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Rescuing the timeless totems of SGang Gwaay

The Story


Hidden away in B.C.'s Queen Charlotte Islands (now known as Haida Gwaii) are the deteriorating reminders of the Haida people who once lived there. Remnants of wood houses and carved memorial and mortuary poles are still standing in the remote village of SGang Gwaay Llanagaay, meaning Red Cod Island Village, on one of the islands. In this 1959 CBC-TV documentary, a crew from the B.C. Provincial Museum and the University of British Columbia arrives to take several of the totem poles back to the mainland.

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

Did You know?


• Artist and broadcaster Bill Reid, whose mother was Haida, was one of the members of the crew. As Reid explains in this report, the team 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 1981, SGang Gwaay (also known as Ninstints), was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

• Smallpox killed countless Haida people, which is why many of the villages were deserted. 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 virus and it swept through the populace.

 


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