Great Canadian Parks / British Columbia

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The Parks / British Columbia / Gwaii Haanas National Park





The Haida name for the Queen Charlotte Islands is ‘Haida Gwaii’ which translates as ‘place of wonder’. Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site occupies the most southerly of the Haida Nations' territory. A prosperous people, renowned for their seamanship and their ferocity in war, they frequently raided the villages of the coast as well as their Haida neighbours to the north, taking men as slaves and women for wives. The most important village was at SGaang Gwaii, a tiny island at the southern tip of the archipelago, known to the Europeans as Anthony Island.

 

Their culture centred on the cedar: its bark fed and clothed them; its wood supplied materials for houses and canoes. The forest also provided berries and the ocean's rich bounty filled the rest of their needs. Since they did not have to struggle to survive, they had the leisure time to devote to art and culture. Everything they owned was carved or painted, from the woven cedar hats and cloaks, to bowls, fish hooks, paddles and of course, the magnificent Haida canoes. They made their homes in permanent villages of solid cedar houses adorned with poles that told the story of the head of the family. When a chief or highborn person died, his remains were entombed in a small box and placed in a cavity atop a mortuary pole. Each pole was raised with a lavish ceremony called a ‘potlatch’ requiring a presentation of gifts to all attendees. A family would have to accumulate great wealth in order to hold a potlatch.

 

The first recorded contact between the European cultures and the Kunghit Haida occurred in 1787, but the eleven canoes that greeted the trading ship ‘Queen Charlotte’ came with skins prepared to trade. Clearly contact preceded that date. The fur traders were eager to get sea otter pelts; the natives made good use of the knives and metals that allowed them even greater accomplishments in their art. For the most part, both sides were content, but the Haida got more than they bargained for in the form of European smallpox which spelled disaster for the Haida Nations, killing more than 70% of their people.

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