Tall and symbolic. Colorful and artfully crafted. We found carved poles throughout Haida Gwaii, the most frequent reminder of the Haida culture. To visit the islands is to be steeped in the heritage of the Haida Nation. This is what sets it apart from any other group of beautiful islands.
Throughout their history, the Haida have been known for their art. Blessed with a temperate climate and bountiful resources, they had the benefit of time to invest in developing their crafts.
Today the Haida populations are concentrated in Skidegate in the south, and Masset to the north. In those commmunities we found visible artistic expression on display. Haida poles appeared just about anywhere in town – front yards, community buildings, signs, and cemeteries. Many were memorials. One was a Chieftanship pole. Another a medicine pole. These poles are commonly called totem poles, but are more accurately named crest poles as they feature crests – figures of animals, birds and mythic beings that identify the pole's owner and his moiety or social group, Raven or Eagle.
This detail is from a pair at the end of a soccer field in Old Massett.
Outdoor Haida art is not confined to poles. Buildings too are adorned with painted or carved symbols. I found these on community structures, homes and galleries.
The best source of information and displays of Haida culture is the Haida Heritage Center. It is an ideal first stop after arriving on the ferry to get a good grounding in the Haida Nation. This recently built museum and resource center houses collections of Haida artifacts and detailed displays to preserve and share their history. Its buildings include a carving shed, where I was able to watch a craftsman carving a new totem pole. Seeing its design etched on the log and coming to three-dimensional life under his tools was the highlight of my visit to this center.
The ravens and eagles of Haida art were also in abundance live on the island. I've never seen so many bald eagles! It became commonplace to look up and see one flying overhead. Or many. On our first day Rich counted 29 eagles on the 2-mile stretch between the ferry dock and Skidegate. But on our return, it was even better.
I stopped on Front Street in Skidegate to inspect a pole. Opposite the houses, in a community grassy area on the water were numerous bald eagles noisily squawking and circling overhead. We soon noticed the nest in a tall dead tree, with eaglets eager to be fed. Rich was in his element. This was bird photography at its best, and he was anxious to capture it.
Eagles flew overhead with fish parts, while others approached with talons extended and poised to steal the tasty morsels. I watched as one eagle parent fought off his competition and successfully delivered his meal to the eaglets in the nest.
It was quite a unique experience, and somehow seemed a fitting way to complete our stay on Haida Gwaii, with the ravens and eagles.