“Luck Has Nothing to Do with It”

The Haida Gwaii Lesson

At the northernmost point of the northernmost village on a remote North Pacific island I sat one blustery afternoon and watched Jim Hart, a hereditary Haida clan chief and his son, Gwalega, carve a gigantic breaching killer whale from a solid block of red cedar. The final product would be another legendary piece of Haida sculpture that almost certainly will, like so many before it, find its way into a prestigious museum somewhere in the world and amaze people who have never heard of the Harts’ homeland – Haida Gwaii. Such has been the fate of Haida carving and of the Haida people themselves. Their reputation for remarkable art and for their political activism precedes them. As their art astounds the world, their activism offers a powerful lesson to other Indigenous peoples who seek sovereignty and title to their traditional homelands.

aerial photo of forested islandsphoto Drew Brayshaw

After watching the father-son pair carve in silence for a while I asked Jim how long it would take him to finish the piece. He looked up at me, smiled and said, “ten thousand years.” He was right, of course, for he was practicing an art form his ancestors had been developing for at least that many years before he was born in the village of Old Masset, where I watched him work.

Strangely enough, there is no word for “art” in Hart’s first language, Haida, although it is a complex language with a vast vocabulary. Art is simply something that the Haida do, a natural reflection of a truly remarkable nation of creative people, seven thousand of whom share and seek title to the rugged mountains and shorelines of Haida Gwaii.

Long before a modern nation-state enveloped them, the Haida people fished, foraged, farmed, and thrived on this fecund, 138-island archipelago lying just to the south of Alaska, off the coast of British Columbia. European explorers – who “discovered” and renamed the islands after a monarch who never set foot on the place, Queen Charlotte of Britain – were universally awed by its lush forests and majestic mountains, some of which rise directly out of an ocean that drops rapidly from its western shoreline to 3,000 meters deep, forming one of the most productive surviving fisheries on the planet. The European newcomers were awed, too, by the industry and the artistry of its people.

Nicknamed “the Galapagos of the North,” Haida Gwaii is blessed with a diversity of species unmatched in the northern hemisphere. Biologists call it an “evolutionary showcase”: There are more endemic and disjunct (widely separated) species of plants and animals on the archipelago than anywhere else in the hemisphere. As a consequence, the islands have become of great interest to ecologists and wildlife conservationists the world over, many of whom have joined the Haida’s struggle for sovereignty. The common cause came naturally. After all, the Haida are a people who regard themselves as blood relatives of the pine martin, the dusky shrew, the saw-whet owl, the hairy woodpecker, and the world’s largest black bears, which roam the hills and fish in the rivers of Haida Gwaii.

As Europeans settled western Canada, the pressure on natural resources spread with the growing population and its demand for fur, fish, minerals, and lumber. Eventually extractive industries found their way off the mainland and discovered the dense stands of old growth cedar, spruce, and hemlock in the temperate rainforests of the coastal islands – an easy access-to-market commodity with enormous profit potential. As they had on the mainland, resource corporations with government approval simply ignored Native tribes and, with the permission of the Crown, commenced what became one the Pacific Coast’s most monstrous land grabs. During the decades that Big Timber virtually occupied the islands, the Haida received a few logging jobs and a pittance of revenue from the harvest. The net consequence of excessive logging was economic and cultural devastation for a proud and once-wealthy First Nation. The same thing happened with the fisheries off the coast of Haida Gwaii, as the islands’ once reliable source of protein was caught and canned for consumers around the world.

After almost a century of nonstop exploitation and abuse, with forests disappearing and food security under threat, the Haida people said enough, and like, many other First Nations in western Canada, began to resist, in one way or another, the 250-year-old imperial aggression against their rights, resources, title, and sovereignty. The resistance began in the early 1980s when the lush rainforests of British Columbia became a target of transnational timber companies like Weyerhaeuser, Rayonier, and Macmillan Bloedel, all of which took special interest in the exceptional timber on Haida Gwaii.

Until the arrival of the much better-armed Europeans, the Haida had proven themselves to be ferocious defenders of their islands – defeating every invader in battle and enslaving enemy warriors. Their twentieth-century protest against exploitation of fish and timber began peaceably in the mid-1980s when they filed legal challenges to the tree farm licenses granted by the province to the transnationals. Later they submitted formal complaints to the Canadian Department of Fisheries demanding that their food security not be compromised by commercial fishing. When their petitions were ignored, and the clearcutting of ancient forests spread from island to island, the Haida escalated their tactics and in October 1985 began blockading the logging roads of Lyell Island, which by then had been seriously devastated. Seventy-two elders were arrested and dragged off the island to trial in Prince Rupert.

