveals Moody. "Today that dream becomes a reality."

The T'saahl pole lists dangerously but the riggers quickly correct the problem. A ragged "slave" is dragged from the canoe house to be sacrificed to the pole. White and black raven dancers appear. The master carver's children dance in his honor.

Ts'aahl Five-Finned Killer Whale

DAY SIX HlGaagilda 'llnagaay (Skidegate) Master Carver Norman Price, Apprentices Matt Ridley and Jesse Jones

Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray's scheduling delays the pole raising two hours, but it is well worth the wait: the HlGaagilda pole is breathtaking. White-maned Price, at 75 a veteran carver for 64 years, designed this unpainted pole of watchmen, raven, mouse, eagle, grizzly bear and cubs. Today's prayer reiterates the Haida credo, "Many hands working together; we have weathered the storm; we are still here; and for that we thank you." The sun peeps through clouds as if to say it too is still here.

Amidst the weeks' events and the sometimes solemn, sometimes celebratory atmosphere, it is easy to imagine the Haida strong again.

Reverend John Williams intones, "May this pole remind us of what has been and what can be again."

Then reading from his grandfather's 1966 speech, Chief Skidegate urges the Haida to seek strength as a unit: "People are like trees . . . trees intertwine their roots so strongly it is impossible for the strongest wind . . . to uproot the forest."

The HlGaagilda pole takes its place among its five brothers, helped by little children pulling their very own yellow nylon rope; it seems these people are destined to remain bound together." With a sincere howa'a" (thank you), Chief Skidegate ends the pole-raising ceremonies. Only the potlatch is left.

White-maned Price with Dignitaries and Dancers


At the potlatch, gifts repay guests for witnessing the week's events with nonstop feasting, singing, dancing, and gift-giving. Fifteen hundred people attend and every one, Haida or otherwise, leaves sated and weighed down by gifts.

Cedar benches flank rows of spruce tables groaning with fat oranges, shiny apples and postcards of the 300-year-old Golden Spruce vandalized in 1997. Piled high are gifts: plastic beach toys, bright yellow bath towels, souvenir mugs, black and white prints of the poles. In the middle aisle, totes of fruit salad and berries purple in their juices, wait among freshly cut daisies, snapdragons and carnations.

Food Harvester Sheldon Moody Describes the Feast

Food harvester Sheldon Moody details how the harvesters began in February, bringing in ling cod and halibut and later ghow-encrusted kelp. He tells how individuals and organizations donated more than 3200 pounds of halibut, 19 garbage bags of ghow, 100 crabs, 100 pounds of prawns and 1400 pounds of snapper and ling cod. Volunteer Kathryn Wiggins indicates a refrigerator truck loaded with fresh buns and 600 pies baked by the islanders.

The food is wonderful, the mood jubilant, the entertainment superb. Skits, storytelling, dancing and music carry on into the wee hours. By 11:30 the drumming intensifies as clapping hands, dancing feet, wolf whistles and cheers add to the cacophony of sounds. Dancers stab the air with paddles; others enter backwards in oversized masks; wrapped hands beat box drums. When chiefs or elders join the dance, watchers rise respectfully. Draw winners must dance to receive their prizes. Even volunteer co-ordinator Monica Edinger dances for her gift although she pleads exhaustion, "My feet won't work."

Because each group dances an exit song, dancers are exiting until almost three in the morning. The crowd thins faster as salty sea air cools the huge tent but the MC remains ebullient, "It's getting cold," he laughs, "The natives are getting restless."


The finale brings together everyone for a dance that becomes a pumping, bobbing blur of red and black, yellow and white, blankets, buttons, feathers and fur.

A resounding success, the pole raising succeeded in raising the Haida profile, renewing cultural and language ties, and establishing awe-inspiring monuments to remind future generations of Haida roots. So what's next? QHCS' executive director Amanda Reid-Stevens says this is just the beginning.

"The poles are really the first stage of the construction of the Qay'llnagaay Heritage Centre**," said Reid-Stevens. "The project itself is a way for us to share ourselves with the world and to look at new avenues of economy. We've had to look toward . . . controlled tourism, and this is a way of doing it that's going to create employment and training opportunities. Instead of sending our art off island we are inviting people here to come and look at what we do and to get to know us in our own homeland."

Eventually joining the poles will be several longhouse style structures housing a theatre, historical research centre, expanded museum and classrooms.

Six New Memorial Haida Poles Guard the Pacific Shore

** Note: The official name of the Qay'llnagaay Heritage Centre is the Haida Heritage Site.

Created by: Shirley Collingridge, Wordsmith