The village was somber in the deepening shadows of dusk when we arrived under sail from Skidegate, ghosting in with the sunset on the last breath of a southerly. We doused the genny, furled the main, and motored slowly to the single buoy south of the Haida village at Skedans Point.
It was late, when I and the Skipper, Horace Nealey, turned in after a supper of barbecued salmon and chilled white wine. The sea was quiet with rain misting down steadily all night. The only evidence of man here, 100 km out in the North Pacific Ocean, in the uninhabited southern islands of the Queen Charlotte’s, was our 36’ Islander sloop, Eastern Star III, of Portland, Oregon, moored on the east side of Louise Island.
The anchorage is protected on both sides by many ledges of volcanic rock constantly washed by the sea. A Haida legend says that this village of the Raven Clan is protected by a killer whale named “Many Ledges.” The Haida (people) call the village Koona or Qona, meaning “Grizzly-Bear-Town” in honor of all the grizzly bear totems here. English speaking foreigners call it Skedans, after the former village chief Gida’nsta (Skedans).
The morning sun sparkled as the mist melted away with an eagle’s “cree-cree” breaking the stillness. Fishing from the upper branch of a snag west of the beach, he swooped down and seized a herring near the surface. His powerful wings flapped, and he regained his perch. A raven gave his throaty “caw-caw” as he circled and landed beside a dead crab near the center of the crescent shaped beach.
Beyond the beach, the village had been laid out centuries before with houses of the Eagle clan to the west; houses of the Raven clan to the east; and the village chief’s house in the center. The Raven family known as “The People of Cumshewa” are still the hereditary rulers of this village.
Launching our dinghy, we paddled to the beach fronting the ancient village of Koona. The keel scraped on the coarse sand reminding us that this beach was once home to the keels of great cedar canoes like, Loo Taas (Wave Eater). Over 60 feet long and eight feet wide, each canoe would have been carved from a single cedar log and stretched with steam from hot rocks.
Carrying the dinghy up to the high tide line, we heard a voice from the forest, “You can tie it here if you’d like.” The quiet voice came from a Haida elder as he stepped from the shadows of the evergreens into the sun. His eyes, a flinty blue-gray with crows feet, bespoke long years of commercial fishing, squinting at distant horizons. The roundness of his face and eyes, coupled with his warm colored tan, hinted of Asian or Polynesian ancestors in the eons before “myth time.” The hospitality in his smile spoke softly of the wisdom which comes after seeing more than 70 winters. Chief Cumshewa, an Eagle, is the hereditary chief of the village of Cumshewa, which lies abandoned four miles to the north, on Moresby Island. His brother-in-law, a Raven, is the present hereditary chief of this village of Koona (Skedans).
Chief Cumshewa, serving as the watchman for the Haida Nation both here in Koona and in Cumshewa, would be our guide through the ghost village. Koona is part of the reservation set aside by the Canadian Government for the exclusive use of the Haida people. Today he was continuing the friendly reputation, which these villages of Cumshewa and Koona had enjoyed for many centuries among the peoples along the coast, especially the mainland Tshimishan people at Kitkatla, and so Chief Cumshewa invited us to his cabin to meet Carolyn, his wife. He stamped our Haida Passports while we signed the guest book.
To be guided through a ghost village, by a Haida elder with the venerable rank of a senior village chief, was an honor not lost on us. Cumshewa handed each of us a book entitled “Those Born at Koona.” “We’ll start on page 14, when we get to the west end of the village,” he said softly. We listened attentively, following as he led us over Koona’s sacred grounds, describing the village history in friendly, but solemn terms. This was a great man, who was bringing the gift of age and experience to the sharing of his story: the story of both his people and his lifetime.
The chief, born three decades after Koona was abandoned in 1889, explained that his authority for knowledge of the village came from Jim Jones, whom Cumshewa had fished with, after the second world war. Jim had been born in Koona, and lived here until his teenage years. The Chief showed us Jim’s photo in the back of the book, taken at Koona in 1954 when Jim was an old man. The Haida culture teaches that the spirits of the deceased return in the following generations, and Cumshewa shared with us that, “My son Patrick, is a Haida artist, and the spirit of Jim lives in Patrick, who was born just after Jim died.”
As the sun rose higher warming the grass, and steam began rising off moist cedar logs, Cumshewa warmed to his telling of the tales which follow:
The Beaver Pole by the Raven House
Leaning at a wide angle the pole still stands at the site of a former Raven house. It once had 13 rings, representing the 13 potlatches held by the family, and a Beaver carved at its base.
Cumshewa, pointed out that the pole couldn’t have been to honor the father (a raven), since the Beaver is an Eagle crest, therefore, the pole must be a memorial to the mother of the house, since Ravens always marry Eagles and vice versa. The intricate carving, now weathered by years of wind and rain, attests to the skill of the vanished craftsman and the beauty of the Haida culture now lost.
