Mortuary poles at SGang Gwaay

The village at Sgang Gway, a Unesco world heritage site. was inhabited by the Haida First Nations people for over 2000 years. After smallpox epidemics in the 19th century decimated the population, survivors had to abandon the village and moved to one of the northern islands in the Haida Gwaii archipelago.

This totem forest was recorded in the early 1900s in the haunting paintings and sketches of Canadian artist Emily Carr. It was her art that inspired my visit. The island is accessible only by boat and visitors are strictly limited. My family visited the site with only the Haida watchman guide, and the spirits of generations past. It’s a sacred place to the Haida who feel a deep connection to the islands.

The poles, standing in front of the houses of chiefs or other important members of the village bear the crests of the deceased. After death the body was placed in a bentwood box and a pole commissioned. When the pole was erected the box with the remains was placed in a cavity at the top of the pole. In keeping with the Haida culture, the poles are not preserved but allowed to be reclaimed by nature. The moss and grasses taking over the decaying remains of the poles and houses is a vivid reminder of the natural cycle of death and rebirth.

At Gwaii Haanas National Park north of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

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