Gwaii Haanas legacy pole honours preservation, protest to save Haida Gwaii rainforest

Published in Windspeaker & Raven’s Eye | December 2012 | Circulation: 145,000

This new year marks two decades since Haida Nation and Canada signed the historic 1993 management agreement to protect the old-growth rainforest of Gwaii Haanas.

On Nov. 15 at Skidegate, B.C., the two unveiled the design for a 42-foot legacy pole, to be raised at 2013 anniversary celebrations. The first such carved wood monument to be raised in 130 years depicts scenes from the 1985 logging blockade at Lyell Island, which saw mass arrests but ultimately victory.

Jaalen Edenshaw, member of one of the most renowned Haida carving families, was selected to design and create the pole, and throughout the winter he’s been working under cover outdoors with an assistant to complete it.

“The main element on the pole is five people standing together, which represents the blockade almost 25 years ago now,” he told Windspeaker. “It was when the Haida stopped the logging in Gwaii Haanas, which was a catalyst.

“I was too young to go down there myself, but I’d always heard about it. It was really part of our struggle. We’ve been fighting for the last couple 100 years or so, but it was one of the first times when we won. It set up how we’ve gone about our politics over the last 30 years. We were able to protect Gwaii Haanas without giving up our title to the area.”

The joint management agreement sees Haida Nation and Parks Canada representatives hash out decisions on a committee. All decisions are by consensus, ensuring that both sides are respected – and in spite of Haida and Canada’s insistence of sovereignty over the area. As Parks Canada explains, the agreement is truly unique.

“We’ve been working together for over 20 years now,” Ernie Gladstone, Superintendent of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, tells Windspeaker. “The agreement is quite unique, in that it allows two governments who feel themselves to be the rightful owners of the area – all of Gwaii Haanas, all the land and waters surrounding it – all come together and work together, and make decisions under two completely different authorities.

“We make decisions by consensus. Either we all agree, or we all disagree; if we don’t, a decision isn’t made. It’s seen as model around the world; it’s studied in other places in Canada, and we’ve had visitors from other Aboriginal peoples. We’ve had visitors from New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and many other places, who come to see how we operate.”

Gladstone, who is Haida himself, joined Parks Canada in 1992, shortly before the signing of the agreement. He was still in high school during the logging protests, but remember watching them unfold on television. Having Canada and the Haida around the same table has not always been easy, he admitted.

“You know, we’ve come a long way, and we feel we’ve worked really hard,” he said. “The discussions in the early days were quite difficult and challenging; there was a lot of conflict in the beginning.

“Now it’s truly a cooperative board, with a really good relationships based on mutual understanding, mutual respect, and trust.”

One of the more unconventional elements of the $130,000 pole is the incorporation of a grizzly bear. In any other region of B.C., this would be unsurprising. But Haida Gwaii has no grizzlies.

“An archaeologist on Gwaii Haanas found grizzly bones 13,000 years old,” Edenshaw explains, recalling ancient Haida tales about grizzly bears in the area. “It shows how science is catching up with our stories. I thought it was a really neat opportunity to have a grizzly bear on there.”

Reached in his carving studio, which he describes as relatively dry “when the wind is not blowing,” Edenshaw said the process of carving – which he learned from his father – is both artistic and spiritual.

“All the little things while you’re carving really just get you into a meditative state,” he told Windspeaker. “Other times, there’s conversation with the other carvers, and people come around visiting.

“There’s exciting things about every step of the way. When we do have the final raising – and everything goes well and it’s standing there – that’s when it’s most gratifying (…). Originally, I learned it from my father. He’d been carving all his life. He had me tracing and copying since I was a little kid. I got to do one pole with him.”

The five figures representing elders and young adults blocking the logging roads are not the only humans on Edenshaw’s pole. At the very top, an eagle sits atop what the carver called “watchmen.”

Traditionally placed on top of the nation’s monuments, these people watched over the village. Whether spiritual beings or actual village guards is unknown – but more importantly, the watchmen represent protection of the community and its home.

“The watchmen actually symbolize watching over the village,” he said, describing the tall pole’s red black and copper blue paint. “I’ve heard some stories about some of the people who would actually sit up in the trees and keep watch over the village.”

For Gladstone, the legacy pole is a chance to celebrate two nations coming together to preserve an important natural wonder – and to preserve its history.

“Gwaii Haanas was born out of a stand the Haida made on Lyell Island,” he said. “It’s probably the only place in the world where where there’s such an area in size protected from the tops of the mountains to the ocean.

“The pole will tell the story of Gwaii Haanas.”

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