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Haida’s Totems: the silent guardians of the Northwest coast of Canada

6 min read

Lot of humans’ greatest piece of art are unknown to the world above all because their creators never intended for the public to view them.
Among these are the massive totem carvings of the Haida people, which can be found on a windswept island group 60 miles off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.
The totems watch over still today a sheltered cove on the East Side of Anthony Island, at the ghost village of Ninstintsm also know as Skuun Gwaii, or Sung Gwaii, due numerous local spellings, and they stand watch as the last mythological guardians of the area.

Well, probably this isn’t an appropriate time to dispel a modern myth but, interestingly, did you know that actually American plains natives never carved a totem pole?
Such images are just another Hollywood creation that originated in more or less bad old movies, as Totem carving is specific to the Pacific Northwest.
Most prolific are the Haida themselves, the native people of these islands, who carve wood as easily as most of us breathe or eat, and have a rich and interesting history.
The early people called this land Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai, literally “Islands at the Boundary of the World.”
The name has since been shortened to Haida Gwaii, “Land of the Haida”, despite most of the world calls them by an earlier name, the Queen Charlotte Islands.
In any case the islands are more than 1,800, their oral history can be traced back 7,000 years and their earliest recorded information comes from Spanish explorer, Juan Perez, who discovered them in 1774.
A decade later, Russian fur traders began to frequent them and for the next century were the only non-native visitors.
And around the same period the islands were given their British name from the flagship of Lord Howe, the HMS Queen Charlotte, who was the wife of King George III of England.

The totems watch over the land of the ancestors as guardians and in Haida mythology there are four premier figures: Orca, Bear, Frog, and Raven.
Of these, Raven takes center stage, and he is known as the trickster, always trying to fool humankind.
According to local creation myth he peck open a cockleshell to release the first man into the world.
The story has been brought to life in an epic carving by the northwest coast master, Bill Reid, a descendant of Charles Edenshaw, a Haida chief named Tahayren who later took his “white name”, Edenshaw.
These two are generally acknowledged as among of the finest carvers to ever live.
Reid’s monumental carvings, created mostly in stone, not only give life to ancient stories but also rival in size and talent the early works of artists like Edenshaw himself, with some finest examples that may be found even in the courtyard of the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C., as well as at the Vancouver airport’s international terminal.
Smaller works by both artists now reside in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, and still today, contemporary Haida artists carry on the tradition by carving not only wood, but also argillite, a dark and easily workable stone found only in a quarry of these islands.

As a seafaring people, the Haida carved also enormous war canoes from a single cedar tree large enough to carry dozens of warriors over 60 miles of open ocean in order to raid and take slaves on the mainland.
Thanks to their warrior mentality, some called them “Vikings of the north”.
Initially, contact with white people resulted in the introduction of metal, above all thanks to Russian fur traders, that allowed them to fashion new and more efficient tools, more and more increasing their skills, also carving wood on a monumental scale.
House columns, commemorative totems themselves, burial boxes, and even ornamental bowls were all of the highest order.
Haida villages always occupied a shoreline, and they were surrounded by a protective midden of crushed shells that served as a warning system against attack.
The shells outlined an intruder as, at the time, they made plenty of noise and served as an alert when outsiders tried to sneak into their villages.
As late as the 19th century intertribal warfare and raiding was common. Instances of ceremonial cannibalism in which tiny pieces of the human flesh from those vanquished in battle were consumed in order to add the enemy’s power to that of the warrior. Unfortunately, such intertribal wars led to fancy stories attributing cannibalism to the Haida as a way of daily life, even though the reality was very different.

In every Haida community, row after row of totems told the story of the village and its history, while several funeral poles once held wooden boxes with the remains of nobles.
The early Haida buried their chiefs by packing their bodies into tiny wooden boxes that were placed at the top of a burial totem in front of the chief’s lodge.
The carvings on the totem itself told the story of significant events in the man’s life.
And, as you can imagine, no image is random.
Each personage, whether real or imagined, had a specific meaning: a wedding, a death, or a great battle.

At the apex of Haida culture, close to 14,000 people occupied the islands with almost 300 in Ninstints.
Actually the village name is a western mispronunciation of Nan Sdins, who was chief at the time of initial contact with the white man.
However, around 1860, small pox was introduced by white fur traders and soon only about 30 people were left alive at the village.
By 1911, the total native population of all the islands stood at only 589 souls, and Ninstints was totally abandoned around 1880, despite its exact date is lost to history.
Interestingly, the old Haida villages were always guarded from attack by a watchman, and this was an honored position within the tribe.
They were distinguished by wearing a conical shaped hat made from cedar bark.
Today, the Haida people have reinstated this custom and each native site has an active watchman on duty.
Visitors, in fact, must gain permission in advance before landing on any of these beaches.

If some native people believe a totem should stand in nature until it is reclaimed by the earth, others have tried to save these poles from decay.
In 1995, a large-scale restoration project was undertaken with the consent of local elders to prop up some of the poles in danger of falling, while others have been relocated to museums.
In 1981, Ninstints was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, guaranteeing its preservation for the immediate future.
Sadly, the poles lean now and are deteriorating rapidly.
Unless they are removed, in a way or another, they will eventually be reclaimed by nature, as well as time and weather, since they are organic.
But for now, the remaining poles are an amazing legacy of a vanishing culture.

Images from web – Google Research