Rhubarb (part 2)

August 29, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

We had found our seats in the bleechers for the tea that followed the raising of the mortuary pole of deceased chief Niis Wes.  It was two o’clock and it seemed inconceivable that this would actually just flow into the potlatch slated to start at six.  It was two.

But then again, we don’t usually attend luncheons on bleachers, equipped with water bottles, and toting utensils and plates as if we were squatting there long-term.  And somehow the time just evaporated as I watched kids play manhunt around the outer edges and as the MC urged the packed gymnasium to please quiet down between dances and tributes.  We freely tuned in and out, snapped photos, took up side conversations, and sat quietly.  All the while we were fed, caffeinated, and watered, creating a steady stream of sustenance that is one of the things that potlatches are known for.  Repute and status are gained not just by what powerful people can take, but also by how much they can give.

(Just think about that for a second…)

Potlatches were and continue to be the time when all of the most important political and economic negotiations happen; it is parliament and a party in one.  Because these gatherings were so central to Coastal First Nations’ political unity, they were the first thing to be made illegal in the Canadian government’s push to annihilate indigenous identity.  (Divide by banning potlatches, conquer by sending kids away to assimilation schools.)

Yesterday, we got to witness the staying power of the institution.  The steady bump of the dancing and the revitalizing sweets kept hundred of people together for ten hour (and that was short compared to others that have lasted until dawn).  After the first three, we were fully settled in, nestled into the community as they became one sort of seething mass together, an organism tweaking its homeostasis.  Sitting out on the periphery as a newly born cell, sweating in the shared body heat and greeting new friends who have treated us like siblings and daughters and nieces, I almost forgot that I was not always from here.

By midnight, all business was settled and we all walked out with our towels and band-aids and pieces of pie, functional gifts distributed goodie bag-style as a thanks for witnessing the negotiations.

Tomorrow we take our gifts and gear and post cards and pictures and board the ferry for the mainland.  Phase three is up to Kitimat for the Enbridge Oil Pipeline protest.  From one classroom to the next.  The adventure continues.



August 23, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

Early on in our stint here I approached a member of the Council of the Haida Nation in order to inquire about Haida cultural revitalization and youth involvement.  He hesitated, then explained that he had been to a conference on conservation recently.  Was he straying from the subject?  Should I rephrase the question?  “Conservation,” he explained, “is something that you find out you’re doing only when you look back.”

It was one of those moments that one must always have when doing any kind of fieldwork.  That moment of silent, but total humiliation due only to one’s own ignorance.  My interviewee was very nice about it, but I realized as soon as he shared that simple kernel of wisdom that it was like someone asking me in what ways I participate in the preservation of northeastern American culture as a young member of that foreign society.  Does my sarcasm count?  Am I reproducing my southern heritage when I layer on the picante?  (And where had my four years of undergraduate training in anthropology gone?)

Once I got my foot out of my mouth, I had time to realize and then witness the beauty of what the Haida rep said.  Earlier this week, we attended a potluck and singing practice that we were so graciously invited to by a member of the Masset Haida community.  The group was comprised of adult members of a Masset clan, but really it was a family event. One small child caught my attention as he careened around the long house beating a hand drum that he had to hold above his should because it was almost the size of him.  In spite of his size, he managed to keep a beat.  When he lost it, his mother would sing along and encourage him in his discovery of rhythm.  That toddler would be baffled by the term “cultural reinvigoration.”

The stories of older members of the Haida community give context to that moment in Chris White’s long house.  Nika, a 40-year-old Haida woman who helped paddle the Lootaas back up from Vancouver and who was present for the first totem pole raising in Skidegate, remembers a time before drumming toddlers.  At the pole raising, her mom put a necklace beaded in the style of Plains Indian over her head and explained that the necklace was not Haida, but it was Indian and that it was for days like today.  At the time, the iconic woven hats of the Haida (featured in Lauren’s photo on the “What We See” page) were too precious to wear because no one knew how to replace them.  A mere generation later those hats are being woven by dozens of women in Skidegate and old Masset, and full Haida regalia is donned at every event that calls for it.  But back then the beaded necklace was the best her mother could do.

