Speaking in the Haida Way

by Gwaganad

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

The human connection with the land is often eloquently stated by the native people. Here, Gwaganad of Haada Gzvaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), shares her experience of what it is to live with nature. Her statement was made before the Honorable Mr. Justice Harry McKay (here called Kilsli) in British Columbia’s Supreme Court on November 6,1985, in the matter of the application by Frank Beban Logging and Western Forest Products Ltd. for an injunction to prohibit Haida picketing of logging roads on Lyell Island, South Moresby.

“Kilsli, Kilsligana, Kiljadgana, Taaxwilaas. Your Honor, chiefs, ladies held in high esteem, friends. I thank you for this opportunity to speak today. I was aware that I could get a lawyer, but I feel you lose if you go through another person.

“My first language is Haida. My second language is English. Therefore I can express myself better in English. I feel through another person, a lawyer, they also speak another language, and I would have lost what I hope to help Kilsli understand and feel.

“Since the beginning of time—I have been told this through our oral stories—since the beginning of time the Haidas have been on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

“That was our place, given to us.

“We were put on the islands as caretakers of this land.

“Approximately 200 years ago foreigners came to that land. The Haida are very hospitable people. The people came. They were welcomed. We shared. They told us that perhaps there is a better way to live, a different religion, education in schools. The Haida tried this way. The potlatches were outlawed. In many schools my father attended in Kokalitza, the Haida language was not allowed to be spoken. He was punished if he used his language. To this day, Watson Price, my father, understands every word of the Haida language, but he doesn’t speak it.

“So the people came. We tried their way. Their language. Their education. Their way of worship. It is clear to me that they are not managing our lands well. If this continues, there will be nothing left for my children and my grandchildren to come. I feel that the people governing us should give us a chance to manage the land the way we know how it should be.

“It seems that the other cultures don’t see trees. They see money. It’s take and take and take from the earth. That’s not the way it is in my mind.

“On Lyell Island—I want to address Lyell Island and South Moresby, the injunction being served on us. I want to say why that concerns me. To me it is a home of our ancestors. As Lily stated, our ancestors are still there. It is my childhood. Every spring come March my father and mother would take me down to Burnaby Narrows. We stayed there till June. It’s wonderful memories I had. I am thankful to my parents for bringing me up the traditional way. There was concern on the Indian agent’s part that I missed too much school. But how can you tell them that I was at school?

“Because of that upbringing, because I was brought down to Lyell Island area, Burnaby Narrows and living off the land— that’s why I feel the way I do about my culture and the land.

“In those early years the first lesson in my life that I remember is respect. I was taught to respect the land. I was taught to respect the food that comes from the land. I was taught that everything had a meaning. Every insect had a meaning and none of those things were to be held lightly. The food was never to be taken for granted. In gathering the food—the nearest I can translate—I can say to gather food is a spiritual experience for me.

“We are a nation of people at risk today. They say that to make a culture the language is important. I am proud to say I speak my language, but not too many more people in my age do. So you can say in a sense, if this keeps up, the language is going fast. In the past the culture was in very much jeopardy when the potlatching was outlawed. We almost lost ourselves as a people. That culture has been revived in the past few years. There is pride in being a Haida, pride in being a Native. The only thing we can hold on to to maintain that pride and dignity as a people is the land. It’s from the land we get our food, it’s from the land we get our strength. From the sea we get our energy. If this land such as Lyell Island is logged off as they want to log it off…and they will go on logging. We have watched this for many years. I have read records that our forefathers fought in 1913. It’s been an ongoing fight. But no-one is really hearing us. They said they wouldn’t log Lyell Island at first and now I hear they are going to go ahead. So today I am here because pretty soon all we are going to be fighting for is stumps. When Frank Beban and his crew are through and there are stumps left on Lyell Island, they got a place to go. We, the Haida people, will be on the Island. I don’t want my children and my future grandchildren to inherit stumps. They say, Don’t be concerned, we’re planting trees again. Wait for the second growth. It will be just like before. I travel all around the Island a lot with my family. I see lots of things. This summer I got to see second growth and it pained me a great deal, because I kept hearing there is second growth coming. I saw twenty-year-old second growth around Salt Lagoon. They were planted so close that the trees couldn’t grow big. They were small and there was no light getting into them. They couldn’t grow. You could see and you could feel that they could not grow. Therefore, I don’t feel too hopeful when I hear second growth.

