One of the most dramatic wilderness battles in Canada was fought over the fate of a chain of magnificent islands known to the Haida Indians as Gwaii Haanas, "place of wonder and beauty." On most maps, the archipelago, 130 km off the northwest coast of British Columbia, just south of the Alaska panhandle, appears as the "Queen Charlotte Islands." The islands are remote and romantic, misty and mystical, and have been home to the Haida for a very long time.
A Heritage from a Clamshell
Just how long depends on who you ask. Archaeologists rely on carbon dating for evidence of at least 10,000 years of Haida occupation. Guujaaw, the Haida activist and carver who cites his occupation as "hunter-gatherer," says that carbon dating is irrelevant. Haida have lived on the islands through at least two major floods that destroyed the world. Haida people have been there as long as the land itself.
After the last flood, Raven found himself all alone on the beach at the northern tip of the islands. He heard a small chirping noise from a clamshell, pried it open and discovered the Haida, huddled together in their nakedness, too timid to emerge into the new world. In one of the best-known Haida myths, Raven coaxed them from the clamshell. There is no evidence, however, that the Haida have been timid since that day.
Their war canoes - sleek crafts - slicing their way through walls of water like a knife through butter - were feared by other native villages up and down the coast. Often they chose to attack during a storm, when no one imagined it was possible. They excelled as carvers and craftsmen. They developed an intricate art form and elaborately decorated the fronts of longhouses, marking occasions with ceremonial poles. Bent cedar boxes, sea other cloaks with abalone buttons, and woven hats and baskets were all embellished with Haida art.
In the early eighteenth century the Haida population was reputed to have the most hunter-gatherers anywhere in the world, numbering some 10,000 people. The Haida had been trading successfully with Europeans since their first contact the century before. Spanish and English explorers both claimed the islands as their own, but the Haida signed no treaties, nor did they lose any war. They dealt with their trading partners as they would with another sovereign nation.
In the late 1800s the Haida were nearly wiped out by disease. Although smallpox had claimed casualties since the 1700s, it was nothing compared to this new epidemic. In a few short weeks in the summer of 1872 thousands of Haida fell. Where once hundreds of villages had dotted the heavily forested landscape, only several hundred people remained, regrouping into the two remaining villages, Skidegate and Masset, on northern Graham Island. The southern island of Moresby remained nearly totally uninhabited.
The Haida slowly rebuilt their numbers. The white "pioneers" moved into the islands, driving to extinction the unique Dawson's caribou in the early twentieth century. These settlers practiced whaling, too, and the sea others disappeared from the islands.
As the wildlife of the Charlottes came under assault, so too did Haida traditions. The potlatch, the central ceremony of Haida government, was banned. Missionaries encouraged the Haida to adopt Christianity, reasoning that their decimation by smallpox was God's retribution for their pagan ways. But somehow threads of Haida culture survived - through food gathering if nothing else. The waters off the islands were rich in abalone, scallops, and halibut. The creeks teemed with salmon. As Haida artist Bill Reed recently wrote, "Even today, only a stupid man could starve on those islands. And today is not as it was."
In the 1970s, the Haida revived traditional carving and began to work toward political unity, bringing the band councils of Skidegate and Masset together as the Council of the Haida Nation.
Canada regarded Haida land as restricted to the two Indian reserves at Skidegate and Massett. The bulk of the land was seen as "Crown land," held in trust for the queen by the province. The bulk of that was divided into tree farm licenses granted to forest companies, giving them the right to harvest the imposing trees of Canada's temperate rain forest.
In the fall of 1974, an IT&T subsidiary, Rayonier Co., proposed to log the southern island of Burnaby, an area of traditional Haida food gathering. It was the spark that ignited the 13-year battle for what became known as South Moresby.
Guujaaw and Thom Henley, a young man recently arrived in the islands, drew up a wilderness proposal to protect the lower third of the archipelago. They proposed the protection of 138 islands, an area of 1,500 km. The Skidegate Band Council threw its support behind the preservation of Burnaby Island. The provincial government responded within weeks, refusing Rayonier permission to log Burnaby. But it did allow logging on Lyell Island, to the north of Burnaby but still within the wilderness proposal.
