by Graham Richard
On August 11, 2015 a Haida-language team set forth from G̱aaw on a three-day journey to survey the north and west coasts of Haida Gwaii (the archipelago off the north coast of British Columbia, Canada that is the Haida people’s homeland). Guided by elders’ teachings, the Haida language, historical records, and century-old maps, they learned and confirmed a selection of the ancestral place names that cover Haida Gwaii. Haida speaker HlG̱awangdlii Skilaa (Lawrence Bell) and language consultant K’aayhltla Xuhl (Rhonda Bell) joined linguistics professor Gulḵiihlgad (Dr. Marianne Ignace) and language learner Jaalen Edenshaw aboard the vessel Highlander under the command of skipper Meredith Adams.
As we round K’waayandaas Kun (Cape Knox), we are struck by the ambling swell and driving chop that rolls forth from Tang.gx̱wang, the open sea. The Haida language, X̱aayda Kil, identifies over 40 different kinds of waves with their own particular names. Today I think Highlander is sampling most of them.
“You had to be tough to live on the west coast,” says HlG̱awangdlii Skilaa as the crowded waves shoulder the boat back and forth. Haida Gwaii balances on the edge of submarine cliffs two kilometers high. These plummet into the ocean depths below, connecting to expansive underwater plains that stretch on and on until they reach Kamchatka Krai, on the eastern edge of Russia. Across the top of this ocean, winds combine with currents and tides creating waves that reach over 25 meters high and lumber along through gales that gust to 118 kilometers per hour.
Duu Guusd (the west coast of Haida Gwaii) is a tough and dynamic environment. After a long time traveling south, the thick, chilly mist lifts a little and then gives way to heavy showers. The mountain ranges of Haida Gwaii fade in and out of view through curtains of rain. Their very existence seems to depend on the whim of the clouds.
Some hours later, about 25 nautical miles south of K’waayandaas Kun, we pass between the shadows of Ts’al Yáalaas and Sk’aa, two large rocky reefs, and turn shoreward towards our first stop, the village of Tiiaan.
“Oh, someone should dance for our arrival,” quips HlG̱awangdlii Skilaa with veiled humor, in reference to an ancestral story from the ancient village. He steps down onto the pebbly beach and clambers over a gnarled overhang of giant hemlock roots to reach the village site above. “It’s a little more than hlkyaansii (bushy)” he says slyly while biting into a salmon sandwich.
Tiiaan is a name derived from the Tlingit language, meaning “yellow-cedar bark.” Many stories from this village are well remembered. The wind whisks through dripping bunch grass while Jaalen, Gulḵiihlgad, and the rest of our team search for features noted in these historical records — like a healing pool, da’áay (house pits), and fallen gin gy’aa.angs (monumental poles). As we compare the old stories to the village site today we learn not only the names of this place, but also the history of those names and their relationship with Haida Gwaii. Our language traveled with Haida Gwaii throughout the ages. Without X̱aad Kil we cannot understand Haida Gwaii in its fullness. Without Haida Gwaii, X̱aad Kil is placeless.
Learning and investigation characterize the three days that follow. As we explore the coast, we stop at landmarks that elders and anthropological records have described. So many diverse features dot the sea and land. Moss-capped reef rocks, bunched blocky pillars punching through the waves, and angular mash-ups of trapezoidal boulders that look like they grew from the dreams of a brilliant cubist painter. Each of these features holds a prominent name, and each name deepens our relationship with the land, sea, and sky.
Among them, the cliffy island of T’uuj Ḵing Ḵaatl’aagangs (Fortress Where You See Who Is Arriving) stands away from the rocky coastline. From a stronghold on top, defenders could see and repel invaders. A “moat” of reef-rocks that “leap” through heaving waves would endanger approaching canoes. Here rollers from the open ocean wrestle into a central pool before rushing up slender channels of toothy rocks. From the bow of a war canoe, this cove may have felt like a pit surrounded by walls of gulping halibuts’ mouths. The buckling sea would test an archer’s skill as they trained arrows on firm-footed targets atop the cliffs. Today the clamor of battles has faded, leaving the craggy fortress to loom silently in fog.
The waves subside to the north as we round the reef in front of K’yuusda. Between large boulders situated onshore, Captain Adams navigates the shallow “runway” cleared for canoes long ago. We climb up to the cozy longhouse where Haida Watchmen Kihl Ḵwyaas (Blake Williams) and Sguunaman (Matthew Brown) greet us.
