By Graham Richard
A walk down any beach on Haida Gwaii can quickly turn into an archeological adventure. These shores are peppered with signs of our Haida ancestors’ use, which include the building of fish traps, fish ponds, canoe runs and intertidal pathways. From 2009 – 2012, the Haida Nation and Parks Canada sent out survey teams that identified dozens of cultural features in Gwaii Haanas.
“That was an incredible project and what we found in the intertidal opened my eyes to the number of features that one can see when the tide drops and the intricate resource management practices used by the Haida in the marine environment,” said archeologist Nicole Smith of the Hakai Institute.
It is easy to see sections of beach that appear beautifully manicured. These are often the ‘front yards’ of a village site where ancestors moved stones out of the way to encourage shellfish or sandlance populations to grow. Clearing the shoreline also improved the working of major fish trap complexes. Some of these intertidal traps were built with large cedar baskets bound around circles of stones or human-made ponds containing little stone cairns where naaw octopus still take up residence.
Many of these more obvious features are easier to spot. K’yuu kudhlk’aat’iija clam gardens, however, only reveal themselves at the lowest tides of the year, leaving only about 20 days when they are visible in daylight.
That’s why in 2008 Ms Smith felt so eager to take advantage of an approaching low tide to go in search of them. What she didn’t anticipate was how easily she would discover the k’yuu kudhlk’aat’iija.
“As we [started our search and] made our way down to the boats, there in front of us, less than 300 metres from the cabin were not one, but two clam gardens,” she said. In addition, the team immediately discovered another two candidates on nearby beaches.
In 2008, archeologists had not listed any k’yuu kudhlk’aat’iija in Haida Gwaii. However, between 2009 and 2011, teams identified around a dozen candidates on islands off Haida Gwaii’s southeastern coast, especially near K’iid Xyangs K’iidaay Burnaby Narrows.
Later in 2012, experts confirmed the team had correctly identified the k’yuu kudhlk’aatiija during a helicopter-flight. By the time the helicopter returned to its pad, the team had identified even more clam-gardens, cleared beaches, fish traps, canoe runs, and tidal pools that hadn’t been noticed from boats. Now archeological teams have confirmed that there are dozens of clam gardens in Haida Gwaii, if not more.
As Gwaliga Hart describes, this abundance of archeological sites has become the norm in Haida Gwaii.
“Oh man, it was incredible!” Gwaliga exclaimed. “My first day down there doing archeology we were going over all the types of features we were looking for, stone tools, lithics, fish complexes, fish traps, and clam garden-like features. We started off on the north-east side of Kunghit Island, and we came into this spot called Heater Harbour. Its Haida name, Giilii GawGa, means Salmon Trap Bay, which is a dead giveaway. We went in there on a low tide and every sort of feature we were looking for was in there. Our project director and everyone we were training under were bug-eyed with excitement at the almighty discovery of it all. Everyone was blown away! It was the best way to start off my archeology adventures; it was perfect for training, because every thing was so clean and clear in my first few days. We found rock alignments for fish traps and things like that. There was wooden stakes that created different weir-complexes. We found stone-tools, stone pile drivers that would drive in the wooden stakes. Hammer stones. Yah, it was amazing.”
Still, Haida Gwaii has a relatively low density of clam-gardens compared to the rest of the coast. This may be because Haida ancestors were aware that sea levels in Haida Gwaii had been falling. Today some thousand-year-old rock-walls are at the mid-tidal region where they are too high above the water to produce. Haida Gwaii also has many exposed shorelines that are highly productive for other species. Mussel shells dominate most of the middens in Gwaii Haanas.
Today, the large quantity of ancient Haida aquacultural sites is slowly awakening the academic world to how coastal people managed the land and sea. Sustainable aquacultural practices in Haida Gwaii included long-term, intergenerational farming and trapping areas that were backed by a strong and well-developed management system. This system was administrated and overseen by the ‘waahlgahl potlatch, where laws were enacted and witnessed. The collective authority of the Haida community recognized and upheld the fishing rights each family established through the ‘waahlgahl. This collective knowledge was the foundation by which Haida aquaculture was governed.
“This shows that our ancestors managed a huge number of sites for thousands of years to catch and produce food,” said crew member Jaalen Edenshaw. “Essentially, what the sites show us is that Haida society was built on slow and patient aquaculture techniques in a big way. Our ancestors had a really close relationship to all the life in the ocean. This shows us how we have grown food sustainably over generations and generations. We have always treated our food with respect and our ancestors managed our resources with patience and honour. As long as that continues we will always have enough.”