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Native people’s culture linked to ocean for thousands of years

09/13/2015, 12:19am EDT
Adventure Alaska

The Hydaburg Totem Park is found in the small community of Hydaburg, Alaska. The park, created in 1939, contains a collection of preserved and re-created and new totem poles. THE BLADE/MATT MARKEY

HYDABURG, Alaska — For the anglers who come to Prince of Wales Island each summer to fish for salmon and halibut, the remote setting and the expanse of wilderness that surrounds them here could give the impression that they are fishing in waters where man has rarely ventured. That assumption would be off, by at least 13,000 years.

The indigenous Haida people have been fishing and hunting in this region along the Pacific coast at least since the time glaciers were retreating across the North American continent. The Haida’s oral history and archaeological records both confirm their presence in ancient times, and some of their totem poles detail the story of the Haida people’s settlements experiencing a significant sea level change thousands of years ago.

Skilled seafarers, the Haida are believed to have established dozens of villages throughout the endless islands that are scattered along the coasts of what today are British Columbia and southeast Alaska. Their inseparable link with the water was evident in many aspects of their rich culture.

“The ocean and the Haida are very closely woven together,” said Sean Young, a Haida and a curator at the Haida Heritage Centre in British Columbia. “That has always been our major food source and so important to life. That’s why our villages are on the ocean. We look at the ocean as our refrigerator and utilize the fishes and the birds there.”

The Haida used to hunt seals and caribou, utilizing the meat and hides, but today most of their food comes from fishing. A few Haidas are involved in commercial fishing, but Young said most will harvest salmon, cod, and halibut from the ocean for local consumption and fish the rivers for sockeye salmon.

“People go out and catch fish as food for their families and to supply food for others,” the anthropologist said. “That concept of sharing has not been corrupted or destroyed.”

He said that modern, large-scale commercial fishing involving huge boats and massive nets has damaged the fish stocks in the region, and it runs contrary to the traditional Haida approach of harvesting sea life in moderation.

“We have always had this relationship where we live in harmony with the ocean and the land, and we only take what we need,” he said. “We come from this land, and I am proud to know that we are from here and we care for the water and the land.”

While many of the other Pacific Coast peoples are patriarchal, Young said the Haida have a matriarchal society. Your lineage follows your mother, so although his father is an eagle chief, Young is a raven like his mother. That social group carries with it certain privileges that could include the rights to fishing or hunting areas, housing sites, or to myths, legends, and traditional songs.

“The matriarch has a very high, prominent position in our culture,” he said. “Where the queen in other cultures is more of a figurehead, in our culture the matriarchs are the decision-makers. They are involved in the day-to-day decision-making.”

Totem poles have a major place in the Haida culture, and their markings and carvings represent a variety of significant events and individuals. Totem poles are used to preserve history, honor deceased members of the group, and detail many other elements of Haida life.

While on a recent family fishing trip to the Prince of Wales Island complex, we visited Hydaburg to witness the annual totem-raising ceremony. My late father, who started these Markey family fishing trips more than 40 years ago, always insisted that no matter where we went, the local culture, history, geology, and geography would be part of the adventure.

He would have been very interested in the Haida people and their traditions. As a craftsman who taught himself woodworking skills and used fine carpentry as a way to unwind after days packed with surgeries and seeing patients in the emergency room and in his office, dad would have been fascinated with the process by which the detailed totem poles are constructed and the stories the totems tell.

“You have the totem poles that will represent the merging of the two clans, raven, and eagle, merging in a long house,” Young said. “When a long house is built you represent both clans, raven from one, eagle crest from the other. There are many symbols that are used on these totem poles, and they carry many different meanings.”

In the Haida culture, certain individuals are enrolled at a young age and trained how to be a master carver or carpenter, and they work on the construction of new totem poles. Some of the Haida craftsmen are commissioned to carve totems for locations all over the islands, Young said, and some totem poles are commissioned by Haidas living in Vancouver or as far away as Montreal.

The Haida were brought to the verge of extinction in the 1800s when small pox and other diseases were introduced by foreign visitors. Since they had no immunity to the diseases, more than 75 percent of the Haida population was wiped out, and only 300-500 individuals survived.

“Our people almost disappeared,” Young said. “Life was very tough.”

That population has been built back up to approximately 5,000 people, with some of them living in the villages of Masset and Skidegate on Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago off the coast of British Columbia that was formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Charlottes.

There are also two Haida settlements on Prince of Wales Island, which is just north of Haida Gwaii. On Prince of Wales, Haida live in Kasaan and here in Hydaburg, a village of around 350 people which is about 50 miles west of Ketchikan in U.S. territory. The international boundary is of little significance to the Haida, whose island communities remain very closely connected.

The Haida are in a struggle today to preserve their unique language, which does not have adjectives and is spoken only on Haida Gwaii and in the villages of Hydaburg and Kasaan. Although some 15,000 people spoke the Haida language before small pox decimated their population, there were as few as several dozen people left speaking the language in recent years, and most of them were very elderly. Young said that today the Haida have an active language immersion program in place, teaching their native language to students starting in preschool.

“We were in danger of losing the language, but now we are building it back up,” Young said. “Language is one of most important parts of any culture, and keeping our language and culture intact is critical.”

Young said the Haida are also repatriating their cultural items as well as human remains from museums and private collections around the world. He said the Haida culture values respect and an intimate relationship with the land and the sea, so the current generation of Haida has a responsibility to guard and preserve the culture and heritage so that it can be passed on to future generations.

“We are very proud of our history, and our ancestors’ resilience to keep our culture intact, no matter how hard others tried to take the Indian out of the Indian,” he said. “If you start deviating from who you are, people will forget who they are. I am proud that we were resilient and we survived, and today we are doing well at controlling our own destiny.”


Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.

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