Trip to Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii  -  July 2003

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I almost don't know where to start...

My trip to Haida Gwaii last week (few there call it the Queen Charlottes anymore), brought home two facts that I'd nearly forgotten, the first being how much I enjoy doing the research that goes into the making of a film such as The Vanishing Tattoo, and the second being that an episode of The Vanishing Tattoo about the Haidas has the potential to be among the most spectacular of all the stories we tell about tribal tattooing among indigenous people around the world.

I owe my trip to my good friends David and Anne Seymour. David works for the Dept. of Indian Affairs and was instrumental in my going to Haida Gwaii for the ground-breaking dedication ceremony of the newly created Haida Cultural & Heritage Centre in Skidegate. Seymour and I run marathons together and he has always been a stalwart friend of The Vanishing Tattoo. David arranged for me to be a Guest of the Haida people for a series of events that culminated in Skidegate Days. It seemed as if the entire Haida communities from Old Massett and Skidegate turned out for the many events.

During my trip I stayed with Babs Stevens, the Skidegate Band Manager, and her husband. One could not have asked for a more gracious Host. Since Lars Krutak, The Vanishing Tattoo's anthropological consultant, and I started the search that ultimately led to Lars' digging around in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution and rediscovering the Haida "tattoo kit", both he and I had many conversations with different Haida. (Click here for anyone who's memory needs a refresher) During this trip I had an opportunity to put faces to go along with a long list of names that previously I knew only through telephone conversations or e-mails. I met many of the Haida who are involved in the new Cultural Centre and who are also deeply involved in the process of repatriating lost cultural items and artefacts to Haida Gwaii. Their passion and commitment to their cause is a great source of inspiration to me.

Almost to a person, the Haida are all greatly interested in their cultural traditions of tattooing. Many spoke of the steps that it would take to not only return the Haida tattoo kit to Haida Gwaii, but what steps it would take to revive the cultural practise of tattooing, a practise last thought to have taken place in the Winter of 1900-01. Jim Hart, Robert Davidson, Vince Collison and many others expressed to me that having The Vanishing Tattoo document the revival on film would be a crucial link in telling the rest of the world the story of Haida culture and that the culture of the Haida people was strong and growing stronger. The new cultural centre, with it's emphasis on the Haida language, heritage, art, and cultural practises will undoubtedly form an epicentre from which this resurgence will take place. Hopefully, there will be a small corner where traditional Haida tattooing takes place! It's the opportunity of a lifetime for a filmmaker.

During the entirety of our stay the hospitality of the Haida had to be seen to be believed. Every day there was a lunch and dinner with speakers and presentations and displays by Haida cultural groups that entertained us with singing and dancing. I am sure there will be photos in future of Vince doing the single man's dance!

But the food! For days we ate pounds and pounds of crab from great heaping piles, we ate salmon and halibut that had been swimming the day before, huge platters of scallops and prawns, smoked black cod that melted in your mouth, huge cauldrons of soups whose surface glimmered and glistened with golden globules of fat, side tables groaning and bent under the weight of fresh pies and frosted cakes. It was a feast. A cornucopia of the fruits of the sea.

The trip itself was spectacular. I'd been to Haida Gwaii before, but had forgotten in the intervening years how spectacular the scenery was. The sun shone for the entire length of our stay, with only brief interruptions from clouds that a brisk North-westerly quickly scudded across the sky. The shores were dotted with wildlife, dozens of deer and half a dozen black bear. I lost count of the eagles we saw and David was delighted to see his first puffin dart across the bow of our fishing boat. And the fishing!

I have never seen salmon fishing like this before. See the photo and that's just part of what we hauled over the stern on our first afternoon on Haida Gwaii. The Spring's (Chinook) were hitting all day and we managed to catch nearly a dozen. Your author, mighty hunter that he is, fawning admirer of all things even remotely Hemingwayesque, is not the slightest bit shy of saying I caught more fish than the rest of the crew combined, the vast majority of them Spring salmon between twenty and thirty pounds.

Of course, such a story would not be replete without the tale of the one that got away... 

Even our trusty guide, Capt. Andy, a man who was a commercial seiner for over thirty years, was awed by the behemoth that hammered my spoon forty feet beneath the surface. This silver giant took the lure and immediately sounded, ripping off a hundred metres of line in a heartbeat. With rod bent double I struggled to bring the fish back to the boat. He was having none of it. The second run was even more spectacular. Close to the surface the mighty Spring surged forward and the line screamed off the reel, fifty meters, a hundred metres and still the line ran out. Worrying now about how much line I had left, I used as much drag as I dared and the fish slowed at two hundred meters. Then the line went dead.

Fearing I'd lose this magnificent bastard off the barbless hook without any tension on it, I reeled in like a mad man. The fish swam straight back towards the boat. Capt. Andy shouted encouraged and advice from the helm, expertly manoeuvring our boat to help me play the fish. David and Carl, my fishing partners, were leaping about the stern like Ritalin poster boys mainlining sugar.

