Raising a GyaaGang
Graham Richard —
Aboriginal Day 21 June
Hundreds of witnesses raised a gyaaGang monumental pole in honour of the ancestors who occupied Tlielang Hiellen Village Site, thousands-of-years-old Haida village this June 21. The gyaaGang now stands beside Hl’yaalang Gandlee, the river that runs beside Taaw Tow Hill.
At a carving house behind Tluu Xaadaa Naay Canoe People House in Gaw, eight apprentices and three journeymen helped gyaa k’id llGaayGa carving expert Kilthguulans Christian White to transform a 62’ ts’uu Red cedar into a monumental pole. Together they transformed the 600-year-old ts’uu from a raw log harvested from the centre of Graham Island into the monument that now stands at 52’ high. The gyaaGang was carved in the round, an undertaking that took the team six months to complete.
The pole’s predecessor stood at Hiellen for a century until 1920, when it was cut down and moved to Kxeen Prince Rupert. It was returned to Haida Gwaii in 1970 and stayed in a carving house belonging to gyaa k’id llGaayGa and kilsdlaay hereditary leader Iidansuu Jim Hart. While it is not an exact replica, this new pole is a contemporary interpretation of its predecessor.
The crew of carvers arrived at the pole-raising in style, paddling a tluu canoe to Tlielang as a bear danced on the bow. They were welcomed ashore by singers and drummers led by SaanuGa Gianna Williard-Flanery. Language champion and master-of-ceremonies Jaskwaan guided an audience of hundreds through the ceremony that followed.
It takes a community to raise a pole, and many contributors were recognized. Kilthguulans started by presenting kilsdlaay and veteran-logger Dayaang Donald Bell with a stone adz blade from a Māori carver Aotearoa New Zealand, in thanks for coming to Tluu Xaadaa Naay to make the first cut six months before. Apprentices and journeymen also made speeches thanking the community for providing so much support. Elders from the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program then prayed in Xaayda Kil before women cleansed the pole with cedar boughs and eagle down. The carvers then danced around the pole, tools in hand, in accordance with Haida law. At last the gyaaGang was ready for the hundreds of people who would pull together to lift it into the sky, pulling it up on five lines.
With the gyaaGang towering above the longhouses of Tlielang, Kilthguulans was careful to point to the women for whom all gyaaGang are necessarily dedicated. As a matrilineal society, all property, crests and rights are passed on through women. It is therefore impossible to raise a gyaaGang that does not recognize women as the foundation of society.
“The Haida women uphold our culture so I want to honour them,” Kilthguulans explained. “The raven is up top, because this is a raven village.”
Kilthguulans then presented another Māori stone adz to Allan Bo Collison, to recognize all the help he gave in the making of the gyaaGang.
Kayxal families of the Raven moiety governed Tlielang, but the original pole belonged to Kuustak families of the Eagle moiety. Therefore, as with many gyaaGang, the design incorporates crest-figures from both moieties.
The figures on the gyaaGang include a kilsdlaay holding a t’aaGuu copper shield in the arms of his wife, a female xuuajii Grizzly bear. In the xuuajii’s ears are two kulGaay.yugwang butterflies), the attendants of Nang Kilsdlaas One Whose Voice is Obeyed, or Raven. These bottom-most figures refer to a terrific hunter who specialized in catching xuuaajii. One day he ran into a male bear, who swatted at him and cast him down into the den. The female xuuaajii within covered the hunter up and protected him. When her husband looked in and saw this, he left her and wandered off. The xuuaajii and the man fell in love, and begat supernatural children who could take off their skins and look just like people. But the hunter missed his human family and asked his wife to return. His wife consented, but warned him that she would know if he fell in love with someone else. The hunter left and when he arrived home he found he had been gone for ten years. His wife had died and his children had married, but they accepted him back because he was a skilled hunter. From that time on he only hunted sea mammals, and never killed xuuaajii again. When he killed a seal, he brought it to his wife and fed his supernatural children. Then he fell in love with an eligible young woman in his village. His wife put a feather into water in a clamshell, and the water moved in a way that showed her husband had fallen in love with someone else. Then the hunter’s supernatural children, having grown to full size, swarmed around him and took his life. She sent her sons far away into the valleys where they could not been found.
Above these figures are ts’ing beaver, xuuaajii GidGalang bear cubs, sgyamsun Naikoon Kiigawaay and Kun ‘Laanas crests blue mountain hawk, sparrow hawk, hlk’yan k‘uust’an frog, xuuaajii transforming with k’uuxan Pine martin) in its mouth, and two more hlk’yan k’uust’an.
Above this is a man wearing guud k‘al eagle skin. This refers to a kilsdlaay’s nephew, whose uncle grew afraid that his nephew would replace him as leader. So, the uncle nailed a box shut over top of his nephew, took him out in a canoe, and set him adrift. When the nephew at last washed ashore two women came along and opened the box. When the kilsdlaay’s heir looked up, he saw two eagles looking down at him. When he blinked his eyes he saw they were two beautiful women. They took him back to their village where all the people would don eagle skins. Thus, they transformed into eagles and went to hunt their food. The kilsdlaay’s heir fell in love with one of the women from that village and married her. With time they gave him his own eagle skin. So he began to hunt from the sky. The people only warned him not to try to catch a giant clam that lived in a specific place. As he grew in skill, so he grew in confidence, and soon he was bringing all kinds of food to the village. At last he grew too confident. As the giant clam started to pull him under the water another eagle grabbed onto his shoulders and began to pull him skyward. One by one all the villagers came to rescue one another, until they formed a chain stretching high into the sky. Still, the clam pulled them all down into the water and eventually only one old woman remained in the village. She went and fetched her ratty old eagle skin, put it on, and her strength preserved them all as she lifted everyone back out of the water and pulled the clam up out of the earth.
Above this figure is Nang Kilsdlas One Whose Voice is Obeyed, or Raven with kung moon, in reference to the famous episode in which light was brought into the world. Finally one nang iihll.ngas kyahjuu llGaayGa watchman and two nang jaada kyahjuu llGaayGa watchwomen perch on the very top of the gyaaGang, watching over the various worlds.
A number of the crest figures contain eyes with faces within them. “When a young child came to see me the other day they asked me, ‘What are those little faces in the eyes?’” Kilthguulans explained in a speech. “And I told them, ‘that’s your reflection’. That’s the reflection of the children. When you look into someone’s eyes you can see your own reflection, so when they look into the eyes of these supernatural beings, the children will see their own reflection there.”
Journeymen carvers working on the pole include Vernon White, Corey Bullpit, and Derek White. Apprentices include Shaylana Brown, Hak’wanan Jay Bellis, Jennica Bell, Daisy White, Gyaagan Sgwaansang Shane Bell, Skilaaw Captain Stewart Burton, Tiffany Boyko, Paul Biron, Roger Smith.
The Haida Gwaii community supported the carvers throughout the process, donating their food and time, and the work was funded through a network of partnerships between Old Massett Village Council, North West Community College, TriCorp, BC Arts Council, Canada Arts Council, Skills Link, Services Canada, First Nations Health Authority, the Vancouver Foundation, Heritage Canada, and individual donors.