To the ocean returned

Haida smallpox victims were laid out on this beach in Heiltsuk territory in the mid nineteenth century.
Haida smallpox victims were laid out on this beach in Heiltsuk territory in the mid-nineteenth century.

By Molly Clarkson —

It’s a robin blue sky day on the central coast and hot. Gathered around a fire on a bluff overlooking a pristine white beach are Haida and Heiltsuk. They have gathered to put the spirits of Haida ancestors to rest with offerings of food and drink, prayer and song – ancestors whose bodies were left on the white sand beach of Kuai.

It happened in the mid-1800s on the return leg of a trading journey. The story tells of a blanket, infected with smallpox being placed in one of the six Haida canoes just before the party set out from Maktoli. Soon after, the majority of Haidas were struck with smallpox and many died. By the time they reached the beaches of Kuai, there was only one canoe of paddlers left, towing five canoes filled with their dead. Unable to return to Haida Gwaii with such a weighty load, the Haida asked and were granted permission by the Heiltsuk people to land at Kuai. The Haida then wrapped the bodies in cedar and left them along the shoreline where they were taken back by the ocean.

Although this story is known through the oral histories of both the Heiltsuk and Haida, it was not until this June that the Haida returned to Kuai to complete a ceremony to lay the spirits of their ancestors to rest. The ceremony took place the day before the Haida-Heiltsuk Peace Treaty held in Waglisla, and, as expressed by Haida delegates following the ceremony, it further strengthened the relationship between the two nations.

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