Progress means looking forward: Barbara Wilson describes conservation and tradition in Haida terms

Versions of this article appeared in 2005 in Indian Country Today and in Slow, the magazine of the Slow Food Movement.

Turin, Italy — There’s a lot going on in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, says Barbara Wilson (Haida), shown left. She’s the cultural liaison specialist of the park-reserve, which comprises the southern portion of Moresby Island, off Canada’s west coast. At the top of list is a new heritage center that will open in about a year. Wilson and ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, a professor at the University of Victoria who’s been adopted into Wilson’s clan, have planned a garden for the center that’ll feature traditional plants, the involvement of elders, and school programs. 

The Canadian federal government and the Haida Nation co-manage the area. Under the arrangement, according to Wilson, the two governments agree to disagree on who owns the land, but nevertheless work together to preserve and protect the area for future generations. “The negotiations took place over many years,” recalls Wilson. “We Haidas didn’t acquiese on the land-ownership issue, and we insisted that we be able to continue our traditional activities on the land. For example, Haidas, and only Haidas, can take trees for cultural, nonprofit reasons.”

I spoke to Wilson in October, while we were both attending Terra Madre, a meeting of nearly 5,000 indigenous and traditional agriculturalists, who had been brought from 128 countries around the globe to Turin, Italy, by Slow Food, an Italian organization that supports the production of artisanal foodstuffs worldwide. We were on our way to a marvelous meal in a restaurant in the Italian countryside when we had this conversation.

Q: Who are the Haidas?
A: We live in Haida Gwaii, which is made up of two large islands and many smaller ones — also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. The area has been called the Canadian Galapagos, because of the many endemic species that have evolved there in ways that are distinct from their mainland relatives. Haida Gwaii includes mountains, rivers, boggy areas, and tracts that held old villages. In prehistory, before we started living by the calendar, our land also included a giant grassland. When the glaciers melted, the water level rose, drowning a lot of the grassland and forming our islands. Nowadays, about 6,000 people call themselves Haida or are related to us. We were about 20,000 before the influenza, smallpox, and tuberculosis epidemics of the mid-1800s, when the population dropped to less than 600. Then, we were primarily a marine people, living in coastal villages, though plants were also an important part of our diet.

Q: What’s your focus as the park’s cultural liaison specialist?
A: My interests are in conservation of a Haida world. One of my current concerns is the impact of invasive species on our terrestrial plants. Our islands have no predators to keep animals like deer, beaver, and rats in check. So, terrestrial plants suffer — by being overgrazed by deer, for example. This has cultural repercussions. At one time, we trimmed berry bushes, so mothers and children could easily go berry picking. Now the deer have eaten all the lower branches, so we don’t dare do our traditional management and lose the few remaining fruits. The same thing has happened to medicine plants. So, overgrazing compromises not simply the plants themselves, but the traditional knowledge that goes with managing and consuming them. To use the knowledge, to understand its value, you have to have the plants.

Q: Has your relationship to the sea also changed?
A: One problematic area nowadays is the commercial harvesting of herring spawn — the translucent eggs that the fish deposit on kelp fronds in ocean shallows. Once, this was a mostly female gathering activity. We women would go out in a little put-put and use a long stick with small crossed sticks at the end to pull the kelp up to the surface of the ocean. We’d then pick the spawn-laden fronds off the plants’stalks. If we had any surplus, we traded it. Because this type of fishing has been commercialized, traditional gatherers — Haida women — don’t have the access they once had. We’ve lost not just the opportunity to acquire something we can use to feed our families and to trade, but also the interaction that occurs when you’re working together. While gathering, we were talking, telling stories, adding to friendships and knowledge. These things don’t happen out of context. Conservation means saving a way of life, not just preserving physical objects, like totems, let’s say.

Q: So, you see conservation as an ongoing process.
A: Conservation in Haida terms means change. My people are progressive — almost to a fault. For example, we changed our diet significantly in recent years — taking on white flour, refined sugar, and other European foods. Now, we see that we’re not as tall as we were in the old days. We also have new health concerns, including diabetes, heart problems, cancer, weight-related illnesses, and arthritis. I hope organizations like Slow Food will help us return to consuming our plants. It’s not going to be easy, though. How do we get our people interested in fruits and berries — especially when we’re competing with deer?

Q: Has ceremonial life been affected?
A: We Haidas are looking back at a number of traditional activities and saying we need to encourage them. Progress encompasses not only taking on new activities and concepts, but also keeping current ones that have value and reinstating traditional things that were dropped or transformed. For example, potlatch, which was banned from the 1860s until 1951, is a very important ceremony that allows community members to witness and legitimize various actions and relationships. After it was banned, it didn’t actually disappear. Rather, it changed. People who might have had a potlatch accomplished the same thing through family dinners; they also used Christian celebrations as a reason to get together. Now, we have potlatches again — the same but different. However, for this kind of progress to occur, a people like the Haidas to have the freedom to make choices.

Q: Any final thoughts?
A: We must not be afraid to share. This is a huge life lesson. Only by sharing do we get back what we need. If you don’t share, you don’t have space for other things to come into your life. The other lesson concerns respect. If you look after the land, the plants, and the fish, if you respect them as individuals, just as you wish to be respected, they will look after you. Respect is the basis of what makes each of us a better person and, beyond that, contributes to the survival of humanity. If we give and receive respect, we should be ready for the future.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.