Ominous Grandeur

Ninstints Mortuary poles
Mortuary poles at SG̱ang Gwaay

I’ve wanted to see them for decades.

Ever since I saw their photos back in the 70s, mystical figures of ghostly grey imparting a powerful, compelling presence.

The totem poles at Ninstints on Haida Gwaii.

It’s the only place on Haida Gwaii where they still stand. A dozen of them, disciples of the supernatural, silently keeping watch.

Ninstints was the former home of the independent Konghit people. The most remote habitation on Haida Gwaii, it was the first Haida town recorded, in 1787 when captain George Dixon and his crew arrived on the ship The Queen Charlotte. Imagine them seeing these mysterious pewter-grey poles edging the beach, skyscrapers reaching more than fifteen metres upward.  The archipelago took its name from this ship and when we were kids was known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Now it’s Haida Gwaii, Ninstints is SG̱ang Gwaay and the National Park it is located in is called Gwaii Haanas.

Last summer Magellan and I were on the Oceanlight II  for a week-long tour of Gwaii Haanas. Captain Tom wasn’t promising us he’d be able to land on SG̱ang Gwaay, which is protected by a rocky islet that makes the village unapproachable for much of the year and difficult the rest of the time. But he knew it was the destination all eight of us guests most wanted to visit. Seeing a window on his weather screens, he changed the schedule and booted us down to Anthony Island.

The watchmen, a group of Haida who reside at ancient settlements on Gwaii Haanas during the summer, gave us permission to land.

Watchman Vince Collison was our designated Haida guide. Vince explained that at one time there were dozens of artful, supernatural totems at SG̱ang Gwaay. Frontal poles on cedar long houses. Inside poles. Memorial poles freestanding in front of longhouses, raised a year or more after the death of a chief. And mortuary poles—the only ones still standing at SG̱ang Gwaay—each with a large cavity cut into the the top to hold a cedar box containing the remains of a high-ranking citizen. (Ordinary citizens were buried in caves.)

The village of about 300 people was decimated by smallpox in 1875. “By 1884 there were only 30 people left,” Vince says. Things didn’t go so well for the totems after that.

After the departure of Tom Price, the last chief, missionaries wrapped totems with kerosene-soaked rags and set the poles on fire to obliterate their carved graven images.

In 1938 some poles were removed to Prince Rupert.

In 1947 Marius Barbeau from Canada’s Museum of Man led a survey group to determine what should be salvaged. This coincided with interest from University of British Columbia professor Harry Hawthorn (and his wife Audrey) and Wilson Duff, curator of anthropology at the Provincial Museum. With the support of businessman Walter Koerner, twenty-three more of these sculpted monuments were removed (you can see seven of them at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology). Unfortunately, five totems burned in a fire at the Provincial Museum.

In 1957, eleven poles (some weighing several tonnes) were sawn off at the base, lowered to the ground, cut into sections, boxed and towed out to a ship that took them to museums in Victoria and Vancouver.

A year later, the area became a provincial park and in 1981 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. (It took until 1988 before it was made a National Park.)

Vince seems eager for the repatriation of artifacts but, as he says, “Where would we put them?” He’s travelled to New York, Germany and Oxford—we’ve provided a link to a video of the Oxford trip below that 21 people from Haida Gwaii went on. “When the new chief of Skedans was recently potlatched, the Museum of Natural History in New York returned a bentwood box filled with copper seals from our ancestors’ potlatches,” Vince told us. “The new chief returned them all to their respective clans.”

The process of how the Haida created totems is fascinating. A yellow cedar tree was chosen from the rainforest. A third of the core was cut away to reduce its immense weight. The chief decided the figures and their order, but left control of the design in the hands of the carver. Charcoal was used for drawing the design, plants were used for colouration and salmon eggs as a binding agent. If pieces of copper were used, it indicated great wealth. A screen of cedar matting kept the pole’s progress secreted from view. It took 100 people or more to raise the pole with cedar ropes, after which the two-metre hole was filled with rocks and dirt, the carver danced with his tools, a speaker told the totem’s story and the pole was given a name. A feast followed.

Each pole tells a story in a complicated visual language of natural and supernatural beings. Like Wasco the sea grizzly. A Dzunkwa, a fearsome, not-quite human giantess with a labret, a piece worn in the lower lip to signify her high rank. A scaly, double-headed sea serpent with a large curled tongue at each end of its serpentine form. A one-horned mountain goat, a five-finned Orca. A fat frog with five potlatch rings emerging from its head and backbone and an image of the world axis. (The number of cylinders on a pole equals the number of potlatches given by the owner.) Rare on Haida Gwaii, there’s a thunderbird. And always there were watchmen, three small, crouched figures with conical hats at the top of the pole.

The Haida way is to let their totems weather and stumble to a natural death but in the 1990s, an agreement was reached to straighten and stabilize five of the poles at SG̱ang Gwaay.

It is a haunting and humbling place, embued with dignity, forlorned by grey skies and summer mizzle. As we listened to Vince and wandered around the village, all of us from Oceanlight II were quieter than usual. It reminded me of a quote by Erling Kagge in his book, and film of the same name, Silence in the Age of Noise:

Maybe I stay silent in front of art because I feel that I am separated from something every single day. There’s so much I don’t understand, that I can’t move beyond, and art reminds me of that.


Kagge, Erling, translated by Becky L. Cook. Silence in the Age of Noise. New York: Pantheon Books, 2017. A Norwegian explorer and publisher, Erling, the first person to reach all three of the earth’s “poles” (the third being the summit of Mt. Everest) has written thirty-three vignettes on the evocations of silence.

MacDonald, George. Haida Monumental Art. Vancouver, UBC Press, 1983. The authoritative guide.

MacDonald, George. Ninstints: Haida World Heritage Site. Vancouver, UBC Press, 1983. Ditto.

Magellan deserves the credit for finding Ocean Light IIthe way for jubilados (or anyone) to see Gwaii Haanas. (We met a couple who took a zodiac to SG̱ang Gwaay, a 23-hour round trip. Ocenalight II books book up quickly so plan (a year) ahead.

Stewart, Hilary. Cedar, Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. Seattle: Douglas & McIntyre; Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1984. Very informative with excellent illustrations.

Stewart, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1993. An in-depth “how-to” book.

This vimeo, created by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, is about the trip twenty-one Haida people made to Oxford to see artifacts that had been confiscated years ago.

9 Responses

  1. Would still love to get there, but unlikely…thanks for the great review of the area…Love the totems, so much history and story telling.

    1. In his book The Sacred Earth (found in GS1’s collection) Courtney Milne says he was greeted by fifteen poles in 1982, three more than we saw in 2018.

    1. Mary, of the watchmen on Gwalior Haanas, told us they’ve found evidence of iron tools from China that would have been used for carving. Early trade agreements…

  2. Very timely article and the photography is first rate.
    Knowing the weather in the Charlottes is beyond wet, makes me wander about the longevity of the poles.
    The scenery and colours add so much to the poles so they are indeed were they should be, a museum can not duplicate the natural surroundings.

    Your quote is simply bang on, step back and take it all in and make what you will of what you see, perfect. No need for words, as sight will take you on a journey through the mind, awesome. Works for everything in nature

    Cheers to all,

    1. You got it—it’s the first post where we eliminated captions. Back to Courtney Milne’s book, he makes an interesting comment: “I felt great sympathy for these old totems—leaning, falling and slowly dying—something I have never felt about stone carvings. Maybe it because we share a common mortality. I felt a sadness meeting them for the first time in their old age, and yearned to have known them standing proudly in the clarity and strength of their youth.”

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