“I’m Mary,” she said, hesitating, a wry look on her face, like she wanted to say “Mary, Mary, quite contrary.”
“And I’m Tyler Crosby. Nephew of Sid Crosby. (Pause.) You know, Sid Crosby, (Pause) the Skidegate Chief of Chiefs.”
I knew immediately why Captain Tom had worked so hard at the wheel fighting waves and wind to ensure the Oceanlight II could cruise into Hlk’yah GawGa (Windy Bay) on Lyell Island. So we could meet Mary, a feisty Haida grandmother, and her sidekick, twenty-five-year-old Tyler, the pair who gave us the best watchmen’s tour we had on Gwaii Haanas.
And what are watchmen you’re likely wondering.
We didn’t know either until this summer when we went to Gwaii Haanas, a large collection of remote islands and abandoned ancient villages (no roads) on the southern half of Haida Gwaii. To protect these villages and assist and educate travellers, the Haida started a Watchmen Program back in the 1970s. At that time, it was voluntary. Lyell Island blew into the conscience of we Canadians during the Haida protest against logging in 1985. Ultimately that protest led to The Lyell Island Protection Agreement signed on July 23, 1988. And to what we have now—Gwaii Haanas is a National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site—world-renowned and on the UNESCO roster. In 1990, the Haidi Gwaii Watchmen began working with Parks Canada, which funds the program and provides logistical support. From May to September, two to four watchmen live at five ancient villages, serving as cultural guardians and interpreters of Gwaii Haanas. You must radio in, asking permission to come ashore. The watchmen try to limit the number of visitors at any one time to a dozen.
“And I got stuck here for two months with this one,” quips Tyler, pointing at Mary.
“Yeah, get him a wife will you?” Mary implored us, giving Tyler a jab.
Mary led us to the Legacy Pole, raised in 2013 to mark the 25thanniversary of the Lyell Island Protection Agreement. According to Mary, that is. Others write that the Legacy Pole commemorates the 20thanniversary of cooperative management between the Canadian Government and the Council of the Haida Nation. Both are correct, but Mary’s interpretation has more credence. “There’s going to be a celebration later this month, or is it in August? I’m not sure. But I better find out because seventy of the protestors who were here when the agreement was signed in ’88 are coming back for the 30thanniversary,” said Mary. “They’re gonna be sleeping in the longhouse and I’ll be cooking for them.
“You know the Skidegate Band Council actually started the protests back in 1974,” she told us. “Guujaaw (that’s Guujaaw Edenshaw), he was our most tireless warrior during the 1985 standoff,” she said.
“Just a minute,” Judy said, “I need more time.” Judy, a linguist professor from California, was translating Mary’s story for her husband Jean-Paul, a Frenchman.
Mary explained how the Pole shows that Gawii Haanas is protected from sea to sky, from the sculpin at the base signifying the ocean bottom to the eagle at the top epitomizing the mountains. The dog represents architectural findings that show human habitation 14,0000 years ago. “The people represent you guys, visitors,” she explained. The Sacred One, Wasco, a seawolf that’s half killer whale and half wolf, holds up the Haida Gwaii people. Martens stand for earthly creatures. “You know about the earthquake here in 2012 don’t you?” she asked. “You could hear martens running up and down the trees before it happened.
“They say there aren’t grizzlies on Haida Gwaii but that’s not true,” Mary tells us. “Thirteen thousand years ago, Haida Gwaii wasn’t connected to the mainland and there were grizzlies here. There’s proof. A grizzly skull was found in a cave here.”
Like ravens drawn to shiny objects, we admired the abalone shells on the Legacy Pole. “Yeah,” says Mary, “At one time, all of the houses at Windy Bay were decorated with abalone shells.”
“Can everybody see the eagle’s copper head?” Mary asks as we wander around the Pole for a better vantage in the noonday sun. “It wasn’t part of the design. When they were digging a hole for the Pole, they found buried copper and decided it would look good on the eagle’s head.”
Mary had another fascinating story for us. The elders told her of people who came to visit, “weird people who ate maggots,” she said. “Now we know it was the Chinese. Eating rice. We’ve also found ancient Chinese coins. But they were so fragile they broke when you picked them up. I think it’s proof our people traded with the Chinese and got tools from them for building longhouses and poles.”
“Who designed this Legacy Pole?” I asked.
“I did,” said proud Mary, pausing for the reaction.
Waiting for the laughter to die down, “It was Guujaaw’s boys, Jaalen and Gwaii, and Tyler York,” she said. “Any more questions?”
“Is it yellow cedar?” someone asked.
“Yes, and it’s hard to find,” Mary told us. “Nowadays it takes three years to gather enough cedar for a longhouse. Okay, let’s go join Tyler in the longhouse, or the Blinking Eye as we call it.”
At one time Hlk’yah GawGa was a major village, before it became just a summer fishing residence for Haida from Tanu and Skedans. Blinking Eye was built to house people during the logging blockade.
Judy was excited to find that Tyler spoke Haida and that Blinking Eye housed a copy of the expansive Haida linguistic guide called SHIP, an abbreviation of Skidegate Haida Immersion Program.
“How do you pronounce Hlk’yah GawGa?” Judy asked as we sat around a long table in the Blinking Eye.
“Hell ga ga gag a,” responded Mary, quick as an eagle, “with him here,” pointing at Tyler again.
“She was on the Rick Mercer show you know,” Tyler told us when we stopped laughing.
“Yeah, but he isn’t even as funny as you,” said Mary.
The show turned over to Tyler, who passed around his cedar carvings. His work is shown at Sarah’s in Masset, the gallery Magellan and I most admired for the quality and diversity of its local art. “This is a work in progress. I call it The Lustful Woman,” Tyler smiled. “Like I said, he needs a wife,” Mary retorted.
We paused while Judy continued to translate for Jean-Paul…c’est la femme lubrique.” Then Tyler brought out his drum. “It’s beautiful. What kind of skin is your drum made from?” Judy asked him. “A Frenchman’s,” said Tyler, causing the group of us to convulse into continued laughter, Jean-Paul included.
“Now I’ll play you a song that I wrote,” said Tyler. That quieted us down.
He translated the words for us:
Me, I am north
The moon shattered into a million pieces on the water
The eagle woman was sent out to put the pieces together
As we were walking back to the zodiac, I asked Mary about the Watchmen’s training. It’s six weeks long and includes Haida Gwaii culture, bear awareness, boat safety, food safety, first aid, ”most of it useless and unnecessary for someone like me,” she said. “Who teaches it?” I asked. “White people at NW University,” she said.
“How are Walter and Raven?” Ocean Light II’s first mate Jennifer asked Mary. “You’re going to T’aanuu next, right?” asked Mary. “You’ll see them there.” It was Mary’s husband Walter and their six-year-old adopted granddaughter Raven who gave us the Watchmen’s tour at T’aanuu that afternoon.
“How do you say good-bye in Haida?” Judy asked Tyler.
“There’s really no phrase for that—it’s Háws dáng hl kingsaang, which means I’ll see you again soon,” Tyler explained.
As we waved good-bye from the zodiac, Mary yelled across the water, “Don’t forget to send Tyler a wife.”
Mercer, Rick. Rick Mercer Visits the Edge of the World on Hand Gwaii Parts I & II, in which watchman Mary plays a part.
We highly recommend Ocean Light II, the way for jubilados (or anyone) to see Gwaii Haanas.
The Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP) published the expansive linguistic guide that Judy was having a look at in Magellan’s video. You can checkout the SHIP dictionary online.