The two watchmen have spent many summers caring for K’yuusda, and take us to see the many distinctive, and sometimes enormous, da’áay that dot the site. Each da’áay was dug in a single day, after which it could not be deepened. Because of this ancestral law, the depth and breadth of a da’áay is a sign of a family’s influence. Greater influence brings more helpers, deepening the da’áay. Some of the da’áay at K’yuusda appear big enough to fit a house inside, let alone around them..
We skirt below the crumbling monumental beams that once supported these massive cedar houses. On the fringes of the pits, these beams still seem to mark a boundary, like each house still has an “inside” and an “outside”, and to step within the threshold would disturb the home’s family members. Their memories are still palpable, and at the western edge of the village, one family’s crests are vividly depicted. At over one hundred years old, the three enormous gin gy’aa.angs stand strong in a line together.
Walking still further west, past K’yuusda’s edge, we pass mysterious petroglyphs carved in stone that mark the way to the village of Yaakw. This village also derives its name from a Tlingit word, meaning “canoe.” Here the village’s gin gy’aa.angs are returning to the soil. A Hawk pole now lays face down, nuzzling the earth. Without touching it, Jaalen tucks himself beneath it to glean what knowledge he can from its fading memory. The young carver fashions poles like this, and is careful to study every old carving that he can.
As the day’s last light grows tired, we lapse into silence and saunter back towards the longhouse at K’yuusda. Among the hemlocks and pines, memories of Haida ancestors seem more vivid in the dark. In the longhouse everyone gathers around the table to pour over the riddles our elders have left us, untangling the words of old worlds, stretching back to places well remembered and times newly imagined.
The chilly light of our second morning pushes through clouds that hang like cold breath above the cedars. We quickly load Highlander and push away from shore. The dull drone of the motors begins again, pulling the boat away from harbor and into hilly waves.
To the north, the cliffs of Cox Island smash the rollers apart with ease. The island’s unhurried sculptors, glaciers, vanished into the sea long ago, but today their tireless successor, the ocean, continues to wear away the stone. After eons of carving, the violent contours of this island unfold like wings as the crew searches for ancestral landmarks. Cox Island nests among reefs, whose serrated edges gleam with breaking waves. Behind it, the much larger Ḵ’iis Gwaay (Langara Island) wraps around the cove like a motherly arm.
As HlG̱awangdlii Skilaa said, “You had to be tough to live on the west coast,” yet these crushing breakers are perfect habitat for a host of plump sea birds. From the cliff-sides, ḵwaanaa (tufted puffins) plunge and zip about nipping at darting fish. Once full, they retire to cold cliff-edges, where they are quite comfortable exposed to the wind and rain, perched high above the boulder-strewn shore.
As the crew passes in front of Cox Island, a tall fin of rock seems to peel away, revealing it is pierced through with a hole. The crew is excited to realize they have identified Ḵwaa X̱iilas (Pierced Rock). Stories say a husband and wife living close by would venture out to make slaves of anyone who came to collect sea-bird eggs there. Their work came to an end when, as they ran from angry pursuers, they were instantaneously petrified. As we round the northern tip of Cox Island, the wife and husband come into view, standing close to one another in pillars of stone. These stones are called Diigun and Diigun Jaahl.
We continue along the south and east coasts of Ḵ’iis Gwaay, where the shore proliferates with landmarks. Outlandish stones jut forth inconceivably into the sky, hang delicately on slim buttresses, and lean lazily to one side like windblown pines.
Along the south shore, we find Tsiihlans G̱unaay (Devil’s Club’s Burial), a bulbous stone with a lopsided head lolling on a tapering neck, like stan (geoduck) standing upside down on its tongue. Next comes Tiidaldaang (Small Waves), perhaps so named because here the water calms significantly. After this Ḵwaa Tl’ajuwaas (Slanting Rock) appears, leaning diagonally and loosely cross-hatched as if by a carver’s hasty apprentice. From here, looking north, the hazy shadow of Ḵwaa Ḵ’iijuuwas (Heavy Stone) appears like a dark doorway.
“Ḵ’iijuu is something heavy and ‘huh!’” Gulḵiihlgad explains, widening her arms and hefting them down as if she were setting a boulder in the sand. “You can also call a person that.” Suddenly a jet of kun’s (humpback whale) hot breath rockets through a flock of hllgwaats’I (rhinoceros auklets). The shrouds of rain begin to evaporate, and with just a smudge of sunlight, the waves’ orange crests topple over their dark blue bellies. Highlander skirts around fields of kelp as we zip towards Needan (Naden Harbor).
In front of the entrance to Needan, Hlgam Gwaayas is a cozy spot for x̱uud (seal), k’yaaluu (cormorant), and sḵ’in (seagull), who all rest there together. Among the x̱uud, a vigilant mother watches us pensively, shifting from flipper to flipper. The many nests that sea-birds scatter throughout the area have made this an important food-gathering spot.