The Spring again headed for the depths and this time tried running underneath the boat. Capt. Andy had seen all these tricks before and the fish had met his match. Again, the fish headed out for open water and this time left the cold embrace of his watery realm in a truly spectacular series of leaps. Arching out of the water, the fish threw his body this way and that, all in an effort to spit the hook out of his mouth. It was a Herculean display of strength, an Olympic feat in execution. This was the first time we had seen the fish at the centre of all the commotion and the very sight of him left us slack-jawed. I actually forgot to continue reeling in the line for a moment, dumbfounded at the sight of this Spring, and stood there, open-mouthed myself in awe. I felt a stab in my heart and while the hunter in me lusted after this fish, the little boy in me wanted him to get away.

Capt. Andy barked an order to David and snapped me out of my daze. Struggling every inch of the way, we played the fish up to within twenty feet of the boat. But the Spring refused to come any closer. Back and forth he patrolled, just inches beneath the surface, his dorsal fin breaking the surface like a scene out of Jaws. My God, he was superb! David and Carl, Capt. Andy and myself, each of us exhausted our adjectives and superlatives in trying to describe the Spring that lay before us, just out of our reach. Neither David nor Carl had ever seen a salmon like this one.

I finally worked all the line in until the leader broke the surface. The fish was six feet away from the back of the boat. Capt. Andy climbed over the gunnels and standing on the rear platform tried to manoeuvre the net over the nose of the Spring. Seeing the net a mere foot from his nose roused the Spring to one last mighty effort. With a stroke of his tail he rose nearly his full length out of the water and away from the net. My God, it was a thing of beauty, an extraordinary effort from an epic adversary. I had no chance to cushion the blow he dealt to the line. With his full weight against I had no chance. I might just as well have tried to stop a freight train.

The line parted with an anguished TWANG! and the Spring slipped back. Capt. Andy lunged forward with the net but the fish was just out of reach. Incredibly, the Spring shouldered his way out of a wave not twenty feet behind the boat and glared at us, the green spoon hanging from his lip, with a look that could only be described as arrogance and contempt, and then he sank beneath the waves for the last time.

On the boat we were speechless. Capt. Andy and the others tried to console me. But I had nothing but admiration for the fish. Capt. Andy shook his head and murmured that the Spring had to have been at the very least forty-five pounds, probably over fifty. King of the Tyee.

The only thing that compared to the adrenaline rush of the fishing trip were the canoes races during Skidegate Days. David and I were shanghaied into a last-minute ten-man canoe crew. The canoe was none other than the storied and legendary Loothas which Bill Reid had built with the help of many others and then paddled up the Seine River in France to the Museum of Man in Paris to be part of an exhibition of works by the Famous French ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss.

The race was timed through a set of buoys that was the start and finish line and then the canoe had to be paddled out and around another buoy about a kilometre away. To our astonishment, Seymour and I found out that our crew was expected to paddle the course first. The rest of our crew was made up of some locals and a gang of fit-looking young Austrian backpackers. In a burst of optimism and hyperbole we called ourselves Team Chinook.

After introducing ourselves we paired off, the idea being to balance the weight of the boat so we'd paddle more efficiently. I was paired on the bow seat with a strapping young Austrian named Christophe who towered over me by three or four inches. We spent a few minutes learning how to paddle the boat on the way out to the start-finish line. Colin Richardson, a Skidegate Band Councillor and a strapping specimen himself was our stern oar and steersman. He gave us some quick coaching tips which we tried to ingest as best we could. And before we were ready it seemed the race was on. 

We leaned into the wind and over our paddles. Much to all of our surprise we actually jelled quite quickly as a team. We found a rhythm, managed to round the buoy without mishap and headed for home. In a burst of energy we sprinted the last hundred meteres to the finish line and then slumped over, utterly exhausted. This aerobic exercise in masochism took us six minutes and forty-four seconds.

But astonishingly, our time held up for the next few boats. None of them touched us. And then incredibly, the previous years champions failed to match our time. Seymour was ecstatic. This was beyond our wildest dreams. Finally the Haida men's team from Skidegate went out and posted a time of six minutes and four seconds. And ultimately a second Haida team from Skidegate beat us as well. But in the end we finished third out of ten canoe teams. In the words of Seymour, we podiumed.

As it came time to say good-bye I could only hope that I would be returning sooner rather than later, and with a film crew in tow. While in Haida Gwaii I showed many of the Haida photos of our film shoot in Borneo. They were captivated by the photos of the Iban and the story of going up the Skrang River with Eddie and Simon David to meet Aki Basai.

I also showed them Patricia Steur's wonderful book of Maori tattoos, Dedicated By Blood. 
If you collect books on photography or tattoos or just beautiful books, you really must check out Dedicated By Blood, it's quite extraordinary.

The Haida, and everyone else I showed Dedicated By Blood to for that matter on this trip, were spellbound by Paricia's book. The Haida couldn't help but feel some connection to the Maori and the revival that Maori culture has undergone in recent years. They leafed through the book slowly, page by page, exclaiming every once in a while at a particularly spectacular tattoo or deeply engrossed by what they saw. It was quite an extraordinary thing to witness the first time and then fascinating to see repeated by almost every single person who looked at the book, including the wife and children of the Honourable Robert Nault, Cabinet Minister for the Federal Dept. of Indian Affairs.

As I said before, there is an incredible documentary waiting to be made by The Vanishing Tattoo in Haida Gwaii.

Vince Hemingson

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