There is a feeling in Old Massett, a quiet power towering above the vicissitudes of life wrought on this ancient village, the heart of First Nations culture, traditions and art on Haida Gwaii.
At the top of Haida Gwaii on Graham Island there is Massett, a town of about 5,000 people mainly of European descent. A few kilometres down the road is Old Massett, the administrative seat of the Council of the Haida Nation and home to about 800 people, mostly Haida. I remember our friend Ruth Ann saying Old Massett, despite its anguish of poverty, was her favourite place when she visited Haida Gwaii a few decades ago.
Old Massett was grey, deserted even though it was Saturday afternoon, the last day in June, when Magellan and I visited. The village is known for having the largest collection of contemporary totems and is home to a number of master carvers. Facing Massett Inlet, the back of a home with elements of a cedar longhouse greyed by rain and graced with frontal totems caught my eye. “Let’s stop here,” I said to Magellan. We parked Rove-Inn and walked toward the house. Grass grew long around wide-open outbuildings of matching grey cedar that had the appearance of being studios or a wood carver’s shed.
A young Haida man walking by saw us admiring the back of a totem facing the ocean. I asked him if we could walk through the grass to see its front. “Well, I can’t speak for Jimmy but don’t go in his yard—go back to the stop sign and follow the path to the beach.”
And that is how we found the home and totems of James Hart, a hereditary Haida chief and probably the most famous carver on Haida Gwaii at the moment. A descendant of the renowned Haida sculptor Charles Edenshaw, Jimmy (and his son Gwaliga) most recently created The Reconciliation Pole commissioned by the University of British Columbia to tell the story of the Haida’s contact with Europeans, especially the effects of residential schools. It was raised in 2017 on the UBC campus.
Viewed from the beach, Jimmy’s house and totems are a symphony of greys that sing the spirit of Old Massett. We saw many more totems that afternoon, none with the same grace in composition and arrangement.
The Davidson family, Claude, grandsons Robert and Reg and great-grandson Ben, are a noble family of Haida artists. Perhaps the most important totem in Old Massett is the one raised in the summer of 1969—the first one to be raised after the potlatch ban of 1884. Robert Davidson went away to attend secondary school in Vancouver. Visiting a museum there, he saw miniature totem poles carved from argillite, a soft black stone found on his homeland. On a trip back to Old Massett, Robert felt a deep compassion for loss of what was once a rich and flourishing artistic culture. He found old photos of totems in his village and took them to his elderly grandfather, Reg Davidson. Together they worked on the drawings and Robert, at the tender age of twenty-two, carved a forty-foot high traditional Haida totem that sits near St. John’s church. It was shocking at the time—the first act defying the potlatch law. More than that, it was “a turning point in pride on the islands sparking a rebuilding of Haida culture and nationhood that continues still,” wrote George Macdonald.
Three years later Lawrence Bell erected two totems in the playing field near Chief Matthews School.
Then Robert’s father Claude established another family first. The totem he carved—the first on Haida Gwaii in a century to be raised for a house and its chief—stands at the north end of Old Massett. It was raised during a potlatch in November 22, 1986.
On June 23, 2018 (seven days before we arrived), a totem, a symbol of First Nations and Western healing practices by Tim Boyko, was raised in front of the Haida Gwaii Hospital and Health Centre.”The bear is important to me; it represents my mother,” Tim told The Haida Gwaai Trader newspaper. “Mothers represent welcoming into the world and protection…The bear is embracing a doctor…The shaman is working with the doctors and nurses to unite the traditional and modern ways of medicine…Three watchmen look outwards and are protectors of Haida Gwaii. The watchmen on the sides represent the nurses who are an important part of the medical team and the centre watchman represents the doctor who must work side by side with the nurses in the best interests of the patient.” Ravens and Eagles represent the moiety clans in Haida Gwaii and the crying baby at the bottom, a last-minute addition to the pole, represents new generations.
In addition to totems, Old Massett is known for excellent art galleries and many artisans whose work you can see at their homes. But we didn’t have a list of home-based artists and didn’t see any signs or advertising. One man did stop his car on the street to ask us if we wanted to come see his argillite carvings. When we told him we were mainly interested in totems, he told us how to distinguish their male figures from female ones. By their eyebrows. Eyebrows shaped like upside-down Vs indicate a female figure. Wavy, horizontal brows mean it’s a guy.
We lingered at Sarah’s Haida Arts and Jewellery where the art is incredible, the biggest collection of masks, argillite, beadwork, silver, wood carvings, tapestries and hand-woven cedar hats and the best craftsmanship we saw on Haida Gwaii. A red-cedar hat, conical in shape, wanted to top my head. Its high price ($3,000! but warranted) stopped me from appropriation and looking comical.
When we asked the woman at the counter at Sarah’s what was going on in the area for Canada Day, she said, “There’s a service at MOTN for Stephen Reid, the bank robber.” Most Canadians will be familiar with Stephen, a notorious member of the Stopwatch Gang who served time in more than twenty prisons in Canada and the US. He was also a famous writer, Jackrabbit Parole, being his first book, his prose assisted by the Canadian poet Susan Musgrave who later became his wife. The two of them lived up the road in Massett where they have a B&B, Copper Beach House. We had heard about Stephen’s death on CBC Radio earlier that week and wondered if the quietude in Old Massett that afternoon was because everyone was at his funeral. “It’s actually at Meredith’s,” a younger woman informed us. “Such a nice family. Did you know Stephen?”
Although we’d read there was a restaurant in Old Massett and were ready for coffee, Rove-Inn couldn’t find it. But we’ve just found that in 2020, Ocean House, “Haida Gwaii’s only bespoke floating ecolodge,” is relocating from the extremely remote southern waters of Haida Gwaii to “a pristine, protected bay near the village of Gaw Tlagee Old Massett.”
Loss and recovery. Elders and youth. Up and Down. As Jimmy said about Frog, the symbol on the Hart family’s crest, “It’s one of the creatures that can go in two worlds, in the water and in the upper world, our world.”