Mortuary Poles & Beavers
Formerly, two skulls lay undisturbed on the open ground, where they had fallen from their burial in cedar mortuary poles that had deteriorate and split open over the decades. These skulls were covered with a strange moss which Cumshewa had never seen elsewhere. One year, the skulls were gone. Cumshewa asked the government archaeologist what they had done with the skulls. He replied, “We took them and gave them a proper burial.” Cumshewa, told him that they should have left them alone: the skulls had already been buried in the mortuary poles and moving them was desecration of a sacred site. Looking at us solemnly, he said, “From that day the spirit of the place had departed.”
Death of a Culture
The small pox epidemic in the 1860’s killed three out of four Haida, and in the southern villages 9 out of 10. All the villages were abandoned, the survivors moving north to join the Skidegate band. Once there had been 700 villagers at Koona alone; today the 300 Haida living at Skidegate are the remnants of over a dozen villages.
In the 1880’s, while the Haida were still suffering the shock of seeing their whole nation die in one year from small pox, the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch, and all associated Haida ceremonies, the missionaries confiscated all the ceremonial artifacts and regalia, selling them for profit to the museums in Victoria, Toronto and Vancouver.
Next, in the early 1900’s the government took the young people away to teach them the white man’s culture. At boarding schools in Victoria and Vancouver, Haida children were forced to speak English, and were beaten if they spoke Haida. Given “Christian” names, Cumshewa himself became Charles Wesley. They could not go home for summer vacation, unless their parents paid for their passage both directions. Forced to stay at school for the summer, they had to work for their board and room. Cumshewa asked, “Isn’t that slavery, keeping them there against their will and forcing them to work?” Many children stayed at school for almost a decade, never going home to Haida Gwaii (Land-of-the-People). Most finally returned after they could no longer remember their own language, and could no longer converse with their own parents.
In 1951 revision of the Canadian Indian Laws, removed the restrictions on the potlatch. Suddenly totem poles, Indian art, and ceremonies began to be fashionable. However, it was too late; the traditions had been broken for over two generations and the demise of the beautiful Haida culture was complete.
“Who should own these islands?” the venerable chief came now to a great puzzle. The Haida call the islands in the vicinity of South Moresby, Gwaii Haanas, and they have possessed both these lands, and all of the Queen Charlottes (Haida Gwaii), for thousands of years. In the late 19th century, the Canadian Government set the villages aside as Haida land reserves. Recently, however, Parks-Canada personnel have told Cumshewa that all the historic village sites will now become part of South Moresby National Park and will be administered by Parks-Canada.
This is strange, however, since the government has never even met with the chiefs to reacquired these lands. The Haida elders never signed a treaty giving any of Haida Gwaii to the Canadian Government, nor to King George. The Haida have continually resided in, and administered these lands, and have claimed them as their own for thousands of years. The Crown never fought a war to conquer the Haida and take these islands in the name of the British or Canadian government, never negotiated a treaty, nor even attempted to. They never negotiated to buy, nor paid for these lands. Can a modern Canadian government claim these islands as sovereign territory? All that they ever did to possess this region was walk up on the beach, 200 years ago, and merely say, “I claim this land for Great Britain in the name of King George.” They didn’t bother to notify the Haida, who had owned this land for generations, by publishing a public notice or carrying out any legal act in a court of law. This is grand theft, written boldly, especially when the Haida have never ceased to possess these lands. Cumshewa noted, “38 million has been set aside by the Canadian Government for development of this supposed ‘National Park’, but the Haida, who are administering these lands, have not seen one dime, in 200 years. This money is all being spent on studies by government consultants.”
By now, the sun had climbed still higher. Together we looked down at an ancient pole, the carving split by a new growth sitka spruce, which had used the fallen pole as a nurse log. Cumshewa asked if he could take a photo of us for his scrap book, and he invited us to come again, saying we would always be welcome at Haida Gwaii (Land-of-the-People).
Returning to the beach, it was time to depart. Words can not adequately portray the stark beauty of this unspoiled land where the virgin forest is slowly encroaching to reclaim the village, nor describe our emotions as we looked back at the carved poles standing sentinel in the empty village. The northeasterly blew across the open point from Hecate Straight, rustling the tall grass which covers the fallen beams of the former houses, and fluffy cumulus clouds lifted from the tops of the mountains on Lyell and Tanu Islands to the southwest. It was clearly evident in the late morning sun, why this beautiful site was chosen for “Grizzly-Bear-Town”, and we were reluctant to leave this shangri-la: afraid to step back through the curve of time to rejoin the late 20th century.
Now, I could go on to say that the Ghost villages of Klew (Tanu, Sea-Grass-Town) and Ninstints (Skan Gwaii, Red-Cod-Island) were even more beautiful, and evoked an even greater sense of being in the presence of a sacred spirit, but, then again, it is you who must go there to these islands which lie just east of the sunset, and find out for yourself.