This is SGang Gwaay, formerly known as Ninstints, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has the largest concentration of old standing totem poles anywhere. Our Haida Watchman here was a young man named Doug, an easygoing but earnest guy who said he’d give anything to be able to go back 300 years and see a hundred Haida warriors in one of the great canoes. And he put us at ease with his good humor. (What did the villagers sleep on? Haida beds…)
We learned about crests. Each family had a right to certain crests, perhaps eagle, beaver, killer whale, frog. Using a crest you had no right to could be a provocation for war. Often a family would obtain a new crest through marriage or by “stealing” it from a village on the mainland—perhaps an animal that never lived here, such as a mountain goat. Each family also had the exclusive right to tell certain stories, told in extensive detail by highly trained professionals. Many of the stories had to do with the mythical origins of their particular clan, often told in relation to particular locations on Haida Gwaii. The stories are full of supernatural transformations.
In one photo, Doug is sitting beside the clam line. All the Haida sites had these markers, setting off the trails where we could walk from the protected places where only the Haida Watchmen could go. It was a sign of respect to observe these rules. And it felt like a privilege to be here. This village was almost entirely wiped out in the smallpox epidemic.