To the Editor,
Thank you for inquiring about the special event we attended on our travels here at Old Masset today, National Aboriginal Day, June 21. We went to a carving shed and longhouse belonging to Head Carver Christian White, a Raven Clan Haida. We had met him last year when we were here. He had assistants with him; his son Vernon, and brother Derek plus eight of Christian’s student carvers who are also Haida Nation.
There are two types of poles here; House Frontal Poles, these have a hollow back and Memorial Poles, which are solid with carving all around the pole, and have less carving on them than a House Frontal Pole. The pole we witnessed and helped with raising is a House Frontal Pole and it was cut around the beginning of December 2016 on Haida Gwaii, a western red cedar. The completed pole measures 62 feet long, of which 54 feet is above ground. The preparatory work, prior to the actual carving, was conducted outdoors from December 16 to early Feb, 2017. The pole was moved into Christian’s carving shed on February 10, 2017 and completed two days ago on June 19. The old Masset Village council commissioned Christian to carve a pole to be erected at the historic sites of Hiellen, located near the base of Tow Hill.
The pole was raised on this day to celebrate National Aboriginal Day and the summer solstice. The historic site of Hiellen has been in existence for many centuries. Over the past centuries the site at Hiellen village has undergone renewal many times. The site continues to be highly regarded by the Haida people. Originally a pole stood on this site from 1820 to 1920 that pole was removed about 1920 and relocated to Prince Rupert, where it stood for many years. It was subsequently replaced by other poles, returned to Haida Gwaii and remained in storage for approximately 50 years. Some of the designs from the new pole came from the old pole, all unique to the Haida culture.
The Haida encourage and welcome everyone to participate in the pole raising. My husband Sam helped pull on the ropes to raise the pole. Approximately 500 – 600 people attended the pole raising ceremony to both witness and assist with the raising of the pole, done in the traditional way with ropes and human power. It takes the strength of many people to raise the heavy pole and bring it into position and then there’s lots of cheering, clapping, singing, dancing and drumming.
It is done in an atmosphere of community and friendship among Haida and non-Haida, locals and visitors, young and old, the pole is pulled up, straightened, and fixed into position with rocks and dirt, accompanied by cheering and singing. During pole raising ceremonies, the poles are blessed by carvers and leaders, often matriarchs. It is a happy time with singing and dancing around the pole.
It is worth noting is that, due to the nation’s dark history, no poles were raised on Haida Gwaii between 1890 – 1969. Many poles used to line villages, but missionaries cut down the poles and collectors were taking them. Logging also threatened the forests before protesting 30 years ago successfully put a stop to that. Bringing back the poles, carving new ones to replace those lost is an important work that will take time and extra effort. The few ancient poles that still stand eventually return to the earth, as they are meant to, and new poles will replace them, as is custom. But it is not just about the stories encompassed in the pole, it is the memories created by being a part of it, the stories like this one I’m telling you, that will be shared by the people involved and passed on through generations.
The poles hold histories from the area, mark events and tell stories of the interconnectedness of the land and the people. The poles are monuments meant to stand for thousands of years, though there may be many changes to the way of life, the meaning in the carvings remain the same. The stories live on.
Carving, painting and pole raising is a very cherished process. There is a lot of celebration when a pole is raised. It is a connection to the past. Even looking for a cedar to be used is a meaningful experience. Carvers are looking for the same features that their ancestors were looking for when they were walking through the forest. The carvings tell stories about sacred figures, about the efforts to protect the land, a lot of Haiida poles depict watchmen who look after the village and educate the people that come to visit the islands. Poles are raised to show family crests, and to honor the household.
I felt great excitement and much honour to witness the pole raising. As I sit here typing this I can remember being a little girl in Prince Rupert and going to the raising of some new poles. I think maybe it was when they removed the old pole and brought it back to Haida Gwaii… I remember it was quiet a big deal, a special occassion. Something I will never forget.
From: Lou Anne Andersen-Campese