BRITISH COLUMBIA

Gwaii Haanas Totem Pole Raised For The First Time In 130 Years

08/13/2013 02:33 EDT | Updated 10/13/2013 05:12 EDT
GWAII HAANAS, B.C. - Ten months ago, a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck B.C.'s coastal Haida Gwaii, triggering tsunami warnings and halting hot water from flowing into Hot Springs Island in Gwaii Haanas.

Haida legend has it the quake was the work of a supernatural being — its translated name is Sacred One Standing and Moving — who is believed to hold up the Haida Gwaii and is responsible for the tremors that strike the islands.

An image of the Sacred One, symbolizing the powerful quake last year, has been carved into the soft red cedar of a totem pole commemorating other ancient and modern historic events in Gwaii Haanas that will rise above Lyell Island on Thursday, the first time in 130 years that a pole has been raised in the southern part of the archipelago that forms what was formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

The 13-metre legacy pole — with an additional three metres of it underground — is meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, a partnership established in 1993 that allows the government of Canada and the Haida Nation to co-manage and protect the region.

"Twenty years ago, the era was such a different time. It was an era of conflict," said Peter Lantin, president of the Haida Nation. "For Canada to come (on board) with the Haida Nation to protect Gwaii Haanas is quite significant."

Haida Gwaii is made up of more than 150 islands about 90 kilometres west of British Columbia's north coast.

Lyell Island, on Gwaii Haanas, was where dozens from the Haida Nation gathered to block a logging road in 1985 to protest against logging. About 70 people were arrested during the demonstration. Two years later, the area was designated a heritage site, and the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve was created.

The 1985 blockade is represented by five people standing together, locking hands, in the totem pole carved by Jaalen Edenshaw, with help from his brother and his cousin. Edenshaw was five years old and living in Old Massett at the time of the standoff.

"It was a lot of excitement, everyone working together throughout the time," he recalled in a phone interview. "A lot of people headed down to the blockade, but a lot of people also sent food and money."

Lantin called the 1993 agreement between the federal government and the Haida Nation "an agreement to disagree on title," as both parties assert ownership over the land. But the unique partnership "really looks at co-management of the land as a vehicle to work together," he said.

The agreement is represented by a sculpin fish at the bottom of the pole, and an eagle at the top, to symbolize an area that is protected "from ocean floor to mountain top," said Edenshaw, who is now putting some finishing touches on his work.

A grizzly bear, dogs, a raven and three Haida Gwaii watchmen are also part of the pole. The carving began a year ago and was done in Skidegate on Graham Island, the largest island in the archipelago.

Ernie Gladstone, the park's field unit superintendent, said the logistics around raising a pole in Gwaii Haanas, which is only accessible by air or by water, are challenging. The legacy pole was transported from Skidegate to Lyell Island on a barge.

"If we were to raise a pole in town, where there are paved roads and lots of heavy equipment, that's already quite challenging to raise a 42-foot pole in those circumstances," he said.

"In Gwaii Haanas, we don't have any paved roads, we don't have lots of people down there, and we need to bring people in."

While no totem poles currently stand on Lyell Island, a number of them are located on SGang Gwaay, or Anthony Island, on the southwest corner of Gwaii Haanas.

"They're not going to be there forever, they're going to return to the earth where they originated from in the first place," said Gladstone.

Lantin said the legacy pole is as much about celebrating the Haida nation's relationship with Canada as it is about preserving its culture. When small pox wiped out the vast majority of the Haida Nation living in Gwaii Haanas more than a century ago, the art of carving totem poles died with them, he said.

"It's taken a long time for us to get back into the swing of it," he said.

"It's very significant that we're doing this, because we're now occupying the traditional lands of the Haida nation that had been vacant for a long time, but it doesn't change what they mean to us."

The pole raising is planned for Thursday, where about 200 people are expected to pull the pole up with five ropes. It will be followed by a celebration later in the week.

--By Vivian Luk in Vancouver

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