Yahgu dang ang

This morning on the Vancouver news there was an item about a Sikh temple where moderates and conservatives are having a difference of opinion of whether or not to allow tables and chairs in the dining area, to keep the new ways that have crept in, or go back to the old ways with their deep meanings. This is not new; 10 years ago the same discussion led to some rather strong reactions. But these kind of discussions are not isolated to any one group; in fact, I believe they are really important to all of us, no matter our culture, beliefs, or community.
So my husband (who is Haida) and I were talking about this issue, and I was remembering how when I first moved to Haida Gwaii in 1979, there were gentle currents of cultural regrowth beginning to stir in the air. A century or so earlier, the Haida had been a powerful and proud cultural group that had developed over perhaps 10 millennia. And yet, in less than a century, their beliefs, traditions, economy, community structures – in fact, their entire way of life – had been nearly obliterated, systematically, by another culture that fancied itself superior and religiously correct.

I had lived on Haida Gwaii as a young child in the 1950s, and though I do not remember those times personally, I have the memories of my parents, of pictures from our time there, and of course the memories of my husband and his people. I have, for example, a photo my dad took of the last standing totem pole in Old Massett – a community that only decades earlier had featured a forest of poles. And my husband, who was born in 1952, is just old enough to remember the last of the poles being cut down and used for firewood – at the continuing insistence of church and government officials.

When I think of those years when the culture and traditions seemed dead (although they of course never were; they lived on in the hearts of the people), I think of slack tide in Masset Inlet. The years in which the culture grew and flourished were like a great high tide, slowly but surely rising and rising, growing greater, bringing the rich teeming life of the great ocean into the inlet, and into the lives of the people who lived on its shores.

But then, suddenly, it is stopped, halted by a great force – and it hangs there, breathless for a moment – and then in an unbelievable whoosh, the rich waters rush back into the ocean, and the inlet is emptier than it has ever been. The tidal flats stretch far beyond their usual limits, and the rich pools gradually dry up, the life in them turning slimy and wrinkled and dying. The eagles sit in the tree-tops, bedraggled, proud heads drooping, their chicks in the great nests starving. The people sit on the shoreline, haggard, exhausted… and yet, somehow, threads of hope still linger deep within.

The bit of water still in the inlet hangs still, colorless, slack – the scent of death slowly rising and enveloping everything around it, the air heavy and motionless. But then – what is this? Yes, surely, a faint movement at the mouth of the inlet, a ripple, a breath of fresh air pushing into the pervading scent of death. The eagles lift their heads, and one, and then another, begin to lift their wings, searching for, then joyfully finding, the fresh breeze that is pushing into the heavy air.

And now one bravely leaps from his perch, as the others watch, and at first is tumbling, falling downward, but then – as the people below lift their eyes, and hold their breath, hoping, praying – he catches a breath of fresh wind, and begins to rise up on the currents. He moves out over the inlet, to where the movement of tide is clearly becoming stronger. Suddenly he swoops down, down, claws outstretched. And now, a moment later, he rises exultantly back into the air, a shining salmon clutched in his talons, droplets of clear fresh water trailing from its silver sides. He wings his way back to the nest, and he and his mate coax the little ones to open their beaks and partake of the returning of life. The people below are rising to their feet, and one picks up the drum, silenced for so many days, and begins to chant. One and then another and another and yet another take up the song. The life of the inlet, the life of the creatures, the life of the people is returning.

This is how it felt to me when I went to Masset in 1979. There is an awakening happening. There is a fresh breath of air moving over the land. There is a rising tide, bringing in teeming richness of life. Though there is still a tiredness, a hesitancy to reach out to this promise of renewed life, a doubt that it could really be true, yet there is still one, and then another, and yet another, beginning to reach out. A light is coming back into the eyes of the elders, who have faithfully clung to personal memories of the former times, holding them, gently breathing on the coals of memory to keep them alive. And now they are patiently sharing their knowledge and wisdom with the younger ones who will open their ears to listen, and will pick up the drum, and begin to dance, and to carve, and to rebuild. It is perhaps a more difficult time for those in the middle, the ones who do not have the personal memories, who have been yanked away from their people’s past, who have been taught that the old ways are worthless, who have been taught, indeed, that they themselves are worthless. And yet, even among them, surely some hope is rising.

The first symbols are concrete – argellite and silver carving, totem poles raised, a new longhouse. And then more physical – dancing, and drumming, and singing. And then the heart, the life-beat, of the people begins to stir again – old stories told by the elders to the children; and traditional weddings and funerals and potlatches and those other rites of a people that express their community; and slow, tentative exploration of the spirituality, the beliefs of the people; and finally, the resurrection of the language, which holds in its words and phrases the uniqueness of the people in all their aspects.

Over the years we have seen the life coming back. Our children and grandchildren proudly explore and embrace their heritage, even as they grow up surrounded with a world that would be very foreign to their Haida forebearers. For my husband, there is pride in the rebirth of the life of his people, and yet at the same time, there is uncertainty, for he, a third-generation residential school survivor, is from that lost generation. Still, he slowly, cautiously, reaches out. He treasures the stories from his grandfather, his Chinnii Pete, and passes them on to his family. He encourages his children to be proud to be Haida. He wears clothes with Haida crests, and is drawing Haida designs.

At 55 years of age, he puts behind him the career that was considered “manly” in the confused time in which he reached manhood, and goes back to school to learn to do what he already knows, what has been in his heart since he was a very young child, that for which he was born. He prepares to care for the elders, just as he cared for his great-uncle when he was three years old, sitting on his goggy’s pillow, with the old man’s head in his lap, gently running his little hands through the old man’s hair as he takes his last breath. For now he works in hospitals and seniors residences, but his heart longs to take care of the elders in their homes, among their families, to show respect for them, and for all who came before. The old way of the people. Yahgu dang ang.

Norma J Hill

December 2008