Nika was part of the first generation to be raised around things like pole raisings and the carving of new canoes since this community verged on demographic collapse post-contact.  Before her came stories that we have not heard because they are not for public ears.  In fact, many Haida kids report that they cannot get them out of their own grandparents because of old habits learned in Canadian government residential schools where they were trained to forget their heritage and identity.  Of course, they didn’t.  But meeting with corporal punishment when speaking one’s native language and having to put blankets over the windows when celebrating has a certain kind of effect on one’s willingness to be forthright.

Twenty years after the end of assimilation schools (well, the last one actually close as recently as 1996), Nika hopes that her children’s generation will not have to think about their heritage.  But that hope for the future might already be part of the present.

Nika also had hopes for non-Haida visitors to take the inspiration to care about their own heritage.  And witnessing the passion of others, passion for their art, for the preservation of their heritage, for their families, and for their music, has had an affect.  For fully post-modern Americans like myself, heritage is a foreign and confusing concept.  But, as Guujaaw once reminded a friend, we all are aboriginal somewhere.

Highs, Lows, and Hopes

August 20, 2010

by Lauren Sinnott

Since we have gotten off the water, I have been trying to figure out how exactly to describe our epic adventure. And looking back through my journal I am reminded of our long days, full of adventures and misadventures. Each night we shared the high point of our day, low point, and a hope that tomorrow would bring. I attempted to keep track of these throughout the trip.  Below are some of my favorites, with a few of my own added footnotes.

July 22

Tara- Low: Being tired at the second channel crossing. High: pushing on kayaking at the end of the day when we were all tired and thus making it to this great spot. Hope: no rough water tomorrow.

Fiona- Low: getting to the lighthouse and seeing white caps and no cabin. High: playing with Punk[1] and seeing Jellyfish in the Louise narrows. Hope: we can catch the ebb in the morning.

Lauren- Low: getting stuck in dry suit and losing my sun glasses. High: having fun by the starfish. Hope: not spending as much time packing up the boats in the morning[2]

July 26

Tara- Low: having to get off the water when it got rougher. High: finally being able to relax at camp. Hope: that tomorrow is a less stressful day.

Fiona- Low: seeing Lauren’s face as her boat was about to crush and capsize under the rocks. High: being here at this campsite and the calm water that the evening brought. Hope: To have a relaxing morning

Lauren- Low: having to get off the water because the swell was too big this morning. High: The evening paddle and being at our amazing campsite and watching the full moon rise over a campfire. Hope: tomorrow being like this evening.

July 30

Tara- Low: Burnt quinoa stew for dinner[3]. High: every interaction with Steve,[4] especially when we asked him if there was anything we could do to help him, and he said just be nice to a stranger someday. Hope: fog is nowhere tomorrow.

Fiona- Low: fog all morning. High: same as Tara. Hope: Haida ancestors help us along on our journey to Tanu.[5]

Lauren- Low: having to put on dry suit when I didn’t think we were going to paddle. High: hot buttered rum by the fire. Hope: calm water

August 2

Tara- Low: Having to talk to Curious George High: Octopus for dinner.[6] Hope: to find fresh water.

Fiona- Low: Having to wake up at 3am and being so tired before bed High: S’mores by the campfire Hope: We run into the sail boat that was passing out fresh bread and brownies to kayakers.

Lauren- Low: Not wanting to get out of my sleeping bag this morning[7]. High: Golie’s stories and learning Haida with her Hope: that bad weather comes so we are stuck at Hot Spring Island with Golie.

[1] Punk, short for Pumpkin, was the name of Fiona’s boat.

[2] Adventure Squad takes no less than 3 hours to get anywhere.  One would think this would no longer be true. It still is.

[3] Word of advice: canned spinach does not go well with anything, especially burnt quinoa stew.

[4] Steve has not left Pacofi Bay for longer than one day in over twelve years. His favorite movie is a “Toast to the Loggers.” We watched it with him while eating cake and venison steaks.

[5] When we arrived at Tanu there were Rice Krispie treats waiting for us.

[6] One of the methods used by the Haida to catch Octupi is stunning them with bleach.

[7] This happens more often than not.


