This August 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 second piece of a three-part series that describes their findings.
Day two of our excursion begins. A chilly morning light pushes through clouds that hang like cold breath above the cedars. We quickly load the Highlander and push away from shore. The dull drone of the motors begins again and the boat pulls away from the protected harbour and into the hilly waves. “All these k’aaláagaa people,” says Hlg̱awangdlii Skilaa.
To the north, the cliffs of Cox Island smash the rollers apart with ease. The islands’ unhurried sculptors – glaciers – vanished into the sea long ago, but today their tireless successor, the ocean, continues to wear away the stone. After eons of carving, the violent contours of this island unfold like wings as the crew searches for ancestral landmarks. Cox Island sits tall among a nest of toothy reefs and reflects it’s English name, ‘Hazardous Cove’. Behind it, the much larger K’iis Gwaay Langara Island wraps around the cove like a motherly arm.
As the crew passes in front of Cox Island, a tall fin of rock seems to peel away, revealing it is pierced through with a hole. The crew is excited to realize they have identified Kwaa Xiilas Pierced Rock. Stories say a husband and wife, who lived nearby, would venture out to make slaves of anyone who came to collect sea-bird eggs there. But their work came to an end one day, when as they were running away from angry pursuers, they were instantaneously petrified. As we round the northern tip of Cox Island, the wife and husband come into view, standing close to one another in pillars of stone. These stones are called Diigun and Diigun Jaahl.
Yesterday’s phrase comes to mind, “You had to be tough to live on the west coast” as Highlander wobbles on the tips of lumbering waves. Yet this is perfect habitat for a host of plump sea birds. From the cliff-sides, kwaanaa Tufted puffins zip and dash about nipping at darting fish. These soft bundles plunge nimbly through crushing breakers. Once full, they retire to cold cliff-edges, where they are quite comfortable exposed to the wind and rain, perched high above the boulder-strewn shore.
From Cox Island, we then follow the south and east coasts of K’iis Gwaay. Here the shore proliferates with landmarks. Outlandish stones jut forth inconceivably into the sky, hang delicately on slender buttresses, and lean lazily to one side like windblown pines.
Passing east, below K’iis Gwaay along its south shore, we find Tsiihlans Gunaay Devil’s Club’s burial, a bulbous stone with a lopsided head lolling on a tapering neck, like stan geoduck standing upside down on its tongue. Next comes Tiidaldaang small waves, perhaps so named because here the water has calmed significantly. After this Kwaa Tl’ajuwaas slanting rock appears, leaning diagonally not entirely unlike the loose cross-hatching of a carver’s hasty apprentice. From here, looking north, the hazy shadow of Kwaa K’iijuuwas heavy stone appears like a dark doorway.
“K’iijuu is something heavy and ’huh!’” Gulkiihlgad explains, widening her arms and hefting them down as if she were setting a boulder in the sand. “You can also call a person that.” Suddenly a jet of kun’s Humpback whale hot breath rockets through a flock of hllgwaats’i Rhinoceros auklets. The shrouds of rain begin to evaporate, and with just a smudge of sunlight, the waves’ orange crests topple over their dark blue bellies. Highlander skirts around fields of kelp as we zip towards Needan Naden Harbour.
Before the entrance to Needan, Hlgam Gwaayas is a cozy spot for xuud seal, k’yaaluu cormorant, and sgin seagull, which all rest there together. Among the xuud, a vigilant mother watches us pensively, shifting from flipper to flipper. The many nests that sea-birds scatter throughout the area have made this an important food-gathering spot. Once this area was even more abundant. But since then invasive rats have consumed the birds’ eggs, introduced deer have weakened the vitality of nesting habitat, and overfishing has taken a lot of the herring the birds depend on. Still, today Hlgam Gwaayas is a relatively perfect haven.
Beyond it, giant hemlock at the village of Kang totter in the wind. The name Kang is so old that it’s meaning is unknown and the only structure that remains standing is an orderly Watchman longhouse. Nearby the longhouse, two sgaan orca house-beams lie on the ground side-by-side. Their faces are nearly wrinkled beyond recognition. Young hemlocks grow on top of them, arching strong roots around them and into the soil below. A little farther a house beam has completely disappeared, leaving behind an archway of empty hemlock roots.
A few corner posts and house frontal planks still stand upright. One, close to the farthest point on the site, shows the monumental size of the houses that once stood here.
Needan is the source of the blue pigment that is used in Haida painting. This transforming pigment is so particular that tireless colour-matching has yielded no imitators. To make it, river-rocks are crushed to powder and mixed with fish eggs. The resulting colour changes with the angle by which you look at it and the type of light, transforming from green to blue. This paint was a notable export to the mainland where it was used to paint boxes and gin gy’aa.angs.
As Captain Adams points Highlander’s bow back towards Gaaw, the crew relaxes a little, and again falls to swapping jokes and telling stories. Since yesterday, the crew has had many chances to show initiative and skill while navigating dangerous waters, clambering through forests, and investigating the many Haida-language clues left to them by elders.
“All these k’aaláagaa people,” repeats Hlgawangdlii Skilaa.
I hesitate for a moment, then ask: “What does k’aaláagaa mean? You’ve been calling us that for two days”.
“It’s like the opposite of lazy, worthless, good-for-nothing,” he replies. “… a k’aaláagaa person always brings a knife with them, so they can be useful. K’aaláagaa women used to carry a taakadaaw hand-made fish-knife with them.”
“K’aaláagaa, k’aaláagaa … ” I begin repeating the word to memorize it. Every new word replenishes our understanding of Haida Gwaii – every word memorized teaches us what is important now and what was important to our ancestors. So much is wrapped up, not only in the forest and sea, but in the language too. With the Haida language, we can see not only Haida Gwaii in its fullness, but also ourselves.