“I want to touch now on another very important area in my life as a food gatherer. It is my job, my purpose, to insure that I gather certain food for my husband and my children, and I want to share one part. It’s called gkow. That’s herring roe on kelp. In the spring the herring come and they spawn on kelp. For many years now I have been harvesting that and putting it away for the winter. But so far I haven’t heard what—why is food gathering spiritual?

“It’s a spiritual thing that happens. It doesn’t just happen every year. You can’t take that for granted. We can’t take that for granted because everything in the environment has to be perfect. The climate has to be perfect, the water temperature, the kelp have to be ready and the herring have to want to spawn.

“But I want to share what goes on in my spiritual self, in my body, come February. And I feel it’s an important point. That’s what makes me as a Haida different from you, Kilsli. My body feels that if s time to spawn. It gets ready in February. I get a longing to be on the sea. I constantly watch the ocean surrounding the island where the herring spawn. My body is kind of on edge in anticipation.

“Finally the day comes when it spawns. The water gets all milky around it. I know I am supposed to speak for myself, but I share this experience with all the friends, the lady friends, that we pick together this wonderful feeling on the day that it happens, the excitement, the relief that the herring did indeed come this year. And you don’t quite feel complete until you are right out on the ocean with your hands in the water harvesting the kelp, the roe on kelp, and then your body feels right. That cycle is complete.

“And it’s not quite perfect until you eat your first batch of herring roe on kelp. I don’t know how to say it well, but your body almost rejoices in that first feed. It feels right. If you listen to your body it tells you a lot of things. If you put something wrong in it, your body feels it. If you put something right in it, your body feels it. Your spiritual self feels it. In order to make me complete I need the right food from the land. I also need to prepare it myself. I have to harvest it myself. The same thing goes for fish, the fish that we gather for the winter. But I wanted to elaborate on the harvesting of kelp to give you an idea of how it feels as Haida to harvest food.

“So I want to stress that it’s the land that helps us maintain our culture. It is an important, important part of our culture. Without that land, I fear very much for the future of the Haida nation. Like I said before, I don’t want my children to inherit stumps. I want my children and my grandchildren to grow up with pride and dignity as a member of the Haida nation. I fear that if we take that land, we may lose the dignity and the pride of being a Haida. Without that there is no—there is no way that I can see that we could carry on with pride and dignity. I feel very strongly—that’s why I came down to express my concern for my children and grandchildren.

“So today, if that injunction goes through and the logging continues—and there is a saying up there, they say, Log it to the beach. Then what? What will be left and who will be left? We can’t go anywhere else but the Island.

“I study a lot about our brothers on the main­land, the North American Plains Indians in their history. They moved a lot because they were forced to. Some moved north, south, east, west, back up against the mountains and back again.

“We as Haida people can’t move anymore west. We can go over into the ocean is all. So when the logging is gone, is done, if it goes through and there are stumps left, the loggers will have gone and we will be there as we have been since the beginning of time. Left with very little to work with as a people.

“Again I want to thank you, Kilsli, for this opportunity to speak and share my culture. Thank you very much.”

(First published in Ruebsaafs Magazine, No. 20, and later appeared in The New Catalyst, No. 6, Winter 1986/87 and Healing The Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, Ed. Judith Plant. Philadelphia and Santa Cruz: New Society Publishers, 1989.)

Gwaganad (Diane Brown) grew up on the Haida Gwaii islands off the coast of British Columbia, speaking Haida and learning food-gathering and medicinal plant traditions. She is a culture and language holder for the Eagle Clan, and in the course of this work she co-founded the Skidegate Haida Language Immersion Program, which published a glossary of over 30,000 Haida words and their English translations, and the Skidegate Language Nest. She has testified regularly at hearings and gatherings, and was arrested in 1985 at a logging industry protest. She served as Community Health Representative for 28 years.

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