By Graham Richard — This June eighty Haida traversed an ancient trade route, retraced infinitely by coastal ancestors over thousands of years: the inside passage. The group was on their way to a peace treaty potlatch in Waglisla Bella Bella. From the decks of a ferry, they watched the dramatic, cascading flanks of the crisscrossing channels tumbling and vanishing straight into the shadowy Pacific Ocean. The dizzying network of inlets, bays, and channels was formed from the footprints of glaciers that waded into the oceans fourteen thousand years ago.
Since their creation, these channels have supported extensive trade in abundant g̱aaw (fur), chiina (fish), taaw (ooligan oil), saaw (ooligans), textiles, metals, algwa (slaves), and many assorted items like sgaawsid (potatoes). According to Captain Gold, Haida steersmen depended on deep experience and knowledge to navigate the intricate trade routes. With each landmark memorized in order, leaders safely guided their crews through all kinds of weather conditions. Ever since the glaciers retreated, history has seeped into every harbour, river-mouth, haul-out, village site, fort, and battleground. Throughout the last 150 years a lot has been forgotten, but today so much is also being remembered.
The Historic Peace Treaty
A large crowd greeted the Haida delegation as it stepped ashore in Qelc. No one can say with certainty how long the two nations had met as rivals, but this June the Heiltsuk welcomed the Haida as friends to reaffirm an ancestral peace treaty by potlatching in Waglisla. This potlatch is the latest in a series of potlatches, another being held in Haida territory at G̱aaw in 2014. The original peace potlatch, held over 125 years ago, was the first of its kind on the coast and it established a long-standing peace. As the Haida came ashore at Qelc in 2015, they returned to the very same ground where their ancestors attended the first potlatch.
Today the new, three-page Treaty of Peace, Respect and Responsibility adds to the previous agreement with an affirmation authored by Heiltsuk and Haida hereditary leaders and signed by 68 representatives from all levels of Heiltsuk and Haida government. Representatives of the Wet’suwet’en and Nuu-chah-nulth nations also signed as witnesses.
According to Heiltsuk historian Duqva’aisla William Housty, in the past, Haida-Heiltsuk rivalry resulted in deadly wars that tore apart communities and families. Overtime, captives taken during fighting began to intermarry with their captors. Soon the rival nations became more and more related and reconciled, as both sides wished to keep their common relatives safe.
Haida hereditary leader Sdiithldaa Frank Collison understands that the original peace treaty stems from that violent era when Haidas still travelled to McDolly Fort Victoria by canoe. To end bloodshed between the two nations, the Haida made peace when they went ashore at Fishery Bay. That was the first time two coastal Nations had made such an agreement.
Duqva’aisla says an exact date of the original potlatch event is unknown, but the verbal peace treaty was potlatched in the mid to late 1800’s, making it law. As a gesture of peace, the Haida gave three songs to the Heiltsuk, and both nations still sing these songs. Later, a paddle song was gifted to Heiltsuk hereditary leader Harry Humchitt at a feast in Haida Gwaii, in another recognition of the peace treaty. His descendants continue to use that paddle song today.
The peace treaty is a nation-to-nation agreement.