TURIN, Italy - There's a lot going on in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve
and Haida Heritage Site, said Barbara Wilson, Haida. She's the cultural
liaison specialist of the park-reserve, which comprises the southern
portion of Moresby Island, off Canada's west coast. At the top of list is a
new heritage center that will open in about a year. Wilson and
ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, a professor at the University of Victoria who's
been adopted into Wilson's clan, have planned a garden for the center
that'll feature traditional plants, the involvement of elders, and school
The Canadian federal government and the Haida Nation co-manage the area.
Under the arrangement, according to Wilson, the two governments agree to
disagree on who owns the land, but nevertheless work together to preserve
and protect the area for future generations. "The negotiations took place
over many years," recalled Wilson. "We Haidas didn't acquiesce on the
land-ownership issue, and we insisted that we be able to continue our
traditional activities on the land. For example, Haidas, and only Haidas,
can take trees for cultural, non-profit reasons."
I spoke to Wilson in October, while we were both attending Terra Madre, a
meeting of nearly 5,000 indigenous and traditional agriculturalists, who
had been brought from 128 countries around the globe to Incontri Torino, Italy, by
Slow Food, an Italian organization that supports the production of
artisanal foodstuffs worldwide. We were on our way to a marvelous meal in a
restaurant in the Italian countryside when we had this conversation.
Indian Country Today: Who are the Haidas?
Barbara Wilson: We live in Haida Gwaii, which is made up of two large
islands and many smaller ones - also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
The area has been called the Canadian Galapagos, because of the many
endemic species that have evolved there in ways that are distinct from
their mainland relatives. Haida Gwaii includes mountains, rivers, boggy
areas and tracts that held old villages. In prehistory, before we started
living by the calendar, our land also included a giant grassland. When the
glaciers melted, the water level rose, drowning a lot of the grassland and
forming our islands. Nowadays about 6,000 people call themselves Haida or
are related to us. We were about 20,000 before the influenza, smallpox and
tuberculosis epidemics of the mid-1800s, when the population dropped to
less than 600. Then, we were primarily a marine people, living in coastal
villages, though plants were also an important part of our diet.
ICT: What's your focus as the park's cultural liaison specialist?
Wilson: My interests are in conservation of a Haida world. One of my
current concerns is the impact of invasive species on our terrestrial
plants. Our islands have no predators to keep animals like deer, beaver and
rats in check. So, terrestrial plants suffer - by being overgrazed by deer,
for example. This has cultural repercussions. At one time, we trimmed berry
bushes, so mothers and children could easily go berry picking. Now the deer
have eaten all the lower branches, so we don't dare do our traditional
management and lose the few remaining fruits. The same thing has happened
to medicine plants. So, overgrazing compromises not simply the plants
themselves, but the traditional knowledge that goes with managing and
consuming them. To use the knowledge, to understand its value, you have to
have the plants.
ICT: Has your relationship to the sea also changed?
Wilson: One problematic area nowadays is the commercial harvesting of
herring spawn - the translucent eggs that the fish deposit on kelp fronds
in ocean shallows. Once, this was a mostly female gathering activity. We
women would go out in a little put-put and use a long stick with small
crossed sticks at the end to pull the kelp up to the surface of the ocean.
We'd then pick the spawn-laden fronds off the plants' stalks. If we had any
surplus, we traded it. Because this type of fishing has been
commercialized, traditional gatherers - Haida women - don't have the access
they once had. We've lost not just the opportunity to acquire something we
can use to feed our families and to trade, but also the interaction that
occurs when you're working together. While gathering, we were talking,
telling stories, adding to friendships and knowledge. These things don't
happen out of context. Conservation means saving a way of life, not just
preserving physical objects, like totems, let's say.
ICT: So, you see conservation as an ongoing process.
Wilson: Conservation in Haida terms means change. My people are progressive
- almost to a fault. For example, we changed our diet significantly in
recent years - taking on white flour, refined sugar and other European
foods. Now, we see that we're not as tall as we were in the old days. We
also have new health concerns, including diabetes, heart problems, cancer,
weight-related illnesses and arthritis. I hope organizations like Slow Food
will help us return to consuming our plants. It's not going to be easy,
though. How do we get our people interested in fruits and berries -
especially when we're competing with deer?
ICT: Has ceremonial life been affected?
Wilson: We Haidas are looking back at a number of traditional activities
and saying we need to encourage them. Progress encompasses not only taking
on new activities and concepts, but also keeping current ones that have
value and reinstating traditional things that were dropped or transformed.
For example, potlatch, which was banned from the 1860s until 1951, is a
very important ceremony that allows community members to witness and
legitimize various actions and relationships. After it was banned, it
didn't actually disappear. Rather, it changed. People who might have had a
potlatch accomplished the same thing through family dinners; they also used
Christian celebrations as a reason to get together. Now, we have potlatches
again - the same but different. However, for this kind of progress to
occur, a people like the Haidas to have the freedom to make choices.
ICT: Any final thoughts?
Wilson: We must not be afraid to share. This is a huge life lesson. Only by
sharing do we get back what we need. If you don't share, you don't have
space for other things to come into your life. The other lesson concerns
respect. If you look after the land, the plants and the fish, if you
respect them as individuals, just as you wish to be respected, they will
look after you. Respect is the basis of what makes each of us a better
person and, beyond that, contributes to the survival of humanity. If we
give and receive respect, we should be ready for the future.