The Islands Protection Committee, the fledgling group established to fight for the proposal, launched a program of political lobbying, public education, and research in order to demonstrate the unique and irreplaceable nature of the South Moresby area. It documented that the area was home to one of the world's largest concentrations of bald eagles, Peale's peregrine falcons, seabird nesting sites, and ancient murrelets, as well as eleven species of whales and many endangered species. Scientists called the islands the "Canadian Galapagos." Due to a combination of isolation and incomplete glaciation in the last ice age, species of plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world had evolved on the Charlottes.
For years the debate raged on - while Lyell Island's trees were being stripped away in enormous clear-cut operations. Growing Haida opposition to the logging inspired more aggressive political organization, and in 1985 the Haida filed a comprehensive land claim with the Canadian government claiming all of Haida Gwaii - that is, the Queen Charlotte Islands and its territorial seas. The federal government accepted the Haida claim for negotiation, but the country's ponderous Comprehensive Claims Policy dictated that only six such claims could be negotiated at any one time. The Haida's claim was a long way down the line.
The economic pressures for logging were consistently stronger than the Haida and environmentalist demands for protection. Gradually the non-native activists began to favor the idea of a national park reserve. A "reserve" has special status under Canada's National Parks Act: it has the virtue of not compromising native land claims, while establishing national park status for all other purposes. The Haida signaled willingness to consider a park while for obvious reasons of sovereignty refusing to support it with any enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Haida Nation created two "tribal parks," dedicating all of Gwaii Haanas as well as northern Duu Guusd as permanently protected areas.
Gradually the potential economic benefits from wilderness-sensitive tourism joined the stable of environmental arguments, along with unique flora and fauna, 1,000-year-old trees, spectacular vistas, and the Haida spiritual and cultural tradition.
Haida Blockades: Prime-Time Crime
Ultimately it was the arrest of 72 Haida men and women in November 1985 for blockading the logging road on Lyell that brought the conflict to the country's attention. For nearly a month the Haida action was the stuff of which national newscasts are made. Pressure mounted for the federal government to do something to protect the Haida homeland from the chain saw. The Haida and environmentalists over-came the arguments that the islands were too remote for anyone to ever visit, arguing that real economic benefits would be found in tourism as an alternative to logging.
The federal government accepted these arguments, both due to the force of their logic and, more importantly, the force of public pressure. Canadians from coast to coast pleaded for the preservation of the "Canadian Galapagos." The story was featured in every major national TV show and magazine, including National Geographic. It took nearly another two years of negotiation with the government of British Columbia to create a national park reserve on Gwaii Haanas-South Moresby. When an agreement was finally reached in July 1987, the federal government committed itself to $106 million in compensation to the forest industry and to an economic development plan. The goal was to replace the 70 or so jobs foreclosed by the end of logging. The federal government also pledged full involvement of the Haida Nation in every aspect of national park management.
Park Status and Unfinished Business
For most Canadians the creation of the national park reserve and the cessation of logging signaled the end of the issue. But for the Haida they created real political difficulties. On one hand, the Haida could only be overjoyed that the steady devastation of their forests had ended. But on the other hand, the issue of land ownership had not been resolved, and their only leverage for generating public sympathy had been removed.
The long, slow process of negotiating a framework for joint management of Gwaii Haanas began immediately with the president of the Council of the Haida Nation, Miles Richardson, dealing with the federal minister of the environment, who was responsible for national parks. But the federal agency, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, had to be involved, as did the Office for Western Diversification, from which the bulk of the federal government's $106 million had been drawn. The Department of Justice had to appraise every move to determine if future land claims negotiations could be compromised. A handful of other federal departments played supporting roles as the Haida Nation sought to develop an interim statement of purposes and objectives for the "park."
Tourism pressures escalated rapidly, yet the Parks Service had no infrastructure to deal with the new wave of visitors. Since the mid-1970s, the Haida had been running their own program for the protection of important abandoned village sites. "Haida watchmen" were stationed at the village of Ninstints on the tiny southern island of Skungwai, as well as at Windy Bay on Lyell Island and at the popular island of Hot Springs. The Watchmen served to warn the few tourists who arrived by kayak or sailboat of the vulnerability of the remaining poles and longhouses. In 1981, UNESCO recognized Ninstints and its deteriorating mortuary poles as a World Heritage Site. But still, only the Haida guarded the village.
The Haida charged each tourist $25 for a permit to visit important archaeological sites. Enforcement was haphazard and local loggers raged at the Haida fee system. Generally, however, tourists were happy to support the Haida Watchman program.
