A Little Taste of Haida Gwaii

For the last stage of their visit at Kay Llnagaay, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stepped into Stlaay Daw Naay (Greeting House). There Cheri Wilson greeted them to explain a few of the objects that have carried the Haida Nation through time. Her table contained a wide variety of items including a hat woven from spruce roots; a silver bracelet with a family crest engraved in a traditional Haida style called formline; a golden broach; a bowl carved from black argillite, which can only be found in Haida Gwaii; a hand-built fishing hook, which a fisher lashed together from two pieces of western yew to catch halibut; a small, carved monument to Haida ancestors; and a t’aaGuu, which was ceremonially broken through potlatch, the system of coastal governance and law.

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Haida chef Keenawii (Roberta Olsen) then presented a number of the foods that Haida gather from the rich waters that surround the Islands. These staples have sustained the nation since time immemorial and the Haida relationship with the creatures of the ocean define them as a people. This connection with the ocean is so strong that all Haida people trace their ancestry back to one of three supernatural mothers who came out of the ocean, Kalga Jaad, SGuuluu Jaad, and Jiila Kuns.

As Keenawii described the various foods, she was providing the Duke and Duchess with a view into the origins of the Haida people. The foods that Haida ancestors gathered intertwined them with the sea. Because these ancestors’ very bodies were made from these foods, the Haida Nation can be said to be interrelated with the creatures that inhabit neighbouring worlds. This interwoven nature of existence informs the way Haida think about the world.

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Recognition of this interrelatedness is manifested through the various artistic disciplines that Haida ancestors perfected and passed on to the current generation. The patterns of the Gaada GinGuu gyáa.ad (Raven Tail blanket) that Kuuyas 7waahlal Gidaak weaves descend from this line of ancestral understanding. The pattern she featured on her collar and those she presented to the Duke and Duchess is called “all our ancestors”. The pattern is a forthright acknowledgement of the forces and histories that were interwoven to create the Duke and Duchess’ encounter with her in Haida Gwaii.

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Nearby Jiixa waited to show the Duke and Duchess the items she created in another style of weaving. The objects she displayed for them are made from bark carefully harvested from the red cedars and spruce that grow in the rainforest. Her crafts are part of an artistic tradition that allowed ancestors to stay warm and dry and transport all manner of items in watertight containers.

Each item begins its life in the forest where the trees prepare materials for weavers to gather. The weavers will travel a long way to find cedars that haven’t already given a part of themselves. Many cedars already bear the mark of an ancestor who took a strip of bark, and many trees throughout the woods bear long, slow-healing scars. Once a cedar has given once it will never need to give again, and these scarred trees are left alone.

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To weave items from spruce roots weavers must carefully dig through the ground. The fine, slender roots are ideal for weaving water-tight items and finished items have a bright, glossy colour. Roots are only suitable for harvesting at a particular time of year. Weavers keep a forest-map in their mind so they can return to the places where they expect to find the very best roots.

After gathering materials weavers expend great effort to prepare them for use. Jiixa’s creations are a sign of her knowledge of the forest, her discipline and patience in gathering and preparing her materials, and her connection with her ancestors.

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As the Duke and Duchess departed they stopped to receive the final gift of their visit in Haida Gwaii. The t’aaGuu is a coastal symbol of provision and prestige. These coppers are among a family’s most prized possessions, and derive their power from potlatch, the coastal legal and governance system.

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The Haida Nation commissioned Gwaliga to create the t’aaGuu as a gift. All the Haida gathered outside sang and drummed as it was presented to the royal couple and Gwaliga explained the deep history from which the t’aaGuu derives its significance.

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Before they left elder and fluent Haida language speaker Nina Williams prayed for the couple, thanking the supernaturals that they were kept safe in their travels and wishing them well on their journey.

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