Beyond it, giant hemlock at the village of Ḵang totter in the wind. The name Ḵang is so old that its meaning is unknown. The only structure that remains standing is an orderly Watchman longhouse. Nearby the longhouse, two sgaan (orca) house-beams lie on the ground side-by-side, their faces nearly wrinkled beyond recognition. Young hemlocks grow from them, arching strong roots around them and into the soil below. A little farther a house beam has completely disappeared, leaving behind an archway of empty hemlock roots. Beside it a few corner posts and house frontal planks still stand upright. One, close to the farthest point on the site, shows the monumental size of the houses that once stood here.
As Captain Adams points Highlander’s bow back towards Gaaw, the crew relaxes a little, and again falls to swapping jokes and telling stories. Since yesterday, the crew has had many chances to show initiative and skill while navigating dangerous waters, clambering through forests, and investigating the many Haida-language clues left to them by elders.
“All these k’aaláagaa people,” HlG̱awangdlii Skilaa remarks. I hesitate for a moment, then ask: “What does k’aaláagaa mean? You’ve been calling us that for two days.” “It’s like the opposite of lazy, worthless, good-for-nothing,” he replies. “A k’aaláagaa person always brings a knife with them, so they can be useful. K’aaláagaa women used to carry a taakadaaw (hand-made fish-knife) with them.”
“K’aaláagaa, k’aaláagaa… ” I begin repeating the word to memorize it. Every new word replenishes our understanding of Haida Gwaii — every word memorized teaches us what is important now and what was important to our ancestors. So much is wrapped up, not only in the forest and sea, but in the language too. With the Haida language, we can see not only Haida Gwaii in its fullness, but also ourselves.
Long ago, G̱aaw Ḵaahlii (Massett Inlet) formed from a slender river pouring forth from a glacial lake. Since then, rising sea levels have flooded the riverbed, and today a long inlet has formed with a large bay at its end. When the sun and moon pull on this heavy body of water, tidal currents rush forth from the large bay into the narrow channel. The heavy body of water spills downwards to the ocean, like the force of a spindle-whorl concentrating all its energy into a slender thread, creating a fast, strong tidal river.
The flanks of G̱aaw Ḵaahlii are littered with landmarks. Many are the remnants of Taaw’s (Tow Hill) journey through Juus Káahlii (Juskatla Inlet) from the mountains at the heart of Haida Gwaii above. In the story, Taaw walks away from his family to settle on the coast at Hl’yaalang G̱andlee (Hiellen River).
At the mouth of G̱aaw Ḵaahlii lie the scattered pieces of Hlgat’at’áas (Stone Broken by Foot). When Taaw passed in front of G̱aaw Llnagaay (Old Massett), Yaahl (Raven) came out of the house and jumped and shouted on top of the rock, crushing it underfoot.
Before that, Taaw had been trapped in the mud of Del Ḵaahlii (Delkatla Slough), where today geese and herons share the rich waters of the sanctuary with the boats moored at the Massett docks. As Highlander casts away, I imagine how Del Ḵaahlii would have looked in the shadow of a supernatural being formed in a volcano’s throat. I imagine an entire mountain wading down G̱aaw Ḵaahlii, sliding through the forest with a watery trail, looming like a gigantic sea snail.
Pushing against G̱aaw Ḵaahlii’s ebbing tide, our attention turns towards the sea floor which is dotted with xaguu ḵ’ujuus (halibut houses). These holes are ideal lairs for xaguu, who wait inside and pounce on prey that encroaches along the thresholds of their homes. On Haida Gwaii, xaguu ḵ’ujuus are treasured food-gathering spots.
As the tide grows stronger, we approach a low, flat area strewn with boulders and colored a deep algae-green. A convenient ledge of miniature mud-cliffs hems in this flat intertidal meadow. It’s a bonus for Jaalen as Captain Adams brings us close enough for him to bound ashore. But it takes us two attempts, as the tidal current pushes Highlander sideways and into muddy, rock-strewn shallows. These dangerous currents that grapple with Highlander come from the massive quantities of water situated at the top of G̱aaw Ḵaahlii near Yaagun G̱andlee (Yakoun River). As these waters yield to the moon’s pull, currents converge, surging through G̱aaw Ḵaahlii’s long and relatively narrow neck with enormous force. As Highlander approaches the meadow, our efforts to make headway remind me of an eagle attempting to alight in a bitter crosswind.
