On our second day in Haida Gwaii, we continued south from the floating camp in the zodiac toward the very southern tip of the islands. We planned to stay at an abandoned whaling station called Rose Harbour on of the few places for shelter in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site which comprises most of the southern half of Haida Gwaay.
During the afternoon we arrived at Ninstints (Nan Sdins) or SGang Gwaay Llanagaay which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also designated a National Historic Site of Canada. It was one of the most prosperous Haida villages.
The village was recorded to have a population of 545 inhabitants at early contact with Europeans in 1840; but by 1870 it numbered only 150 by the 1880’s thanks to the smallpox introduced by the Europeans. Smallpox killed about 90% of the population on all of Haida Gwaii and signaled the end of the Haida civilization.
The decline in population meant that the social systems and villages could no longer be sustained. It was like when the plague hit Europe, but worse. Society collapsed and the Haida retreated from their villages, like SGang Gwaay, Tanu, Skedans, etc. and relocated in the centre of the islands around Skidegate. With no social infrastructure, the way of life could not be sustained.
After the small pox, SGang Gwaay was abandoned. What’s left makes you marvel at the civilization of the Haida. The remnants of SGang Gwaay are the wooden structures almost untouched 150 years. The moss has over grown some areas; the supporting timbers have rotten out and caused the long houses to fall; but, you can still see the majesty of the culture.
The Haida now have a system of Watchmen who guard the abandoned village sites because they are so remote and open to vandalism and theft. Haida totem poles have been taken for display in the British Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, the Field Museum in Chicago and many more.
Long Houses lined the beach of SGang Gwaay. Each had an entry totem pole and many carved and decorated corner poles. The houses were huge. The floors were about three feet below ground. There was a cedar plank floor and sleeping platforms lining the inside. In the centre of the house was a fire pit. The roof had long posts supporting roofing planks. The fire hole in the centre had a movable vent to adjust to the wind keeping the interior as smoke free as possible.
In addition, SGang Gwaay has memorial poles that held the remains of people of great importance with their ancestry symbols carved into the pole below them. The size of the village, and its remoteness, are inspiring.
The wealth and quality of life of the Haida civilization is clear. Because of abundant food and timber resources, the Haida had the time to create amazing artwork that stands up today. In addition to their cedar carving, they also were unique in carving in argillite, a black slate sourced near Skidegate. These last much longer than the wooden artifacts – totems, canoes, boxes, masks, and ornaments. Haida art has a distinctive style that sometimes seems reminiscent of Polynesia.