Haida heritage explored in the Queen Charlottes

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      Who came first, the Eagles or the Ravens? On the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida history recounts that the Raven clan was the first to settle what is called Masset, at the north end of Graham Island, the largest in the archipelago’s inventory of hundreds of mountainous bumps.

      According to Haida Heritage Centre operations manager Jason Alsop, as more land emerged from the ocean following the last ice age, the Eagle people colonized Graham’s south side at Kaay Llnagaay, where the village of Skidegate now stands.

      Earlier this month, Alsop, a Chaatl Eagle clan member, guided the Georgia Straight through the almost-completed centre. Last-minute preparations, including final touches on two new dugouts in the open-air Canoe House, were being completed ahead of the centre’s grand opening on Saturday (August 23).

      The Haida Heritage Centre’s debut has been years in the making. Alsop recalled that the site was designated for cultural development three decades ago. First signs of the $26-million project appeared in dramatic fashion in 2001 above the high-tide line at Kaay Llnagaay, or Sea Lion Town. Six ornately carved poles representing the main historic southern Haida villages of Skidegate, Chaatl, Cumshewa, Skedans, Ninstints, and Tanu were hoisted into place.

      North Vancouver architectural firm David Nairne and Associates situated the poles in the new centre, a sprawling facility of adjoining longhouses, each similar in size to those at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.

      Alsop estimated that since the centre’s unofficial opening last summer, 10,000 visitors have already passed through its floor-to-ceiling glass entrance doors, which offer panoramic views of Hecate Strait’s broad horizon, as flat as a prairie skyline. On the clearest days, glaciated Coast Mountain peaks on the mainland poke above the clouds cloaking Prince Rupert.

      While the Straight was visiting, a helicopter touched down in the parking lot beside the office of Parks Canada’s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, by the entrance to the centre. Alsop was visibly pleased. “It’s our first,” he enthused as guests from Langara Fishing Lodge, an exclusive floating resort anchored off the north end of Graham Island, disembarked. For those arriving by ferry from Prince Rupert, the centre lies close to the Skidegate Landing slip.

      One of the most poignant aspects of the new centre is the fact that it houses the bones of former residents of Sea Lion Town, uncovered when construction began. “We knew remains were here,” Alsop said, “but it was still a surprise. It gives all of us who work here a real sense of place.”

      Additional facilities housed in the new centre include the Performing House—“the new, hip place to get married”—where traditional dances and plays, some written in Haida, are staged. Current activity in the Bill Reid Teaching Centre features canoe-paddle carving and decorating in anticipation of the forthcoming launch of two massive oceangoing dugouts.

      Sturdy wooden roofs shelter a Story House, an Eating House with a menu of Haida dishes, and a Trading House stocked with local arts and crafts, such as thick woolen tuques. Staff member Cassandra Cross—whose traditional name means Girl Who Walks on Copper Water—told the Straight that tuques are essential garb here in the Misty Isles. “I pack mine along year-round,” she said.

      The centre’s carving shed, or Canoe House, is spacious enough for projects such as the dugouts. “This gives our artists a chance to work on something larger than jewellery and smaller carved pieces for tourists who provide a subsistence living to many islanders,” Alsop explained. “It also gives them a chance to interact with visitors as well as each other.”

      Proof of this was offered by carver and Haida Gwaii watchman Eric Olson, who pointed with pride to the Ninstints pole carved by Tim Boyko. “Assisting Tim was my big break,” Olson told the Straight. “It helped get my name around. Now I’m becoming much better known, not only here but in major art centres where I sell my masks, like Campbell River, Vancouver, and the Sunshine Coast.”

      Similar to the newly opened Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, the Skidegate centre is not solely a repository of Haida culture. A vibrant atmosphere transcends any notion of static, museum-style facilities. Instead, there are both entertaining and educational aspects that appeal to visitors and locals alike.

      “Community use is important to keep the centre humming year-round,” pointed out Ali Pearson, a Parks Canada visitor-services attendant who moved over to work at the centre after a stint as administrator of the Haida Watchmen program. (From May to September, groups of watchmen protect five culturally significant sites within Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.)

      Alsop seconded Pearson’s remarks and pointed out that local education projects designed by Northwest Community College are on offer at the centre. “They are our brokers to deal with other institutions we’re affiliated with, including UNBC and Emily Carr University,” Alsop said. Bill Reid, whose groundbreaking work in Skidegate in the 1970s and ’80s sparked the current Haida cultural renaissance, must be mighty proud indeed.

      Access: The Haida Heritage Centre is located on Highway 16, three kilometres east of the village of Queen Charlotte and one kilometre east of Skidegate Landing. For more information, visit www.haidaheritagecentre.com/. Visitor information is available from the Queen Charlottes info centre (250-559-8316, www.qcinfo.ca/ ).