DAY ONE: Sáng’áay SG̱wáansang – Tiiaan to K’yuusda

This August 11 a Haida-language team set forth from Gaaw to survey the north and west coasts of Haida Gwaii. Guided by elders’ teachings, the Haida language, historical records, and century – old maps, they learned and confirmed a selection of the ancestral place names that cover Haida Gwaii. Haida speaker Hlgawangdlii Skilaa Lawrence Bell and language consultant K’aayhltla Xuhl Rhonda Bell joined linguistics professor Gulkiihlgad Dr Marianne Ignace and language learner Jaalen Edenshaw aboard the vessel, Highlander under the command of skipper Meredith Adams. What follows is the first piece of a three-part series that describes their findings.

As we round K’waayandaas Kun Cape Knox, the vast Pacific Ocean opens before us and begins to swell and chop.

“You had to be tough to live on the west coast,” says Hlgawangdlii Skilaa as the crowded waves shoulder the boat back and forth. Haida Gwaii stands on the edge of cliffs two kilometres high, which plummet into the ocean depths below connecting to expansive underwater plains that stretch on and on until they reach Kamchatka Krai. Across the top of this ocean, winds combine with currents and tides creating waves that reach over 25 metres high and lumber along through gales that gust to 118 kilometres per hour.

Duu Guusd the west coast of Haida Gwaii is a tough and dynamic environment, and after a long time travelling south, the thick, chilly mist lifts a little and then gives way to heavy showers. The mountain ranges of Haida Gwaii fade in and out of view through curtains of rain. Their very existence seems to depend on the whim of the clouds.

Some hours later, about 25 nautical miles south of K’waayandaas Kun, we pass between the shadows of Ts’al Yáalaas and Sk’aa, two large rocky reefs, and turn towards our first stop, the village of Tiiaan.

“Oh, someone should dance for our arrival,” quips Hlgawangdlii Skilaa with understated and veiled humour. He steps down onto the pebbly beach and clambers over a gnarled overhang of giant hemlock roots to reach the village site above. “It’s a little more than hlkyaansii bushy” he said slyly while biting into a salmon-sandwich.

‘Tiiaan’ is a name derived from Tlingit, meaning ‘Yellow-cedar bark village’. Many stories from this village are well remembered. As the wind whisks through dripping bunch grass, Jaalen, Gulkiihlgad, and the rest of our team search for features noted in these historical records – like a healing pool, da’áay house pits, and fallen gin gy’aa.angs monumental poles. As we compare the old stories to what we see around us, we learn not only the names of this place, but also the history of those name and their relationship with Haida Gwaii. Our language – Xaad Kil. Xaad Kil – and the place we know as Haida Gwaii have travelled through time together and each enriches the other.

Learning and investigation, characterizes the three days that follow. As we explore the coast, we stop at landmarks that elders and anthropological records have described. So many diverse features dot the sea and land. Moss-capped reef rocks, bunched blocky pillars punching through the waves, and angular mash-ups of trapezoidal boulders that look like they grew from the dreams of a brilliant cubist painter. Each of these features hold a prominent name, and each name deepens our relationship with the land, sea and sky.

Among them, the cliffy island of T’uuj King Kaatl’aagangs Fortress Where You See Who is Arriving stands away from the rocky coastline. From a stronghold on top, defenders could see and repel invaders. A “moat” of reef-rocks “leaping” through heaving waves would endanger approaching canoes, and the bucking sea would probably make it tricky to fire arrows accurately. Today, the clamour of such assaults has faded but the craggy fortress still looms silently in the fog.

As we head north, the waves subside as we round the reef in front of K’yuusda. Between large boulders situated onshore, Captain Adams navigates the shallow runway’, cleared long ago to land canoes safely. We climb up to the cozy longhouse where Haida Watchmen Kihl Kwyaas Blake Williams and Sguunaman Matthew Brown greet us.

The two watchmen have spent many summers caring for K’yuusda, and take us to see the many distinctive, and sometimes enormous, da’áay house pits that dot the site. Each da’áay was dug in a single day, after which it could not be deepened. Because of this law, the depth and breadth of a house pit is a sign of a family’s influence. Greater influence brings more helpers, deepening the da’áay. Some of the da’áay at K’yuusda appear big enough to fit a house inside, let alone around them.

We skirt below the crumbling monumental beams that once supported these massive cedar houses. On the fringes of the pits, these beams still seem to mark a boundary, like each house still has an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’, and to step within the thresh hold would disturb the home’s family members. Their memories are still palpable, and at the western edge of the village, one family’s crests are vividly depicted. At over one hundred years old, the three gin gy’aa.angs stand strong in a line together.

Walking still further west, past K’yuusda’s edge, we pass mysterious petroglyphs carved in stone that mark the way to the village of Yaakw. This village also derives its name from a Tlingit word, meaning ‘canoe’. Here the village’s gin gy’aa.angs are returning to the soil. A Hawk pole now lays face down, nuzzling the earth. Without touching it, Jaalen tucks himself beneath it to glean what knowledge he can from its fading memory. The young carver, fashions poles like this, and is careful to study every old carving that he can.

As the day’s last light grows tired, we lapse into silence and saunter back towards the longhouse at K’yuusda. Among the hemlocks and pines, memories of Haida ancestors seem more vivid in the dark. Ahead of us the warm lights of the longhouse glow invitingly. The crew seems relieved that darkness has ended the day’s travels and are happy to find that the Watchmen have thoughtfully prepared hot tea and soup. But instead of relaxing everyone gathers around the table to pour over the riddles our elders have left us, untangling the words of old worlds, stretching back to places well remembered and times newly imagined.

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