A Visual Feast of Innovation and Tradition
A real sense of magic and hope in the human spirit reveals itself in this project, not only in the ingenuity, skill, and resilience embedded in our Ancestors’ and contemporary artists’ magnificent works, but also in the collective goal set by a larger community of Haida and museum professionals to unbury and interpret components of a culture that colonial Canada tried to wipe off the face of the earth.
Haida Now is a celebration of human expression, spirit, and survival. It is a collective endeavour that will extend into the future as an example of how to engage in meaningful conversations about the truth, sophistication, and beauty of our culture and art
Haida Now: A Visual Feast of Innovation and Tradition
To look at a map of the Indigenous nations of the Pacific Northwest Coast is an extraordinary experience. Their number and variety, all having distinct languages, cultures, customs, laws, and origin stories is mind boggling. A standard nation state map of British Columbia shows a huge semi-rectangular land mass that conveys nothing of the dynamic peoples and history of this area.
Today, the Northwest Coast is home to 203 First nations and to 60% of all indigenous languages spoken in Canada. Many of these nations work towards greater recognition and fight for the survival of their languages.
Haida Gwaii is located 670 km north of Vancouver and 130 km from the mainland. Haida Gwaii consists of two main islands, – Graham Island in the north and Moresby Island in the south, – along with approximately 150 other islands. The total land mass is 10,180 sq. km.
Haida territory consists of Haida Gwaii, the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska and the surrounding waters and airways. Before contact with Europeans, these islands were covered in Haida towns. Their total population is estimated at upwards of 30,000. After the spread of smallpox and other foreign diseases, and the effect of cultural genocide, survivors migrated to three main villages to survive. Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island, and Old Massett and Skidegate on Haida Gwaii. Today some 5000 Haida live on and off Haida Gwaii.
Haida Proclamation by the Council of the Haida Nation
The Haida Nation is the rightful heir to Haida Gwaii. Our culture is born out of respect and intimacy with the land and sea and the air around us. Like the forests, the roots of our people are intertwined such that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us. We owe our existence to Haida Gwaii. The living generation accepts the responsibility to ensure that our heritage is passed on to following generations. On these islands our ancestors lived and died and here too, we will make our homes until called away to join them in the great beyond.
Council of the Haida Nation and Vankuuva
The Council of the Haida nation was formed in 1974 to organize Haida people into one political entity and to address title and rights over Haida Gwaii.
Through diplomacy, strategy, education and relationships the Council has achieved and developed unprecedented agreements and protocols, many of which have been ratified on a nation-to-nation basis with the governments of British Columbia and Canada. The Haida nation is a leader in defending title and rights protecting the land, water, and air and moving toward national sovereignty.
Many of our people, – roughly one-fifth of the Haida nation, – live and work in the Lower Mainland on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations.
Our people come to the city for career advancement, the arts, education, and love. Many came straight from residential school or were adopted or brought here during the “60s scoop.” Each story is different. So many people live in the Lower Mainland that two councilors are elected by urban Haida to represent them on the Council of the Haida Nation and at the House of Assembly, the legislative body of the Haida Nation.
Our art is sought out around the world today by public and private collections, yet at its core, among our own people, it is a visual language and social technology. Haida artistic expressions are visual documentation that, paired with our oral histories, communicates who we are and where we come from.
While no direct translation fro art exists in Xaayda Kil or Xaad Kil, our language, many words and expressions describe the elements used in the design and the characteristics of finely made objects. Our art is complex, demands excellence, takes years to understand and execute properly, and many more years to master. It serves primarily a social function.
Our ancestors understood that visual communication can complement oral communication in important ways. The Supernaturals gifted them this sophisticated art form to communicate our social standing, histories, ranks, rights, responsibilities, privileges, and connections to the supernatural.
Resistance, Resilience, and Reconciliation
A strong spirit flows through the Haida, one that cherishes and celebrates humanity. The evidence is in our people, our art, our culture, and how we connect, reflect, and impact the world around us. Our story as Haida began in time immemorial and we work collectively to carry this spirit and our ancient culture into the future.
Among Haida people, the notion of community extends into the natural world. Our crest histories reaffirm our deep connection to the land, waters, and air along with our right to continue gathering foods in our territories. We are the surviviors of colonial assauly. We have survived because our community, which extends to the land, the sea, and all beings of the natural and supernatural world, has held us up throughout this hellish history. Today the land and the sea need the voice of our people to halt destruction of the natural world and enforce the ancient Haida laws of respect for all things.
Across Haida society, we see a landscape of dedicated and passionate people making positive social changes for our nation and beyond. Our nation has employed multiple platforms to advance Haida Rights and Title, self-determination, cultural revitalization and repatriation, and other vital concerns. Our actions seek to uplift our people and culture and to break down racism in all its forms. We work to heal from the intergenerational effects of colonization as a nation and in community with others.
Many of our people have taken leadership roles, made powerful stands in defense of the natural and supernatural world, collectively worked to take back our songs, ceremonies, Ancestors, and cultural treasures and preserve our language. We are building a brighter future for everyone based on our greatest law, Yawguudang, respect. Our acts of resistance, resilience, and continuing contributions to the reconciliation movement, – long before it was a “thing”, – our very survival, – are stories to be told, retold, and celebrated.
Haida Gwaii Youth Assembly
In the mid 1990s, the Council of the Haida nation hosted a youth assembly to familiarize the Islands’ youth with the Haida Nation’s governance and operations. Some of the participants went on to become leaders of our Nation. Inspired by this outcome, in 2013, the Council of the Haida Nation re-launched Haida Gwaii Youth Assembly, bringing Haida and non-Haida youth together with Islands’ leaders to educate them about Haida government and Canadian political processes
A Way Forward
A world class collection of Haida art lives in the Museum of Vancouver. Yet what makes Haida Now shine is the mighty community of Haida living in this region and on Haida Gwaii who have been willing to share their profound appreciation for their material culture with all of us.
Acutely aware of the role public institutions have played in upholding colonial power and of colonialism’s devastating impact on First nations, the Museum of Vancouver, alongside museums across the country, is interested in repairing and renewing relationshps with First Nations. This means revisiting how we collect, let go, interpret, and display collections and indigenous belongings. It means treasuring relationships with individuals and communities over objects.
Curator of Contemporary Culture
Museum of Vancouver
The Haida Gwaii Watchmen
The Haida Gwaii Watchmen has evolved into the Coastal Guardians Network. All of our neighbouring nations on the north coast of British Columbia now have Guardians programs. And there have been other similar programs that have sprung up in other parts of Canada. I would love to see a day where every one of those nations had a guardians program of their own and I would see each of those nations developing those guardian programs according to their own culture, their own visions of the future, in their own way.
There are many functions that the Haida Gwaii Watchmen could serve in our old village sites and all around Haida Gwaii and that was always my vision and it would enable our people to move back to our ancestral homes and be functioning and have a very useful purpose. I think we still need to keep building toward that although I know in the political fray between ourselves and Canada it seems to have been lost.