British Columbia Haida Gwaii culture, art, and history

British Columbia: Exploring Haida Gwaii, Queen Charlotte Islands, and Haida Aboriginal Culture

Under a misty sky, a large tarpaulin and wood structure shields the carvers and painters who are hunched over and working intently on a 32-foot pole. The air is filled with the pungent aroma of cedar shavings piled high on the ground and talk is at a minimum. There is little time left for the artists to complete the magnificent totem pole that will be raised in ceremony for Masset's community center on Haida Gwaii.

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Haida Gwaii Islands

Haida Gwaii, formally known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, is located about 90 miles west of the British Columbia mainland and north of Vancouver Island. Canada's archipelago lies on the western edge of the continental shelf and consists of about 150 islands that are the home of the Haida and the coastal Aboriginals going back at least 7000 years. The name of the islands, Haida Gwaii is a translation of "Islands of the people" in the Haida language.

The islands are mystical with a beautiful and diverse landscape that is due to the pristine environment and rare ecosystems of flora, fauna and animals that thrive on Haida Gwaii. An abundant species of birds such as bald eagles and a large variety of seabirds, such as the Tufted Puffin and Ancient Murrelet are found throughout the islands as well. Moreover, the sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains, pure fjords and lush forests of western red cedars and Sitka Spruce create a scenic and tranquil atmosphere that inspire all who live and visit this extraordinary land.

The rich Haida culture on the islands dates back thousands of years. Today's Haida are experiencing a resurgence of their ancestral heritage. They incorporate rich oral tradition, art and carving into their modern lives. There are so many incredible traditions and techniques that have been passed down from the Haida's ancestors that it is no surprise their art, carving and craftworks are some of the finest in the world.

Haida Art

Haida art encompasses numerous forms from wood and grasses to stone, especially Argillite stone. Argillite is found in only a few locations and the specific soft, back stone found on Haida Gwaii is unique. Only Haida people are allowed to quarry Argillite on the islands and it takes considerable effort to hand-excavate the stone and hike it out over steep terrain. The resulting pieces of art carved from the stone are a supple and smooth black.

Two well-known multi-disciplined, Haida carvers are the famous Christian White and Donnie Edenshaw. Their beautiful stone carvings are found in art galleries, museums and private collections around the globe. Edenshaw and White also carve amazing and detailed totem poles and were the master carvers of the two poles that were raised in front of the Masset Community Center in June '09. Pieces by these artists are found on the islands and especially at Sarah's Haida Arts & Jewelry, located in Masset. For additional information, visit Haida Gwaii - Galleries

British Columbia Haida Gwaii culture, art, and history
Two main tribes of Haida live on the islands, the Masset and the Skidegate. To learn about the history and culture of the tribes, visit the Haida Heritage Centre, located in Skidegate. This incredible, new 26 million dollar heritage center is situated on Kaay Linagaay Beach and is one of the finest Aboriginal centers in North America. The centre features a canoe house, performing house, carving shed, the Bill Reid Teaching Centre, a gift shop and cafe (excellent fare), not to mention countless artifacts and learning stations that provide a wealth of Haida history.

Visitors are afforded a demonstrations on Haida art, weaving and bentwood box hand construction by such instructors as Andy Wilson. These boxes are actually smooth on their corners and waterproof in some cases; they have been used by the Haida for generations to store multiple household goods and food. The Haida Heritage Centre is a must-visit on the islands and will astonish visitors with fascinating present-day culture, history and a glimpse into Aboriginal life and what is was like to live in this small seaside community over 100 years ago.

Prince Rupert

Prince Rupert lies just at the inlet of British Columbia's mainland, east of Haida Gwaii by 90 miles. The town is fun to explore, has great restaurants and interesting small shops along Cow Bay. In addition, Prince Rupert is world renowned for its charter fishing as well.

The Museum of Northern BC, located in Prince Rupert, features interesting revolving exhibits that depict Northwest Coast history and culture that date back to the last Ice Age. It is the richest archeological site in B.C. Many artifacts and artworks are on display in the museum with presentations of oral history of the Aboriginal people. The museum is superb in its architecture and the glass-fronted cases display so many intricate artifacts and detail of tribal life in the region that it is easy to lose track of time just perusing these fascinating exhibits.

British Columbia Haida Gwaii culture, art, and history

New Aiyansh

Further to the northwest of Prince Rupert, and a lovely drive, is New Aiyansh. The Nisga'a (People of the Nass River) Nation live in this region of scenic lands and the beautiful Nass River. Visitors will find guided and driving tours and eco-tourism to explore in the area with crater tours, mushroom and herb botanical tours and the Fish Wheel tour. In fact, many visitors seek out the Memorial Lava Bed Park that dot New Aiyansh as they drive through picturesque towns of Gingolx and Gitwinksihlkw. This region is rich in Nisga'a culture and tradition and the nation protects it lands where black bears, grizzlies and eagles live and roam unhindered.

Numerous tribes and areas that provide history, culture and magnificent Aboriginal tourism are the Kitselas and the Kitselas Canyon National Historic Site, located south of New Aiyansh. And, the Ksan are located in Hazelton B.C. The Ksan's historical Village and Museum offers visitors the opportunity to experience a replicated ancient village. Both the Kitselas and the Ksan are committed to preserving their culture and heritage through education and preservation. Both villages are enthralling and provide a view into a world and people that still continues as a living culture.

British Columbia's Aboriginal tourism brings forth an in-depth and enriching experience for visitors who wish to connect with Canada's First Nations and the unspoiled lands that encompass them. The art, culture, history and modern day lives of the First Nations people draw a deep and abiding connection to a way of life that holds profound meaning and importance for all of us.

If You Go

For excellent accommodations with a stellar view and a wonderful breakfast, Premier Creek Lodging, located in Queen Charlotte City is our recommendation. The city is really a small town situated on an inlet with breath-taking views of the bay and mountains. Premier Creek offers panoramic views and a restful and cozy environment.

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Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Travel Writers Alliance (ITWA) and the Recording Academy. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger, Seattle Weekly and the Oregonian. As a freelance photojournalist, she has also worked with acclaimed musical entertainers, such as Santana, Billy Joel and Steven Tyler. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: October 28, 2016

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