Within days of the first blockade, the Canadian media was filled with powerful images of Haida elders sitting peacefully on heavily rutted gravel roads that had slashed through their forests, old men and women face-to-face with angry white loggers accompanied by uniformed Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Sympathy for the Haida rose fast across Canada – not just sympathy for their efforts to stop the clearcutting of old growth forests on First Nations’ land, but also for the creation of a protected area covering South Moresby, the southernmost section on the Haida archipelago.

On July 7, 1987 – after years of intense activism that eventually was supported by almost every environmental organization in North America and most every other First Nation of Canada – British Columbia and the federal government in Ottawa agreed to establish a protected area covering the 138 southernmost islands of Haida Gwaii. The combined park, marine conservation area, and native heritage site would be called Gwaii Haanas, or “Islands of Wonder.” But this preserve would be unlike any other national park in the world— a roadless, trailless wilderness co-managed by Canada and the Haida. To the Haida elders, who had been arrested and tried in a Canadian criminal court, this marked “the birth of a nation.” The only remaining goal was, and remains, secure legal title to the islands they had called home for millennia.

Aboriginal title, however, is as difficult to obtain in Canada as it is to define. It’s not “fee simple,” like the land possessed by private owners, nor is it “Crown title” owned by Canada or British Columbia. Like the Aboriginals themselves, it existed before European settlement. It’s inalienable, and held by all members of an aboriginal nation.

But formal title isn’t impossible to obtain and has been won in some form by at least one other First Nation, one with a far less persuasive argument for title than the Haida. In November of 2007, the Tsilhqot’in Nation in the interior of British Columbia – whose borders are far less clear than those of Haida Gwaii and whose historical claim to their land is comparatively vague – were granted provisional title to their land in a ruling that carefully avoided setting precedent for other First Nations in BC or Canada. Of course Haida lawyers will cite the Tsilqot’in case when they file their next title claim.

photo of people with artistically painted paddles in a boatphoto Susan Hubbard

Few Canadian First Nations have prevailed in the face of institutional racism, corrupt provincial governments, unsympathetic courts, and rapacious industries. The Haida are close to becoming a notable exception, and their audacious, creative, and surprisingly realistic four-decade struggle for title, sovereignty, and resource rights has become a living lesson for aboriginal communities in the same situation the world over.

By creatively and patiently using the courts, human blockades, public testimony, and the media – all the while building strategic alliances with environmentalists and neighboring tribes – the Haida won the support of enough Canadian citizens, government officials, and Supreme Court justices to come within reach of a goal that thousands of Native communities around the world have struggled for generations to win. As this magazine goes to press, the Haida are only one Supreme Court decision away from obtaining aboriginal title. (They already claim “Haida title.”) This is a court that has become increasingly friendly with the Haida and other Canadian First Nations and increasingly unsympathetic to the federal and provincial governments of Canada that have stood stubbornly for 150 years in the path of aboriginal title and Indigenous sovereignty.

Even as they await formal title to their lands, the Haida are making progress in restoring the islands once named Xaaydlaa Gwaayaay, which literally means “taken out of concealment.” Half the landmass and much of the sea around the islands are official protected areas. Logging throughout the islands has been severely reduced, and is mostly managed by the Council of the Haida Nation. No timber moves off the island without the tribe’s consent, and “monument cedars” (which are used only for totem poles, canoes, and Haida long houses) are being protected. A Haida-initiated land-use plan has been signed with British Columbia, and the Canadian Supreme Court has ruled that the provincial government must consult the Haida on all land-use decisions. And the Haida have retaken possession of the archipelago’s name. On December 11, 2009, at a ceremony attended by the Federal Minister of Aboriginal Relations and the Premier of British Columbia, “The Queen Charlotte Islands” were officially renamed “Haida Gwaii” – Islands of the People. All that is missing is title to what the Haida describe as “all that we say is ours.”

“With any luck, that will come soon,” I remarked to Guujaw, a former president of the Haida Nation Council and a moving force behind most of its activism and litigation. “Luck,” he said, “has nothing to do with it.”

True enough. Haida patience and wisdom, combined with a ferocious determination to defend an ancient land and culture, have prevailed. The Haida’s story bears repeating, as it offers the entire world of Native peoples a strategic playbook for obtaining self-determination and ownership of their ancient and legitimate homelands.

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