All That We Say Is Ours
By Ian Gill. Douglas & McIntyre, 316 pp, $34.95, hardcover
Back in the 1970s, among the few hundred residents of the rough-and-tumble logging and fishing town of Massett on the Queen Charlotte Islands, there was a scallywag by the name of Gary Edenshaw. When he wasn’t out on the trapline, he was making various kinds of mischief. He was always at the outer edge of Haida politics, but never far from the old stories and the ancient lifeways of the Haida people.
Over the years, Gary Edenshaw became Haawatsi, then Giindajin, the “argumentative one”, and then Guujaaw, which means simply “drum”. Unless you know Guujaaw’s story and the drama that has unfolded around him over the past three decades, you’ll never fully grasp just how radically British Columbia has changed from the days when that smart-ass kid playing his damn conga drums was just Gary Edenshaw, and Haida Gwaii was just the Queen Charlotte Islands.
With All That We Say Is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation, the veteran environmentalist and former journalist Ian Gill has written a brave, honest, and passionate telling of that story.
As a biography of the artist formerly known as Gary Edenshaw, the book would stand on its own just fine. Guujaaw is both a world-renowned artist and the president of the Council of the Haida Nation. He’s a bit of a prickly character, but he is also at turns compassionate, uproariously funny, and brilliant, even if he does harbour some slightly goofy new-age preoccupations with the biblical Essenes.
He is a person to be taken very seriously. By the time he was 20, he was already taking commissions to carve dance masks, and the Royal B.C. Museum was displaying one of his argillite sculptures. Guujaaw first came to international prominence as a journeyman collaborator with Bill Reid, the master carver and genius behind The Raven and the First Men, a monumental work that art historians properly place in the same league as the Elgin Marbles and Michelangelo’s Pietí . But it didn’t take long for Guujaaw to emerge from Reid’s long shadow.
Guujaaw’s work can be found in museums and galleries the world over, but unavoidably entwined with the story of the renaissance of Haida art is the story of the political “reawakening” of the Haida people specifically, and B.C.’s aboriginal peoples generally.
Whether it was Gill’s intention or not, All That We Say Is Ours helpfully undermines the simplistic and familiar version of these events, set within the thematic conventions of colonialism and resistance, with First Nations taking a stand against the dominant Euro-Canadian culture, and indigenous patriots rising up against the oppressive Canadian settler-state. Gill goes along with all that, but he also reveals a more important story of collaboration and cooperation among and between the Haida and their non-native allies. Indeed, it is a story in which the Haida came late to play the leading role, on their own islands.
By the 1970s, the B.C. government and the forest industry were intent upon the complete liquidation of the towering old-growth forests for which the Haida archipelago was so famous. By 1985, in news footage broadcast around the world, 72 people—most noticeably little old Haida women in button blankets—were arrested at a dramatic logging-road blockade on Lyell Island that lasted several weeks. It was a pivotal event in a thorough transformation of the way most Canadians see aboriginal people and the forests around them.
Now, almost half the Haida homeland is protected in one way or another. There’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in the South Moresby region, Naikoon Provincial Park, the Duu Guusd Tribal Park (which the B.C. government prefers to call the Duu Guusd “designated area”), and so on.
It’s true that little of this would have been possible had the Haida not forced the legal issue of their unrelinquished rights and title (they’re still waiting for their main land-title case to be adjudicated). But it’s also true that there would be no title at stake had the Crown concluded a treaty with the Haida in the first place, and it is no accident that it was the tribal leaders of Southern Vancouver Island who happened to sign the only treaties west of the Rocky Mountains. Those agreements secured to them the protection of British guns against slave-taking Haida marauders.
That isn’t a story you will read in All That We Say Is Ours, but it isn’t necessary. To get at the origins of the struggle that has occupied Guujaaw’s life, you need go no further back in space and time than the polyglot community of flute-players, artists, draft dodgers and mushroom pickers who had settled down in the pothead shacks of Delkatla Slough back in the early 1970s. As Gill makes plain in a particularly delightful yarn, the boundaries of Gwaii Haanas owe their origin to an all-night party from those times, in Tlell.
After everyone else had crashed, Guujaaw stayed up into the wee hours with an American draft dodger, Thom Henley, who went on to become famous with the “rediscovery camps” he pioneered in collaboration with the Haida. In what was “surely one of the most incredible acts of kitchen table cartography in modern Canadian history,” Henley and Guujaaw pored over a map of ravaged forests, by oil lamp, and Guujaaw drew a line south of Talunkwan Island. That line would become the northern boundary of Gwaii Haanas.
The next morning, Guujaaw and Henley coerced their groggy hippie friends to sign up as the founding members of the Islands Protection Committee. It took several years for the Haida to get fully onside. But when they got onside, they changed history. Guujaaw has been in the middle of it, and Gill has written it all down, and they both should be thanked for their trouble.