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Spirit Guardians of the Northwest Coast of Canada

The Haida Monumental Totem Poles

Article and photos by James Michael Dorsey

Totems of the Haida Nation
Author on Ninstints beach with totems of the Haida Nation behind him.

Many of humanity's greatest artistic achievements are unknown to the world at large because their creators never intended for the public to view them. Among such largely unfamiliar accomplishments are the massive totem carvings of the Haida people, which can be found on a windswept island group 60 miles off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.

Map of Haida islands, Canada
Map of the islands of the Haida Gwaii, or "Land of the Haida," 60 miles off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.

The totems watch over a sheltered cove on the East Side of Anthony Island, at the ghost village of Ninstints (or Skuun Gwaii, or Sung Gwaii; there are numerous local spellings.) During my visit, 26 totem poles, with but a handful in the world residing in their original location, stood watch as the last mythological guardians of the Haida Nation.  

Now, this seems an appropriate time to dispel a modern myth; American plains Indians never carved a totem pole. Such mistaken images are yet another Hollywood creation that originated in bad old "B movies." Totem carving is specific to the Pacific Northwest. Most prolific are the Haida, the native people of these islands, who carve wood as easily as most of us breathe, and have an ancient history rich in both art and warfare. The early people called this land Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai, or "Islands at the Boundary of the World." The name has since been shortened to Haida Gwaii, or "Land of the Haida." Most of the world calls them by an earlier name—the Queen Charlotte Islands. The islands number more than 1,800, and are part of British Columbia, Canada. Their oral history can be traced back 7,000 years. The earliest recorded information on these islands comes from Spanish explorer, Juan Perez, who discovered them in 1774. A decade later, Russian fur traders began to frequent them and for the next century were the only non-native visitors. The islands were given their British name from the flagship of Lord Howe, the HMS Queen Charlotte, who was the wife of King George III of England. 

The totems watch over the land of the ancestors as guardians, while also serving as both history and literature. In Haida mythology, there are four premier figures: Orca, Bear, Frog, and Raven. Of these, Raven takes center stage since he is known as the trickster, always trying to fool humankind. The Haida creation myth tells of Raven pecking open a cockleshell to release the first man into the world.

The story has been brought to life in an epic carving by the northwest coast master, Bill Reid, a descendant of Charles Edenshaw, himself a Haida chief named Tahayren, who later took the white name, Edenshaw. These two men are generally acknowledged as among of the finest carvers to ever live. Reid’s monumental carvings, created mostly in stone, not only give life to ancient folk tales but also rival in size and talent the early works of such giants as Edenshaw. His finest examples may be found in the courtyard of the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. and at the Vancouver airport’s international terminal. Smaller works by both Edenshaw and Reid now reside in some of the world’s most prestigious museums. Today, contemporary Haida artists carry on the tradition by carving not only wood, but also argillite, a dark and easily workable stone found only in a quarry of these islands.

As a seafaring people, the Haida carved enormous war canoes from a single cedar tree large enough to carry dozens of warriors over 60 miles of open ocean in order to raid and take slaves on the mainland. Their warrior mentality earned them the title, “Vikings of the north.” Initially, contact with white people resulted in the introduction of metal from Russian fur traders. Metal allowed the Haida to fashion new and more efficient tools, increasing their skills tenfold. They carved wood on a monumental scale. House columns, commemorative totems, burial boxes, and even ornamental bowls were all of the highest order. 

Old Ninstints funerary poles
Old Ninstints funerary poles.

Haida villages always occupied a shoreline. The villages were surrounded by a protective midden of crushed shells that served as a warning system against attack. The shells outlined an intruder as a silhouette at night. At the time, they made plenty of noise and served as an alert when outsiders tried to sneak into their villages.

As late as the 19th century intertribal warfare and raiding was common. Instances of ceremonial cannibalism in which tiny pieces of the human flesh from those vanquished in battle were consumed in order to add the enemy's power to that of the warrior. Unfortunately, such intertribal wars led to sensationalized news stories attributing cannibalism to the Haida as a way of daily life, even though that was simply not the reality.

In every Haida community, just up from the midden’s waterline, row after row of monumental totems told the story of the village and its history. 

The poles lean now at various angles and are deteriorating rapidly. Several funeral poles once held wooden boxes with the remains of Haida nobles. The early Haida buried their chiefs by packing their bodies into tiny wooden boxes that were placed at the top of a burial totem in front of the chief's lodge. The carvings on the totem tell the story of significant events in the man's life. No image is random. Each personage, whether real or imagined, has a specific meaning: a wedding, a death, or a great battle. The distorted faces and contorted body positions of both man and beast on the totems suggest a spirit world beyond the imagination of many modern people.

Line of Haida totem poles
Line of many leaning Haida totem poles.

At the apex of Haida culture, close to 14,000 people occupied the islands with almost 300 living in Ninstints. The village name is a western mispronunciation of Nan Sdins, who was chief at the time of initial contact with the white man. About 1860, small pox was introduced by white fur traders and soon only about 30 people were left alive at Ninstints. By 1911, the total native population of all the islands stood at 589. Ninstints was totally abandoned around 1880, but its exact date is lost to history.

Some native people believe a totem should stand in nature until it is reclaimed by the earth. Others have tried to save these poles for posterity. In 1995, a large-scale restoration project was undertaken with the consent of local Haida elders to prop up some of the poles in danger of falling. A few have been relocated to museums. Originally, there were 35 totems at Ninstints. At the time of my visit, there were 26.

The old Haida villages were also always guarded from attack by a watchman. This was an honored position within the tribe. The watchmen were distinguished by wearing a conical shaped hat made from cedar bark. Many of their totems, including contemporary ones, are topped by carved watchmen who stand guard. Today, the Haida people have reinstated this program and each native site has an active watchman on duty. Visitors must gain permission in advance before landing on any of these beaches.

Modern Watchman on totem
Modern Watchman on totem.

In 1981, Ninstints was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, guaranteeing its preservation for the immediate future. Unless these poles are removed, they will eventually be reclaimed by time and weather, since they are organic. For now, the remaining poles are a magnificent legacy of a vanishing culture.

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, award winning author, photographer, and lecturer. He has traveled extensively in 45 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His main pursuit is visiting remote tribal cultures in Asia and Africa.

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