Reclaiming Haida-ness through food, song, stories, and art in the remote wilderness of Haida Gwaii

The newly opened floating Ocean House Lodge focuses on Indigenous culture

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      Growing up in the Haida Gwaii town of Gaw Old Massett, Brodie Swanson has vivid childhood memories of time spent on the region’s rugged shoreline with his grandparents. Members of the Haida Nation, they regularly picked seaweed, chitons, mussels, and other foods from the sea.

      Learning alongside those elders, Brodie developed a deep respect and passion for food and cooking, the flavours steering him toward a culinary career in the place he calls home.

      “One of my earliest food memories is going down to the dock after my grandparents went seaweed picking,” Brodie says. “They also picked sea urchins, and I remember as a toddler running to see grandma on the dock. She’d be cleaning sea urchins and would say ‘open your mouth’. I loved it. I loved the briny, sweet, ocean flavour. My grandmother was my greatest teacher.”

      Brodie, whose Haida name, Kil Tlaa Sgaa, means “strong voice”, is the executive chef at Ocean House Lodge at Stads K’uns GawGa. The new 12-room fly-in floating lodge is anchored on Moresby Island’s unspoiled Peel Inlet in the archipelago that some call the Galapagos of the North.

      Haida Enterprise Corporation (HaiCo) runs the eco-tourism resort as well as several fishing lodges, where guests are fuelled by the thrill of the catch. At Ocean House, the focus is on Haida culture.

      Cultural interpreters lead people on walks to mossy remnants of ancient villages or along gently sloping limestone shores. Carvers, weavers, and painters settle into a studio for a week at a time for an artist-in-residence program. Visitors learn words in the Haida language of X̱aad Kíl and experience traditional stories and songs while surrounded by cedar, spruce, and sea mist. Food, too, is a vital component of Haida culture, one that Brodie is working to revive and celebrate.

      “The biggest question I pose as a Haida and a food lover is how did we feed 50,000 Haida before preservation and barges and coops?” says Brodie, whose great grandfather was renowned artist Charles Edenshaw. “A lot of our culinary techniques have disappeared; our way of life was cut to a halt. But we’re a living culture; it’s still evolving. We’re reclaiming our Haida-ness as often as possible, and to me, food is the cornerstone of our culture.

      “There’s a re-emerging, a rediscovery, of what we used to do,” he adds. “I grew up eating crab and octopus and butter clams. Sharing a meal is sharing a culture.”

      Brodie’s first restaurant job was at his uncle’s Gaw Old Massett restaurant called Haida Bucks, where he worked as a dishwasher. He spent time in Vancouver working at Salmon 'n’ Bannock before training under chef Robert Belcham at Campagnolo. He returned to Haida Gwaii this spring to open Ocean House for its inaugural season.

      Some of the dishes Brodie has prepared at the resort include ling cod with salt-roasted celeriac, basil purée , and parsnip purée ; octopus with pork belly, burnt-orange emulsion, and cow-parsnip chimichurri; and black cod with soba noodles, bull kelp, salmon roe, and prawn oil.

      Working closely with sous chef Joseph Kennard, he showcases other seafood such as Coho and Chinook salmon, halibut, albacore tuna, rockfish, and more. The Ocean Wise fish (which comes from Haida Wild Seafood, another HaiCo venture) might be poached, steamed, seared, roasted, deep-fried, charcoal-broiled, or pickled. House-made sourdough bread comes with butters infused with sea asparagus or crab; morning eggs might be served with fritters made with razor clams. All of the fare keeps Indigenous ingredients and techniques at the forefront.

      The floating Ocean House Lodge is accessed via helicopter from Sandspit.
      Gail Johnson.

      Along with two other freelance journalists, I’m visiting Ocean House as a guest, joining close to two dozen other people (from Vancouver, Winnipeg, and London, England) who have travelled to this endlessly green wilderness to immerse themselves in Haida culture.

