The Lens of Scarcity amongst the Haida

“What they are doing to the land, they are doing to us”

The Lens of Scarcity amongst the Haida

by Maia Wikler

Along the coast of the mountainous Haida Gwaii archipelago islands stood a large, powerful Raven. The “trickster” Raven was alone and hungry on the rocky sands of Rose Spit Beach searching for food when he noticed an unusual clamshell at his feet.  The clamshell was emitting unfamiliar sounds, sparking curiosity in the Raven. In response, the Raven began to sing to the shell, unknowingly coaxing a small creature from the clamshell. The creature had long black hair, brown smooth skin, and two legs like the Raven but no feathers. The Raven had brought forth the first Haida into the world.

Along the west coast of North America, the temperate archipelago of jagged coastlines with frequent rainfall and cold mists during the long winters gave life to the richly complex culture of the Haida people. The environment of this land was incredibly promising, with the sea and rivers full of fish and the forests full of foods to forage. Temperate climate and surplus food gave the Haida people the luxury of time, during which their rich culture was developed.  The Haida are the oldest traceable populations in the New World in their inhabitation of the Haida Gwaii, since the end of the last ice age. The sacristy of Haida Gwaii is in the facets of ancient practices of sustaining life and culture on the rich land.

The water, giving life through nourishment, and the forests, giving life through cultural meaning and spiritual understanding are sacred to the Haida people. Perhaps the most sacred of the Haida is the Cedar tree, known as the “tree of life.” Canoes, shelter, clothing, and medicines were derived from the timber, roots, and bark of the cedar tree. The incredibly complex and advanced art of the Haida culture is in the carving of cedar masks, totem poles, and other artifacts. Bill Reid, a famous Haidan artist once said, “Oh the cedar tree… if mankind in his infancy had prayed for the perfect substance for all material and aesthetic needs, an indulgent God could have provided nothing better.” The sacredness of the Cedar tree is not only evident in the intricate art of the Haida but in the oral traditions of story.

“Long ago, when the world was not as it is now, Raven, the great creator and trickster, came across three young woman drying salmon on the beach. Ever hungry, the wily bird approached the women and asked: “Are you not afraid to be here alone?”

“No,” they said.

“Are you not afraid of bears?”

And again they replied, “No.”

Persistent, Raven asked if they were not afraid of wolves, marten, and various other creatures. Each time they answered no, until he mentioned owls, at which the three women confessed to their terrible fear of owls.

Raven went off quickly and hid himself in some nearby bushes, where he began making owl calls. Terrified, the women fled, running and running until they were half-way up a mountain. They stopped, finally, out of breath. Standing together on the mountain side, the three of them turned into yellow cedar trees. That is why yellow cedars are always found on high slopes of the west coast and why they are so beautiful; their long graceful branches and silky inner bark resembles the woman’s hair, and their young trunks are smooth to the touch.”
Adapted by Hilary Stewart from the original told by Alice Paul in Ethnobotany of the Hesquiat Nation of Vancouver Island by Nancy J. Turner and Barbara S. Efrat.


Cedar trees gave life not only to the spiritual beliefs of the Haida people, but also to their homes built of huge cedar beams and planks. The water sources full of abundant nourishment, the forests full of cedar trees of abundant culture—all gave life to the Haida.

While the mantra of the sacred for the Haida is in their story and way of life in maintaining balance with the environment and creating artistic expression, the mantra of the sacred for colonialists was manifest destiny and to impose Euro-centric structures upon the land and anything occupying that land. Perhaps the greatest ongoing conflict in the history of the Hadia Gwaii archipelago is the conflicting values of what is sacred amongst the First Nations and the colonial people. Future settlement and resource extraction motivated early settlers in the 1800s and continues to motivate industry and government policy today. There is a dominating colonial narrative of Haida decline that justifies the “virtual erasure” of the Haida from their highly coveted land of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

With the intrusion of colonialism, came the intrusion of Western economic interests.  The dense forests of incredible Cedar became a great source of profit in resource extraction. Less than a century since the earliest settler accounts of colonialism on Haida land, the Canadian logging industry has strongly established their business interests. The clear-cut logging and heavy commercial fishing has greatly depleted the sustenance of Haida life and culture. Today, the Haida people are fighting to end further logging and permanent deforestation of the Cedar forests on Lyell Island and South Moresby. The Haida environmentalism strong reaction to the result of the logging legacy as it directly impacts their ability to carry out traditional cultural practices and their way of life. Historically, however, the Haida have faced incredible difficulty in making any leeway in reclaiming their land from the logging industry because of monetary and business interests convoluting politics. For example, Tom Waterland, the Minister of Forests for British Columbia had significant investments in Western Pulp Ltd., and endorsed logging companies. While non-native interests were vested in the industrial, economic benefits of the land, native interests were vested in the spiritual, deep connection the land had for the Haida identity. A Haida woman explained this connection in Court to preserve Haida culture through environmentalism.

