Haida Gwaii welcomes new heritage center

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;Islands of the People' home to Haida for more than 12,000 years

SKIDEGATE, British Columbia - With views of pristine beaches, islands and the Pacific Ocean beyond, more than 1,200 people celebrated the grand opening of the 53,000-square-foot Haida Heritage Centre at the village of Kaay Linagaay (''Sea Lion Town'').

[from dusk to dawn] The village is located in the community of Skidegate on Graham Island, one of two main islands in the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii), a scenic archipelago of more than 150 islands separated from the British Columbian mainland by Hecate Strait.

The heritage center, also known as the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kaay Linagaay, sits in the same spot as an ancient Haida village. Festivities began Aug. 23 with a traditional food burning to honor their ancestors and a parade of clans. As the parade drew near the facility, three new cedar canoes were launched followed by the official ribbon-cutting with a cedar bark rope.

''This has been a dream of the community of Skidegate for 30 years, from the time the first museum opened in 1976,'' said museum director Nathalie Macfarlane. ''The idea of expanded facilities is to provide more educational opportunities and to bring home, or repatriate, a portion of the Haida materials being held in museums throughout Canada and the U.S. The museum will also bolster the growing tourism industry by providing a focal point for that here.

''The center is very much a contemporary place. Our exhibits are geared to tell the story of Haida Gwaii from a contemporary perspective and pull the past into that. It has a really fresh feel to it. It is not an ordinary museum, where the traditional approach is to recreate the past.''

The $28 million facility, funded by federal and provincial governments, consists of five longhouses. The center houses the expanded museum, which went from 6,000 to about 17,000 square feet, with exhibition space, three meeting rooms/classrooms, the Performing House, Canoe House, Bill Reid Teaching House, the Carving Shed, a gift shop and a small cafe. Parks Canada also occupies office space within the center.

The Heritage Centre has been officially open to the public since its ''soft opening'' in July 2007.

Two totem poles were also unveiled. The Heart of Canada Pole, by artist Reg Davidson, was gifted to the museum by the federal government. The 30-foot pole features a beaver at its base, followed by a killer whale with its kidnapped victim, a woman, held with her head coming out of its mouth with a frog and eagle at the pole's top. An ancient pole fragment telling the story of the Bear Mother was also relocated from the old museum to the new Greeting House - Slaay Daaw Naay. ''The Bear Mother is a famous story on the coast of a woman who is kidnapped by bears after she insults them. She marries the chief of the bear people and has two supernatural children who can shape-shift between being a bear and a human,'' Macfarlane said. The pole fragment has a carving of the Bear Mother and a shark crest.

The exhibits are designed to provide a flowing together of the old and the new, the natural and the supernatural. The buildings in which the new center is housed resemble the Haida's traditional cedar longhouses, where people gathered to share and have their voices be heard. Learning, teaching, communicating and preserving their unique culture to share with the world is important to the Haida Gwaii.

Many art pieces were commissioned by Haida Gwaii artists through the development of the exhibits, and these commissions were ''danced'' during the ceremonies. The artwork - paintings, weavings, argillite carvings, silk and applique banners - were all brought out and danced by the artists or their representatives.

''That was one of the highlights of the opening,'' Macfarlane said. ''When a gift is received it is a tradition that it is danced in acknowledgment of receiving that gift.''

The museum is home to more than 12,000 pieces, including archaeological collections ranging from prehistoric materials to examples of Haida carving and weaving.

Guests were also treated to a play at the Performing House presented entirely in the Haida language - ''Siinxii'gangu'' (''Sound Gambling Sticks''). The play is the story of a man who gambles with a supernatural being and loses everything. He then regains it all through skill and hard work.

''It is an incredible play done entirely in Haida, with occasionally a speaker explaining what is going on in English. It is full of new songs and dances that were created by the producers for the play,'' she said.

For more information about the Haida Heritage Centre, visit www.haidaheritagecentre.com.