August 16, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

Adventure is defined by the way that it unfolds in front of you, offering you opportunities you could not have anticipated.  It pulls you out of yourself to show you things you didn’t even know that you didn’t know.  To most of us, adventures is made up of vision quests and shark infested waters.  Enlightenment and learning and unpredictable encounters with heroic strangers.  Adventure is the exhilaration of the unknown and the unanticipated.

But this Adventure Squad is finding that it can also be strange, or just downright banal in its unpredictability.  Once the kayakers got off of the water, we set up at the edge of town at a campground nestled in a tall stand of trees pressed up against the bay.  In an attempt to stay mobile and adaptive, we kept most of our things in Tara’s 1991 Volvo, Tank (named for both his durability and grinding transmission).  When we planned this trip, we decided that we would make tents our bedrooms, picnic tables our kitchen, and Tank and the odd café with free internet our moving office.

We never quite thought through what we would do if the owner of the café started giving us unkind looks when we, our charging cameras, and our computers had over-stayed our one-cup welcome, or what it might look like on the main drag of a small town when we had to gut the car to find external hard drive cords lost amongst squeeze-jelly jars and stray books.  We were tangled in cords when there was a cultural revival to learn about, a logging hisory history to study, and new terrain to discover.

But although this was not part of the grand plan to travel to the farthest western reach of Canada, committing whole days to, well, floundering is a critical part of making any experience on the road exactly what it is.  And it always seems to work out.  Now, after a shower, a warm meal, and night with our own beds, we are finally getting off to Masset today.

Fresh lingcod, crystal water, broken cameras, peanut butter stains, young activists, untouched wilderness, new faces, new places, old stories and spilled milk.  This is it.  This is the adventure.

Check out our post on the National Geographic Adventure Blog


Water, Part 1

August 6, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

As an archipelago in the northwest of North American, this land is about the water.

Even though we are closer to the Alaska panhandle than we are to the Canadian mainland, the sea is Caribbean in its turquoise hue, and tropical in its clarity. But the color itself also has a unique density and depth to it that makes you always want to look harder at it, to get your face closer and closer to the surface as if something as yet unknown is about to become clearer, but never quite does.

The water is beautiful as well as functional for island residents.  Recently, I was sitting on the beach that was also the back yard of a family who was generous enough to invite this stranger over for fresh lingcod and home-grown vegetables. One son came buzzing up in their boat, back from a day of hunting and fishing, with two crabs the size of my head to share around.  This, he explained, was a fruitless expedition.

I was overjoyed with their bounty, but apparently it didn’t compare to what people usually can draw from these waters.  People depend on it, and indeed the water delivers much of the nutrition that sustains Haida Gwaii residents.  Since then, fresh seafood has come across every doorstep that I have sat on.  Crab and salmon are an everyday, and scallops, sea cucumber, sea asparagus, abalone, and huge lingcod are close at hand.  People literally hand out top-of-the-line fish to anyone that hasn’t been out fishing that day because they can’t eat everything that they have caught.  When I first caught on to this habit, I mentioned that I might get a crabbing permit to a new friend and come by with a few if he would like.  He politely declined.  “We have crab traps set just off the back there,” pointing to his small yard that drops off into the bay.  “People around here aren’t exactly hurting for seafood.”

One can see why the Haida were so prosperous.  As islanders, naturally they were a sea-faring people.  They were known then and now for their impeccably designed and decorated canoes which they took to trade and plunder up and down the west coast of North America.  Some say that they may have even made it as far as Japan.

Haida sea-craft is all the more impressive when one remembers that these are also tempestuous waters, a fact that our kayakers to the south are dealing with as we speak.  It has been sunny and sixty-five, exceptional weather for this region that I have been warned against getting used to.  But down in Gwaii Haanas the Northwesterly has been up, and funneling around, under, and beside smaller islands to create conditions that one park ranger said he had never seen in his twenty years in the park.  Word on the radio is that they have been taking their time and playing it safe, but they most certainly will not make it to their original destination of Rose Harbor.  No doubt they have done a lot of exploring instead.  They will certainly have stories to tell when they arrive back on Saturday.

by Julia DeWitt