Safe ashore, Jaalen passes through a field of furrowed stones to inspect Ḵwaa G̱adaas, a distinct, bright, and large boulder. Ḵwaa G̱adaas is a moraine deposit, part of a mountainside heaved and carried away by glaciers. As the glaciers melted, they lowered Ḵwaa G̱adaas gently to the shore where currents polished its glossy faces.
As Highlander continues south, we pass the place where T’aahl Ḵaahlii (Kamdis Slough) rejoins G̱aaw Ḵaahlii from behind Kamdis Island. Taaw blazed this pathway as he moved from the large bay into the side channel. From Highlander’s deck, the small inlets, creeks, and islands are indistinguishable to the inexperienced. Until one consults a map, all of these hidden features blend with the forests.
As we leave G̱aaw Ḵaahlii’s narrow channel and enter the vast bay above, our guides are Moses Ingram and Adolfous (Fussy) Marks. We are listening to their voices recorded many years ago. They recite the places in order from memory as we pass by. HlG̱awangdlii Skilaa smiles affectionately at the familiarity of their voices and laughter. “I can see them talking,” he says with a grin.
We continue along G̱aaw Ḵaahlii’s northwest shore, and eventually come to Aayan G̱andlee (Ain River). Here the crew disembarks for lunch. This place is home to a large salmon population, which has provided thousands of years of food for Haida. For now, only the fat geese have returned. They watch us skittishly as they nibble on carpets of sea asparagus. A few cabins stand here, as empty as the river, in wait of the next salmon run when they will spring to life again. High above us thrushes call, their songs carrying from tree to tree inflated by the hot August air and punctured by the lethargic creak of a lazy fir leaning on its neighbor.
Farther down the shore, we come to SG̱aan G̱ándlee (Killer Whale Creek). Here, springs of freshwater gush forth from a curved cliff and fall straight into the sea. When families of SG̱aan (killer whales) chase the home-coming salmon up G̱aaw Ḵaahlii, they often make a stop below the cliffs to sweeten their tongues in the waterfall. For now, dry weather has parched the fall’s chalked face with an orange stain that marks the waterfall’s path.
We can see G̱algam Tladaaw (McKay Range) from here, where some Haida seek solitude and go in search of visions. In stories, Skil Jaadee comes to bestow fortune and wealth on those who persevere, and somewhere high above us Ḵ’aalangt’als, a rock wall covered in petroglyphs, is concealed in the forest awaiting its next student. I consider the drought-parched cliffs at Sgaan G̱ándlee, and how the thrushes’ song echoed through the leaf-bare understory at Aayan G̱andlee, and think about what kind of wisdom Ḵ’aalangt’als might offer.
The farthest corner of G̱aaw Ḵaahlii is distinguished by the “claw marks” of Stl’aadaa Gaaywaa (With-Fingernail-Caused-Sloped Bank). It is easy to imagine the white “fingernails” of glaciers scraping away the mountain range as they were dragged into the sea.
As we move across the water along the south shore to Juu K’iijee (Juskatla Narrows), upwelling currents swallow each other, clambering onto one another’s shoulders. The ebbing tide is forcing thousands of tonnes of seawater through Juu K’iijee by the minute. Whirlpools make contorted reflections of the sky and darkened back-eddies obscure the wealth of sea-life that supported the numerous nearby villages. Three of these villages are located on the small island of Juus Gwaay alone, including K’iinya ’Lngee and Tsiij ’Llgee.
From Juu K’iijee, we can see where Taaw walked down from the mountains. There his mother and brother still stand at Taaw Linuwée (Half of Taaw). As we reach the starting point of Taaw’s journey, so we reach the end of our own. Captain Adams turns around to steer Highlander back through Juu K’iijee and heads for Gaaw. HlG̱awangdlii Skilaa, K’aayhltla Xuhl, and Gulḵiihlgad settle down in the forecastle, and quickly fall to joking and chattering. Jaalen and I sit amidships, enjoying the warm wind.
The three-day journey has shown how X̱aad Kil and Haida Gwaii are intertwined. The sea and land revealed subtleties about the place names. Similarly, the place names revealed secrets about the sea and land. Thus, each renders a more complete version of the other, and both are teachers. As I ponder the many lessons of the three-day trip, I begin again to wonder about the wisdom that a cliff might impart.
Graham Richard is a matrilineal descendant of K’ayts’aaw Naay of the Kyaanuuslii Kayxal (Star House of the Codfish People from Yan, Ravens), who are descendants of SGuuluu Jaad (Foam Woman). He resides in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, where he works as a full-time writer for Haida Laas, the official publication of the Council of the Haida Nation.
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