CBC Digital Archives

Rescuing the timeless totems of SGang Gwaay

Wonders of nature and marvels made by people stretch all across Canada. From a preserved Haida village in B.C. through Alberta's rich dinosaur fossil grounds to old Quebec City and a Viking settlement in Newfoundland, 15 remarkable Canadian places have been deemed World Heritage sites by the United Nations. CBC Digital Archives takes a tour of some of these internationally recognized national treasures.

Hidden away in B.C.'s Queen Charlotte Islands are the timeless remains of Haida culture. Remnants of wood houses and carved memorial and mortuary poles line the remote village of SGang Gwaay Llanagaay, meaning Red Cod Island Village, on Anthony Island. Before the white man's disease decimated the island's population in the mid-19th century, the Haida produced the majestic totem poles that would become legend. In this 1959 CBC-TV documentary, a crew from the B.C. Provincial Museum and the University of British Columbia arrives to rescue several of the totems.
• Haida artist and broadcaster Bill Reid was one of the members of the expedition. As Reid explains in this report, the crew was comprised of "four anthropologists, three Haida fishermen - the skipper of the boat, his brother and the cook - two cameramen, an enthusiastic amateur authority on Haida houses and villages, and me: a descendant of the Haidas and representative of the CBC."
  • The totem poles were moved to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria and the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. According to Maria Tippett, author of Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian, many of the poles were badly damaged in the move. Deemed unsalvageable for outdoor exhibition, the totems were stored in sheds where they continued to decay. Carver Mungo Martin was hired by the university to duplicate the disintegrating poles. In 1959, Harry Hawthorn, an anthropologist at UBC, received a Canada Council grant to reconstruct a Haida village on campus. Hawthorn hired Reid and Martin to work on it.

• In 1957, the province of British Colombia designated Anthony Island as a provincial park.

• In 1981, SGang Gwaay (also known as Ninstints or Nan Sdins), was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

• In its statement of significance, UNESCO says that SGang Gwaay "commemorates the living culture of the Haida, based on fishing and hunting, their relationship with the land and sea, and offers a visual key to their oral traditions ... What survives is a unique world, a 19th century Haida village where the ruins of houses and memorial or mortuary poles illustrate the power and artistry of Haida society."

• A mortuary pole contains the remains of a deceased chief or high-ranking individual. When the person died, their body was placed into a painted box and put in a mortuary house for one year. The remains were then moved into a smaller box and placed in the upper portion of a mortuary pole, in a large cavity that had been cut out and carved with crests of the deceased.

• A memorial pole was raised a year after the death of a chief. It stood on its own and was adorned with a crest depicting the chief's achievements.

• The Parks Canada website decries the destruction of the once vital settlement. It says: "What was once a vigorous Haida community of 300 people is today a haunting assemblage of weathered and fragmented house frames and mortuary and memorial poles. By the 1880s, disease had decimated the population ... and by the turn of the century only remnants of the houses and poles remained (to) bespeak the power and artistry of a rich and flamboyant society."

• Smallpox was the disease that took the lives of countless Haida people. As Bill Reid explains in this documentary, "A traveller to Victoria unwittingly brought the seeds of sudden disaster. Many Indians from all the coasts were camped there and the smallpox moved through them like a swift fire. The settlers panicked and drove them out." Those few that made it alive back to their island villages brought the smallpox and it swept through the islands.

Medium: Television
Program: Pacific 8
Broadcast Date: May 21, 1959
Narrator: Bill Reid
Duration: 27:06

Last updated: February 16, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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