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.


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