Standing on a trail that’s carefully outlined with seashells in the village of K’uuna Llnagaa, Deedee, who as a Haida Gwaii Watchman serves as a contact for visitors and protects the natural and cultural heritage of her community, tells me about a totem pole that once went missing.
“Years ago, a suspicious acting American powerboat was stopped by locals and a house pole was found hidden under tarps,” she says.
Even though she went on to say the totem pole was recovered and taken to the local museum, the story sticks with me.
Visitors to the fabled islands of Haida Gwaii, off the northwest coast of British Columbia, are not always a benign presence. Gaagwiis, also known as Jason Alsop, president of the Haida Nation, says his people have endured state-sanctioned thefts and violence, and more than their share of terrible tourists. Right up until last April, when Haida Gwaii firmly shut its borders during the pandemic, visitors hoping to escape urban crowding flooded in.
“It was completely selfish. They weren’t thinking about us at all,” John Gladstone says as he describes how some of the unwanted guests put elders and community members at risk of illness, taxed limited health and food resources and littered their unauthorized campsites with garbage. As a Haida cultural guide aboard Cascadia, a micro expedition ship run by Victoria-based Maple Leaf Adventures, Gladstone is happy to be back at work. But he remains concerned about the impact visitors have on his vulnerable island home now that it has reopened to them.
This impact was something we were having a group chat about during one of my favourite activities aboard Cascadia, which I was travelling on for a six-day journey through the islands of Haida Gwaii. Each evening, after a full schedule of land and water tours to villages, forests or seabird colonies, all 22 guests settle into the main salon where Gladstone and Greg Shea, the expedition leader, offer up expert insights into the day’s activities.
During this discussion, Gladstone presented the Haida Gwaii Pledge, a new tourism management tool that asks visitors to make a promise to treat Haida Gwaii with respect and care.
Introduced in July, the pledge was developed with guidance from hereditary leaders, knowledge keepers, community members and the health authority. Its concept is modelled on successful pledges in other places including New Zealand (Tiaki Promise, introduced in 2018) and Palau (Palau Pledge, introduced in 2017). It uses a website to teach visitors about the traditional Haida values that govern how to behave when entering someone else’s territory, including Yahguudang: Respect for all beings; Tll yahda: To make it right; and Ahl kyáanang tláagang: Ask permission first.
“Yahguudang is a central law in our culture,” Gladstone told us as our boat bobbed gently in one of the protected coves of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. He explained that his people are taught that you earn respect by taking care of the land, water and air – and each other.
“It means when Haida people see garbage left by tourists we pick it up, so it won’t harm the land or ocean.”
The goal of promises such as the Haida Gwaii Pledge is to take a new approach in setting expectations for visitor behaviour. Rather than waiting for people to do the wrong thing and reacting, which Alsop says creates conflicts, they are encouraging visitors to see a place from a local perspective (and clean up their own garbage).
“We used the pandemic as a way to reset tourism to support the Haida way of being,” Alsop says. “People want to do the right thing and this is a soft way of teaching them our values.”
By learning more about the Haida culture, visitors have the chance to create more authentic connections.
“If we feel respected, we’re more likely to welcome guests deeper into island life,” he says.
Back at K’uuna, Deedee, who’s also known as Carol Crosby, invited our group to explore the beaches before returning to Cascadia. Following the high tide line, I daydreamed about an image Deedee had left me with: a time when canoes from neighbouring islands would pull up; the paddlers tossing out handfuls of trade beads to indicate peace and wealth.
I had this vision in mind when I caught sight of a small piece of red glass. Brushing away the sand, I realized I’d found an old trade bead. The urge to pocket the ancient bauble was fleeting. I reasoned that as insignificant as a broken bead might seem, how was taking it any different than scooping up a seemingly abandoned totem pole?
Also, I’d made a promise.
So I examined the time-battered bead and then brought it to Gladstone, not as a gift, but as something of his I’d happened to find. Watching his face as he studied the modest little bead I realize he was connected to it in a way I would never be. In its fractured surface he saw the story of his ancestors, who he says have always welcomed outsiders to their rich and wondrous landscape. In turn, he says, outsiders have always taken much more than they were given.
Handing the bead to its rightful owner was me keeping my pledge. It was such a small thing, but I’d just been taught Gin ‘wáadluwaan gud ahl kwáagiidang: Everything depends on everything else. This meant I was only to take what I needed, or keep what I was offered.
If You Go:
Maple Leaf Adventures (mapleleafadventures.com) runs several trips to Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas each season aboard three different vessels. For more information on Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas, visit hellobc.com. Learn more about the Haida Gwaii Pledge at haidagwaiipledge.ca.
The writer was a guest of Maple Leaf Adventures. The company did not review or approve the story before publication.