A Memorial Potlatch and Celebration of the Role of Haida Women in Haida Culture


On a Friday night in October 1994, Haidas and friends from many communities on- and off-island joined in Old Massett for the headstone movings and memorial dinner for members of the Davidson family, Arlene Davidson and Claude Arnold Davidson. The events were not only a final goodbye and a releasing of the spirits of the deceased family members on their journey beyond but also a special celebration of the rebuilding of the culture, pride and unity of the Haida Nation. The headstone movings were conducted in as traditional a manner as possible. It was pointed out that in the old days a mortuary pole would be used; with the integration of Christian traditions the pole has been replaced by a headstone, but many of the original Haida traditions are incorporated, with members of the opposite clan taking responsibilities for wiping the headstone, moving it, and so on.


The hall was totally packed for the Friday night dinner, which started as a feast featuring delicious deer and clam soups accompanied by fruit, buns, and baked goods donated by many members of the community. In fact, the entire process was only possibly because of the tremendous outpouring of time, talents and goods from literally hundreds of people in the community.


The dinner was followed by speeches by various chiefs, family members, and other honored guests. The recurring theme of the speeches centered on the rebuilding of the Haida Nation and Spirit; the pains of the past were spoken of, but the emphasis was on the present and the future of the nation, with the regaining and using of the old traditions in these events as evidence of the new strength of the people. A special ceremony with Haida songs and dances invited all those who had been disenfranchised by the white man’s law — those who had been labelled “non-status” — to come forward and be welcomed formally as full Haidas. There was also a special song releasing the spirits of those in whose memory the memorial dinner and headstone moving was held. Family head and emcee Robert Davidson spoke movingly of how the return to these traditions is a vital part of the rebuilding of the Haida Nation.


Special entertainment for the evening was provided by Haida dance groups from Hydabury, Ketchikan, Prince Ruper and Haida Gwaii. These too were a vivid expression of the rebuilding of the Haida spirit, as not only traditional songs and dances passed on by the elders were enacted, but new songs created in the spirit of the traditional songs were presented. The audience particularly responded to speeches made in the Haida language by the young dancers, especially those from Ketchikan, whose fluency was a tremendous indication of the rebirth of the Haida people.


Another special event was the adoption and naming of Phyllis Brown and receiving her and her children formally into the Haida family. The end of the evening featured the presentation of thank-you gifts to those who had been most involved in the preparations and the headstone movings, especially the aunties of Robert Davidson. Then an outpouring of gifts were presented to all members of the Ravens, the opposite clan of the Davidsons, and to out-of-town guests.


Saturday evening saw the Old Massett Community Hall filled with family and friends for a memorial potlatch honouring Naanii Florence Edenshaw Davidson, a true matriarch of the Haida people. The theme of the evening was recognizing and honoring the strength and leadership of Haida women, as so clearly epitomized by Naanii Florence, whose 99 years, from 1895 to 1993, spanned a time of incredibly rapid and difficult change for the Haida people. At each table setting was a memorial book of photographs from the life of Naanii Florence, crated by photographer and family friend, Ulli Steltzer. In the tribute on the first page, Ulli says, “She called herself ‘the world’s naanii,’ and her love for many of us was as deep as the ocean around her and as high as an eagle can fly.” It was this love, this commitment to her people and her culture, that was celebrated at the memorial dinner; much of the resurgence of Haida pride and nationhood can be traced directly to Naanii Florence and to the many Haida women who, after the decimation of the Haida nation due to smallpox epidemics and other effects of the introduction/invasion of the white culture, often have had to take on roles traditionally male, while still maintaining all their female roles. Today, Haida women continue to be vitally important leaders and nurturers for their families and their nation.


The evening commenced with a delicious turkey dinner, which was also a special time of visiting friends and relatives, and also for many a time of meeting relatives (often for the first time and often unknown of before) from widely scattered Haida communities ranging from Alaska through British Columbia to Washington state and even locations beyond. After the dinner was a long and special evening of speeches, Haida dancing, and recognition of many special people.


Representing their mother and overseeing the events of the evening were sisters Virginia, Primrose, Emily, Aggie, Myrtle, Merle, and Clara. Emily spoke of all the skills their mother had worked so hard to teach her large family, and spoke of the special abilities of each sister, so lovingly developed by their mother Florence. Her speech ended with a light moment and lots of laughter when she mentioned that “as for me, I can do all those things!” It was very special to see how all these sisters have stayed as close to each other as when they were small children, how they work together and love each other; this is the true tribute to the strength and love of their mother, Naanii Florence, and to all the Haida women who have maintained the strength of the Haida families and thus of the nation.


Another special event was the naming of all Naanii Florence’s grandchildren. Naanii herself had chosen these Haida names, passed down from their ancestors, and picked them out for each grandchild as she lovingly observed their personalities, abilities and personal strengths. Their auntie/mother Emily introduced them one at a time and told them their Haida name, what it meants, and the ancestor to whom it had belonged.


Special friends of the family were also recognized and were presented with Haida vests or blankets. These included, among others, photographer Ulli Steltzer, who ahd created the memorial books for the dinner, and who is also author of the book, *A Haida Potlatch*. Dr. Innis was recognized for the special care he gave to Naanii Florence in her final illness. A speech entirely in Haida was given by linguist John Enrico, who has spent many years preserving the Haida language, with much teaching and assistance by Naanii Florence, right to her final year. Special helpers for the memorial potlatch were presented payments, including dance groups, the local church, and the many others without whom such an event could not take place.


Haida dance groups once again provided entertainment and also contributed to the recognition and rebuilding of the Haida culture, especially through the leadership of Haida women. In a very special speech in both English and Haida by a young dancer from Ketchikan, the Haida children of Massett were reminded of how especially fortunate they are to have the resource of so many elders who are fluent Haida speakers and know so much of the traditional culture. She spoke of how, where she lives, there are so very few who can pass on this knowledge, and how eagerly the Haida young people of their community have taken the opportunity to soak up this understanding whenever Naanii Ethel Jones, Naanii Grace Wilson, and Robert Davidson had visited their community. She urged, with much emotion, the young people of Old Massett to take advantage of their incredible opportunity to learn all they can of their heritage.


A special moment of entertainment occurred when dancers from Old Massett dramatically introduced the Guugiit [Haida version of the Sasquatch], 8-plus feet tall and black and hairy! The evening concluded with the traditional presentation of gifts to the guests at the potlatch, for this evening all members of the Eagle side.


Norma J Hill