“Brown explained her reasons for opposing logging in ways which drew on her understanding of Haida tradition, the impacts of colonialism and resource extraction, as well as her close connection to the forests and waters which were under threat from logging. According to Brown, the struggle against logging was linked to a long history of opposition to colonial attempt to destroy Haida culture. She described how as a young girl, instead of going to the missionary schools on the island her uncle, Watson Price, brought her to their hereditary lands in the area around Lyell island in order to learn traditional food gathering, and the values that camewith it. It was there that she was instructed in the principle that the land from which the Haida drew sustenance required their respect, and where she developed what she describes as a spiritual connection to the traditional food she still harvested in South Moresby. She also pointed to her close experience with the aftermath of clear-cutting.She described the failures of restocking plans and the inadequacy of second-growth forests. Browns testimony was informed by a deep place-based connection between Haida identity and Haida Gwaii, one which was threatened by the continuation of logging on Lyell Island.”

The full text of Diane Brown’s testimony is available in Norbert Ruebesaat, “Speaking with Diane Brown” (Masters Thesis, Simon Frasier University, 1987), Appendix A.


After much political and societal unrest, the area surrounding South Moresby Island was designated as the Gwaii Haanas National Park in 1993. Almost 10 years later, a six point agreement was reached in 2002 with the forestry giant, Weyerhaeuser and the Government of British Columbia to assume responsibility in consulting with the Haida on forestry policy and to prohibit logging in designated areas for protection in the Haida Land Use Vision. However, without strict implementation and clear language in the agreements, logging continued in prohibited areas. This prompted the movement known as ‘Islands Spirit Rising’ in which the people of Haida Gwaii set up roadblocks, carried Haida Nation flags, and declared that action needed to be taken to protect their lands.  The Haida community allied with local and international communities, as environmentalists and human rights activists from as far as New York joined the demonstrations. Local non-aboriginal communities also supported the Haida by providing meals during the demonstrations.

As a result of these incredibly collaborative and significant demonstrations, the president of the Council of the Haida Nation and the premier of British Columbia signed the Haida Gwaii Strategic Land Use Agreement based on an approach of co-existence with fully functioning ecosystems and human communities as well as recognizing Haida Cultural and Spiritual Areas. The Haida have demonstrated that a fusion of creative cultural politics and environmentalism is the most effective method to hold on to their sacred lands and culture. Further, it seems the more tangible the sacredness of the Haida’s land is to the non-native community creates a stronger aboriginal and non-aboriginal alliance. For example, one of the most famous sculptures in Canada’s public museum, the Museum of Anthropology, is Bill Reid’s monumental sculpture, The Raven and the First Men. This sculpture visually and literally articulates the creation story of the Haida, illuminating the cultural history of the Haida Gwaii land. This sculpture proved to be incredibly influential, in September 2004, Canada issued a $20 bill depicting the sculpture to celebrate Canada’s culture and history.

The ongoing story of the Haida people illuminates the undeniably strong and inextricably linked connection they have to the environment. By utilizing non-aboriginal and aboriginal alliance, cultural politics, and environmentalism more effective change is created and progress is made. Further, non-aboriginal alliance is strengthened in raising cultural awareness and sensitivity through art installations and other means of education.










Sources Used:







7. Swanton, J. Types of Haida and Tlingit Myths. American Anthropologist. 1905.





12.  Mullins, P. and Paynter, R. Representing Colonizers: Archaeology of Creolization, Ethnogenesis, and Indigenous Material Culture among the Haida. 2000.

13. King, David. The Haida. 2007. Marshall Cavendish Corporation.


15. Grek-Martin, J. Vanishing the Haida: George Dawson’s ethnographic vision and the making of settler space on the Queen Charlotte Islands in the late nineteenth century. 2007. The Canadian Geographer.

16. 2007. Land Use Agreement Proposed for Haida Gwaii. M2presswireNewspaper Source, EBSCOhost

17. Dean, Michael. What they are doing to the land, they are doing to us: Environmental politics on Haida Gwaii. 2009. The University of British Columbia.









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