A legacy of cedar: The Haida Canoe

The Haida Canoe. Photo David Lisle.

Haida Gwaii is a small island chain off the northwest coast of British Columbia. Archaeological evidence suggest ‘the islands of the people’ have been home to the Haida people for more than thirteen thousand years. Oral history records that Raven discovered man in a clam shell on Rose Spit, the northeastern tip of the archipelago, and coaxed him into the world.

Traditionally, the Haida navigated the Hecate Strait – 100 kilometres of shallow, notoriously rough ocean separating the archipelago from the mainland – in dugout canoes, hewn from the monumental red cedars that thrive in the wet temperate climate and rich volcanic soils.

The canoe was a key cultural object to the Haida, who built a prosperous society gathering food from the sea, rivers and forests, and making trading and raiding journeys to the mainland. But the art of canoe making, and the practice of canoe culture, virtually disappeared from the islands, in part because of the introduction of European-designed boats, but mainly owing to the collapse of the indigenous population and their culture after the arrival of Europeans bearing disease.

When Captain Dixon reached Haida Gwaii in 1787 aboard the Queen Charlotte, seeking to claim new lands and trading opportunities for the British Crown, the population of the islands was between ten and twenty thousand. Smallpox, measles and other diseases ravaged the Haida, and by the early 1900s fewer than six hundred survivors remained. The extinction of the Haida was not offical government policy although the destruction of their culture certainly was.

After Dixon’s arrival, Haida Gwaii became known to the outside world as the Queen Charlotte Islands. In 2010 the name was formally returned to the Provincial Government in an elaborately carved bentwood box. During an emotional ceremony the unwanted name was vigorously shouted back into the box by a large, jubilant crowd. This small step towards self-determination for the Haida Nation accords with a dramatic cultural renaissance during recent decades.

Vix and I reached Haida Gwaii by public ferry six weeks ago, but it’s probably fair to say that a canoe brought us here. At Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology during the winter we saw a canoe whose extraordinary story inspired our visit. Carved in 1986 by the late Haida artist Bill Reid, the fifteen-metre Lootaas (or ‘wave eater’) was the first ocean-going canoe carved on island in over a century, requiring a virtual rediscovery of the technique. According to Reid, who played a critical role in tending and reviving the dying flame of Haida art: ‘Western art starts with the figure: west coast Indian art starts with the canoe’.

A trundle in the forest

Early one morning at Budgies Backpackers in Port Clements, Dale Lore, whose son Alan runs the hostel, knocked at the door. The sun was shining and Dale was headed out for a trundle in the forest. Would we like to come?

The stocky, hyperactive, sixty-year-old has been tramping Haida Gwaii’s forests since he arrived here as a ‘red-neck logger’ thirty years ago. Disgusted at the mess that industrial logging has made of Haida Gwaii’s old-growth forests, he has devoted the last two decades to trying to stop the destruction – particularly the over-harvesting of cedar. Cedar has housed, clothed, transported and defined the Haida for millennia, but the brutal efficiency of modern forestry has severely depleted its stocks.

As mayor of Port Clements in the early 2000s, Dale made the crucial decision to side with the Haida in a logging dispute. This involved blockading his own community and his employer, the logging giant Weyerhaeuser. The dispute culminated in a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling: the Crown, it said, had a duty to consult and accommodate the interests of the Haida, given their strong prima facie claim to native title.

We traipsed deep into a primordial forest. Spruce, hemlock and cedar reached for the sky, blotting out the sun. Lichen hung everywhere. In a stand of immense cedar we came across a partially carved canoe, superbly upholstered in moss. The log was roughly carved into a canoe shape, but not yet hollowed out. Nor were the amidships spread or the bow and stern raised, this would happen when the canoe was dragged back to the village for the delicate process of steaming.

What was this ancient, eighteen-metre canoe doing up here, miles from the Massett Inlet? Dale’s explanation was profound. The canoe was abandoned during the smallpox outbreak of 1862–3. This most ruinous of calamities killed an estimated seventy per cent of the Haida population virtually overnight, leading to the abandonment of whole villages; and canoes too.

Our jaunt ended in a more positive tone in another great cedar stand near Canoe Lake. Here, Dale showed us the two ends of a huge cedar out of which a twenty-metre canoe had been successfully taken 450 years ago.

As surreal as this archeology in the forest was, the thought that this patch of old-growth forest had been carefully harvested for millennia was even more profound. There were scars – in the form of ancient stumps – but the forest was alive and thriving.

One response to “A legacy of cedar: The Haida Canoe”

  1. Len Heggarty says:

    George was his name, well that was what his wife called him at home as she would give him a peck on the cheek and brush imaginary specks of dust off his Captain’s uniform. That was at home but out on the ocean in 1787 his titled name was Captain George Dixon the captain of the ship Queen Charlotte and he investigated trade opportunities for Great Britain. He was one of the brave men of discovery discovering new lands in a tall ship with nothing but the wind to drive him to be specific.

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