Postcard from Haida Gwaii: Where Sustainability Dates Back 13,000 Years

Aug 23, 2015 by


Visiting a First Nation that has been successful in reclaiming their territorial and resource rights.

I did a lot of research before embarking on my recent trip to Haida Gwaii, the remote archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, so I knew to expect breath-taking natural beauty — densely forested mountains and cold, clear waters that ebb and flow onto long, empty beaches.

I had also read about the indigenous Haida concept of Yah’guudang, which translates as, “respect for all living things.” But nothing prepared me for the palpable, living connection between the Haida people and its land — and how that connection shapes their practice of sustainable forestry.

To get to Haida Gwaii, I traveled for an entire day and a half — flying first to Vancouver, then to the town of Sandspit on Moresby Island (one of the two major islands in the Haida archipelago) on a tiny plane, then to Queen Charlotte City by ferry, and finally arriving at our final destination, Tlell on Graham Island, after a half-hour car ride.

View from the ferry.

In other words, you have to really want to see Haida Gwaii to go — and as we discovered, it’s well worth the effort. Our traveler’s fatigue disappeared as soon as we visited Taan Forest, a 270,000-acre stretch of ancient rainforest managed by the Haida nation’s sustainable forestry enterprise. We learned that the Haida nation’s strict cultural forestry regulations — derived from Yah’guudang —gave Taan Forest a huge advantage in achieving Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, the stringent standard used by Rainforest Alliance.

A protected area in the Taan Forest.

As we walked under towering trees, breathing in the smell of fresh-cut wood, our Taan guides explained that surveyors and engineers spend weeks and millions of dollars studying the land before a tree is even marked for cutting. One guide pointed out a yew, a skinny, reddish-brown tree that has special cultural significance (used for a variety of medicinal purposes by the Haida, it’s also a potent anti-cancer drug). He said that when loggers stumble on a plant like this one, they must move two and a half tree-lengths away to begin cutting again. Certain ancient cedar trees, called monumentals, may only be cut down for use as totem poles or canoes. Bears, birds, and other wildlife all require different amounts of forestland, from five acres to 500 hectares, on which no logging is allowed.

Surveyors and engineers spend weeks–and millions of dollars–before designating logging areas.

April Churchill, former vice president of the Haida Nation, explained why the Haida go to such lengths to practice Yah’guudang. “The Haida people are the Haida people because of the land and the sea around us. We are a product of it — we are a part of it and we are connected to it. If we don’t protect it, there won’t be an ‘us’ anymore.”

April Churchill, former vice president of the Haida nation, explains Yah’guudang.

This deep connection to the land and sea dates back 13,000 years, when the Haida first settled on the islands. Skilled seafarers, the Haida traded with other First Nations up and down the coast of North America and thrived in harmony with their environment, living in a complex, matrilineal society. Then in the late 1700s, the first European ships arrived, and though the Haida captured and sank two of those vessels, they soon developed a bustling trade with Europeans. Unfortunately, this increased contact exposed the Haida to smallpox and tuberculosis, which nearly wiped out the population: their numbers fell from 7,000 at the time of contact to 700 in 1900. As the Haida fought for their very existence, the newly-formed Canadian government forced the remaining people into two villages, attempted to populate the rest of the island with outsiders, and dubbed the archipelago The Queen Charlotte Islands. In 2009, after a decades-long struggle, the Haida regained partial land rights and reclaimed the name Haida Gwaii. (The Haida Nation and the British Columbia provincial government are working under an “agree to disagree” policy as to who owns Haida Gwaii.)

This victory for the Haida people was also a victory for conservation, as no one cares more about these islands than the Haida. April Churchill makes this clear when she talks about the annual cedar harvest, which provides bark to use for weaving hats and ceremonial garments. “The annual cedar harvest is important because it’s not just about accepting a gift; it’s about making an annual commitment to the forest—a promise from you to the trees. When you’re accepting the harvest, you’re saying, ‘I’m here. I’ll protect you no matter what.”

Her words stayed with us as our ferry moved away from the island, those precious cedars growing smaller and smaller as our vessel made its way across the bay. The commitment of the Haida people to Yah’guudangis an inspiring reminder that we can’t just take from the Earth — we have to protect and nurture it, too.

(images: Rainforest Alliance)

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