Tourism increased steadily through the 1980s as urban dwellers were made aware of the beauty of the Queen Charlottes through the rising decibel level of the logging debate. Many rushed to see the sitka spruce and cedar of the untouched watershed of Windy Bay before they disappeared. Still others, including President Jimmy Carter, enjoyed steelhead fishing, and were moved to add their voices to the chorus calling for the area's preservation. Tour operators began to proliferate, offering excursions by sailboat, kayak, seaplane, and motorized yacht. From 1978 to 1982 the number of visitors on organized commercial tours increased elevenfold.
But the creation of a full-fledged park reserve brought a tourism surge even before any management plan was in place to deal with the deluge of visitors. In the past four years tourism has nearly doubled. Last summer an estimated 23,000 people ventured into the area now protected from loggers.
The problem, as Wanagan will point out, is that the area is not protected from tourists. A Haida activist from Skidegate, Wanagan has been personally responsible for guarding Ninstints for the past 16 years. He stood on the line at Lyell Island, blocking the logging trucks, and he was heavily involved in the wilderness controversy. Tending the deteriorating poles of Ninstints is a full-time job. Moisture is their real enemy. Wanagan keeps foliage away from the base of the poles by clipping new sprigs of growth from the faces of bears and beavers on the monuments left behind when the village died. Now, with the World Heritage Site at Ninstints a "must-see" for anyone touring Gwaii Haanas, he has to contend with a steadily growing stream of tourists. In the summer of 1987, one thoughtless visitor tried to climb an old pole, breaking off the lower jaw of a killer whale figure. This summer, in what may become famous as the "fat-lady story," a heavy tourist sat on the roof beam of an old longhouse and bounced, exclaiming, "See, it just won't break!"
Just why it is that the Haida Watchmen remain the only visible management presence within a Canadian national park has to do with an appropriate degree of caution on the part of the Canadian government mixed with its nearly maddening inability to negotiate a plan with the Haida Nation.
With the various levels and departments of government involved, draft proposals acceptable to the Haida Nation and the Canadian Parks Service have been nixed by the Department of Justice. Two summers have come and gone since the park was officially created and yet there are still no park wardens, no visitor information centers, none of the usual trappings of a park. The Parks Service has respected the Haida and the commitment made by Tom McMillan, the federal minister of the environment, when the deal was struck - that not a penny would be spent until an agreement with the Haida could be reached. The neighboring communities where logging provided most of the economic activity have become steadily more bitter as the promised economic benefits of tourism fail to materialize. The operator of a local gas station, who helped fingerprint the Haida who blocked the road in 1985, recently grumbled to a reporter, "What we've got up here in the Queen Charlottes is like apartheid in South Africa, but here it's the whites who are being denied their rights."
The fact that the Haida still charge tourists $25 to visit what is now a national park angers the non-native community. And although Parks Service staff members characterize the fee as "illegal," they do nothing to stop it. They recognize that the Haida Watchman Program is effectively guarding poles and monitoring bacterial counts in the Hot Springs, as well as providing visitor information and emergency search and rescue services. The program expanded prior to the official park creation to include a tour service offering escorted visits into Gwaii Haanas and huge feasts at the community hall in Skidegate.
The Haida's own venture into culturally and ecologically sensitive tourism represents the best potential for preserving the unique, unspoiled nature of Gwaii Haanas while accommodating increasing numbers of visitors.
Future Prospects for Gwaii Haanas
Gwaii Haanas has a remarkable potential for creating cooperation between the government of Canada and the Haida Nation. The negotiating teams recently exchanged a draft management plan that could be acceptable. Guujaaw hopes it can be accepted at the annual meeting of the Council of the Haida Nation in January 1990. If it isn't ratified, next summer the Haida will declare the park closed to visitors and the government of Canada will have to deal with an unprecedented challenge to their sovereignty by a Canadian First Nation.
If an agreement can be reached, the national park reserve at Gwaii Haanas-South Moresby could provide the best example of a culturally and ecologically sensitive tourism experience. It could bring economic benefits to the Haida and non-Haida populations while preserving the fragile beauty of the area. But after two years, the park is still a story more of potential rather than of reality. To its credit, the arguments for alternative wilderness tourism have helped protect the area from logging, mining, and other industrial threats. But who will protect it from the tourists?
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.