      One afternoon, cultural interpreter Shane “Tuna” Bell leads us through a dense emerald forest at Security Inlet and suggests we remove our socks and shoes to feel the mossy ground beneath our feet, to better connect with Mother Earth. Bell, whose Haida name is Gyaagan Sgwaansang, meaning “one and only” (and whose childhood nickname stuck), also points out culturally modified trees. They have been visibly altered by Indigenous people as part of their traditional use of the land, whether to make homes, baskets, clothes, or other objects. Haida Gwaii is one of the few places on the planet where “CMTs” are protected, living proof that inhabitants took only what they needed, heeding the longstanding belief that everything in nature is interconnected, including human beings.

      Fellow guide Jaylene Shelford describes traditional uses of everything from liquorice fern to stinging nettle; all kinds of plants and shrubs had a purpose, from salves to healing teas. Her Haida name, Daatsii, means “songbird”, and it’s a fitting moniker: singing in X̱aad Kí, the 19-year-old woman has a voice that can fill a forest.

      One afternoon, she sings a berry-picking song in what was once a thriving village called Kaysuun, where cedar foundations of homes are sunken under moss, the trees returning to the earth. On another, Shelford beats a drum made of elk hide that her great grandmother gave her while a dozen of the lodge’s guests propel a one-tonne canoe made of red cedar. They’re using paddles that Hereditary Chief Ron Wilson (Gitkinjuaas) carved out of yellow cedar in the light-splashed studio during his time as artist in residence earlier this year.  

      Part of the cultural experience at Ocean House Lodge is paddling (weather-permitting) in an authentic canoe carved out of red cedar.
      Gail Johnson.

      Facing Mount Moresby, the tallest peak in Haida Gwaii, Ocean House is accessed via a 12-minute helicopter ride from Sandspit. The lodge has stand-up paddleboards and kayaks as well as a zodiac and large powerboat for ocean adventures. (It provides requisite rain gear and rain boots, too.) There is wildlife to be seen: possibly bears, eagles, seals, sea lions, herons, raccoons, puffins, and whales; on clear nights, the starry sky is the screen to watch.

      There are luxuries like a spa, steam room, and cedar sauna complete with picture window that you can gaze out of toward trees and water. While guest rooms are small, guests can relax in communal spaces like a large covered deck, living room with fireplace, airy dining room (where exquisite house-made cookies and other snacks are available all day), and a library with board games and books about Haida history, art, and language.

      Artist in residence Gladys Jiixa Vandal, 80, has contributed to some of those books, including a thick Haida glossary. As a participant of the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program, she’s helping ensure her native language is kept alive. A respected weaver, Vandal spent time in Ocean House studio pulling long, fragrant strips of cedar bark out of a pail of water, deftly manipulating the softened material into intricate Haida hats—one of which has been commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada. The devoted grandmother also joined guests at meals, sharing stories and family photos. (She has also contributed to the Quilt of Belonging.)

      A family-style potlach is held on the last evening of a stay at Ocean House Lodge.
      Gail Johnson.

      On the final night of guests’ packaged stay, they join at a long table to share in a family-style potlach, where staff members don traditional red and black Haida dress. Shelford beats her elk-hide drum and opens the meal with a song. Some travellers will carry on to Ocean House’s sister lodge, Haida House, a land-based eco-lodge in Tlell on the east coast of Graham Island; others will go back to Vancouver.

      From this impossibly beautiful place we leave with a better understanding of Haida life and legend, plus a sense of awe and humility. There’s eager talk about returning to Haida Gwaii, whose name translates to Islands of the People.

      “Haida culture is a living culture; it’s a growing culture,” Shelford says. “We’re not gone. Educating people about it is a good way to keep the culture alive.”

      More information about Ocean House Lodge is here. Packages including return flights from Vancouver, Helijet transfers, meals, tours, and activities, start at $4,410 per person.