The Totems of Old Massett

Well, apart from sleeping in Margaret Atwood's bed and having my breakfast cooked for me, what I've really come to see here are the remnants of Haida culture at the northern end of the northernmost island.  The Haida seem to have been one of the most successful First Nation people in preserving their traditions, though it was touch and go - not long ago there were only 5 native Haida speakers left alive.  But Haida artists in particular have kept the artistic traditions going and are handing the skills down to younger generations.  One of them is Jim Hart, one of Canada's most distinguished artists, a descendant of the wonderful Haida sculptor Charles Edenshaw, and also a hereditary Haida chief.  Jim's son danced a traditional Haida dance at the opening of the  Emily Carr exhibition in London last year.  Jim is currently carving a new project, with his apprentices, here in Masset.  I couldn't photograph the work in progress, but I can let you see the massive cedar trunk waiting its turn on the banks of Masset inlet, underneath Jim's Eagle totem. The tree really is huge - almost as wide as I'm tall.

Once, the whole of the shore was lined with totems in Masset, house poles and mortuary poles fronting the Haida longhouses.

Now there are fewer, scattered through the village, but gradually creeping back.

Painted Haida house and pole

Totem on the street - you can see the hooked beak of the eagle near the bottom.

There are ravens and eagles everywhere in Masset - so it's easy to see how the two main clan divisions of the Haida became established.  Ravens are easy to photograph - the eagles are more difficult because they're usually high in the sky or roosting on the tops of trees.  If you're Haida you're either Raven or Eagle and traditionally you can't marry someone from your own clan.  
Raven at Masset Inlet
One of my tasks here has been to consult the Council of the Haida Nation for permission to write about them and reference their stories and myths.  Unlike other cultures, stories in Haida Gwaii are owned by particular families and handed down from generation to generation - I suppose it's a form of copyright.  So I need permission to quote certain stories, and as a matter of respect,  I need permission to publish photographs of their artefacts.  The local head of the council here - a woman - was very kind and businesslike and will put my request in front of the cultural committee. 

While indigenous culture here is doing better than in many other places I've visited, there is still a lot of poverty and inequality.  There are two villages - Masset (which is largely European) and Old Masset (which is largely Haida).  Masset appears to be thriving, but Old Masset is a mixture of extreme poverty - abandoned cars and neglected buildings among the houses of the more prosperous Haida. 
One of the run-down houses on the waterfront.

The old museum, now abandoned. 
There are no shops that I could find - the big supermarkets are in Masset, and - though I looked for somewhere that might sell Haida artwork or carvings, I didn't see any, though I know there are some in Masset.  Perhaps tourists don't usually go to Old Masset.  That was definitely my impression. 

Tomorrow I'm going out to explore the forests and the beaches, hoping that the weather, which has become overcast and rather gloomy, will improve a little.  But I really shouldn't be wishing for the sun - they're desperate for rain here, having had dry sunny weather and high temperatures for almost a month - unheard of!  No one here questions climate change and the Haida, like other First Nation people in Canada are at the forefront of environmental action.  There are NoEnbridge signs in front gardens signalling opposition to the trans Canada pipeline that is supposed to transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to a tanker port on the coast too near Haida Gwaii for safety.  In the Masset coffee shop there's a poster warning of the Fukishima radiation turning up on the beaches here - as a Haida saying has it 'Everything is connected' - what we do in one part of the world affects everyone else.  


  1. I remember seeing that photograph of Old Massett at the Emily Carr exhibition earlier this year. Very envious of you seeing it all at first hand. And yes, I have read about the concerns about the aftermath of Fukishima on the Haida Gwaii - as if they had not already suffered and overcome so much.


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