August 1993. Getting to Haida Gwaii (f/k/a The Queen Charlotte Islands) was no easy trek. A two-day drive from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, an all-day ferry to Skidegate, and then taking an inflatable zodiac over two days to get to the southern-most islands. But it was worth every mile of the journey. It was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. It felt far more spiritual to me than any church I’ve ever been in. We spent five days touring old Haida villages in the southern islands. At most, there is very little left to see. The remains of some poles and a few beams from longhouses can be found on the forest floor, slowly decaying, some with trees sprouting from them. An example is the photo, below, of a grizzly mortuary pole lying on its back in the remains of the village of Skedans. But at the southern most tip of the archipelago is the island of SGaan Gwaay (formerly Anthony Island), a UNESCO World Heritage Site where efforts are made to keep the remaining poles in the village of Ninstints from decaying as quickly as they would if left alone in the rain forest. The largest poles were removed decades ago, and are now in the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. But a large group of mortuary poles remain. These are poles that were used to hold the bones of a deceased relative. Rather than set away from the village in a western-like cemetery, these mortuary poles would be placed in front of the family longhouse. The bones of the relative would be placed in an opening carved at the top of the pole, and sealed with a carved board. The photo of the mortuary pole, above, is also of a Grizzly. Moss and other greenery has been removed to preserve the pole, and the base of the pole is surrounded by gravel to discourage the base from rotting in the wet soil.
Some of the poles on SGaan Gwaay were burned a century ago by a neighboring village, but still are recognizable. The black and white photo, below, left, shows a mortuary pole (also a bear image) that had been partially burned on the side that isn’t visible. Though bears are the most common image found on the remaining poles, other mortuary poles at village sites throughout the islands include images of killer whales (see foreground of photo, bottom, left), squid, beaver, hawks and other animals. The photo on the bottom, right, shows the remains of a pole that bears a beaver image on the front, and a squid image on the back, split by a large tree. At Skedans, the barely visible remains of a wolf, carved more like a statue than a pole (much like the famous Emily Carr painting/postage stamp of the raven statue), were barely visible, with a tree sprouting from its back. The photo, below right, shows what was left in 1993. The snout and jaw are to the left, the shoulder and paw in the middle of the photo, with the large tree sprouting from its back.