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Sanesh & Nathan Paddle Haida Gwaii Part 2: Pole Raising & Potlatch

This is the second post in a three part series about Sanesh’s trip to visit Nathan in Haida Gwaii, including their circumnavigations of Chaatl and Louise Island and their witnessing of Yaghu ‘Laanaas pole raising & potlatch! Check out part 1 here to get caught up.

After hanging out in the grass and enjoying a pastry, I heeded a warning issued by many about the pole raising. “There will be food, lots of it, but only after the pole is up which could take hours. So don’t come hungry.” I crammed down some Coop Mac & Cheese with Sweet and Sour Chicken - surprisingly good combo. As it turns out, M – the kind woman from the airport – was right. All we needed to do was follow the crowd to find the pole raising. We were there right at noon, so we were lucky enough to be able to spend some time interacting with the pole while it was still laying down. Nathan made a funny comment, “make sure you look at the top, because once it’s up you’ll never see it up close again.” A wise observation.

Preparing the pole to be raised. Take note of the copper tops, to protect the pole. And the cedar hats, to protect the people, it was a scorching hot day.

Something that was interesting to watch was the difference in how settlers — there were a few of us — interacted with the pole, as compared to Haida. I was scared to touch the thing. It was beautiful. Intricately carved, beautifully painted. In talking with people it was clear the amount of effort that went into creating it was staggering. I didn’t want to damage it. Yet, there were kids playing on it. Slapping it proudly. Kissing it.

A Haida man I met summarised it succinctly. “The tree was here before you were. The pole will be here after you are gone. And one day the pole will be gone too. There is nothing you can do but enjoy it.”

The pole raising was pretty special. It felt like everyone in Haida Gwaii had come out. Prior to raising the pole, we got to observe lots of ceremonial singing and dance. As we stood watching, I had serious envy over all the beautiful cedar hats. It was hot. Like hot hot! The elders had a designated tent and were being tended to with great care to ensure they were comfortable for this significant event — the first pole raising since COVID. This probably contributed to the electric energy. Despite the heat, everyone was excited, walking, and talking.

The Eagles Beak was huge, the size of a large torso, it took two people to lift

Raising the pole happened in three steps. First, the pole was rolled from its face-up state, to face-down and ready to be lifted. When it came time to roll the pole, Nathan and I were encouraged to join in and help, among dozens of others. Rolling involves two steps, which I think were made challenging by the fact that this was a frontal pole with the back hollowed out (half-circle cross section, rather than a cylinder). First was the lift. We got the pole on edge, this was fast. At this point, loud cracks began to echo. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to stand on a frozen lake, you’ll know the sound. Single, sharp, cracks which resonate through the pole. You feel them as much as you hear them. Everyone got tense, what was happening?! Someone started yelling “it’s the dunnage!” That meant nothing to me (#citykid). The man on my right understood my inquisitive look, and assured me "it’s just the boards holding the pole up.” New word in my vocabulary, one I’ll never forget.

The next step, lowering, was the scary one. This is the part where damage can happen to the pole, and people. On the side I was on, we pushed down firmly to prevent the poll from tipping fast. On the other side — whose heads we can barely see over the tops of the poles — are pushing up as hard as they can. As we gently laid the pole down, there was a breath, and cheering. We did it, the pole was safe, as was everyone. It went smoothly, thanks to all the hands on the pole. I immediately felt foolish for thinking me touching the pole earlier could have damaged it.

It took dozens, if not hundreds, of people to lift and align the pole using 5 huge ropes, all coordinated by the Pole Master on the roof of the longhouse

The next step took some time, involving a number of carvers and craftsmen affixing carved sections to the pole, like the eagle's beak and supernatural killer whales' two fins. The beak was larger than my torso, it looked like a hundred pounds of cedar. It was truly incredible, it really gave a sense of scale to how big this pole would be when it’s up. After affixing the additions to the pole, running the lifting lines over the roof of the longhouse, the final step came, raising the pole.

There was a ceremony which occurred immediately before raising the pole, including the burial of the carver’s tools into the hole within which the pole would sit. They beckoned everyone to go grab a raising line. There were 3 at the back of the longhouse, and two in front. Once everything was lined up, at the command of the pole master, we pulled. The pole lifted so fast that the lines got slack. I honestly thought the pole was going to tip backwards onto the long house. That’s where those two lifting lines in front came into play. They pulled taught and were used to centre and align the pole. These were serious moments. The Pole Master ordered each line to pull and slacken to align the pole. Like balancing a pencil, but way way bigger. We held steady for — according to my photo timestamps from before and after the process — approximately 45 minutes. Attentively listening to the pole master as he guided the lines to ensure the pole was straight, and as the pole was secured in its base hole with rocks.

Once the pole was up, the cheering began again. And it didn’t stop for days.

It's up!

After the pole raising, came the potlatch. Nathan and I slowly made our way to the community centre. We’d ran into an old friend of mine and a group of their coworkers earlier in the day. We found a seat inside the gymnasium with them in the rafters. It was packed full of people. Based on my quick count and estimate, I pegged 800 to 1000 people in the room. It was packed full.

The potlatch opened with speeches and ceremony, notably from the host and pole raiser, Christian White. He said something, which was echoed throughout the next two days, that the pole and potlatch was not for him to “make a claim to hereditary chief” and it was “for the people.” There’s a bit of a backstory here which I was unaware of at the time. In 2016, two hereditary chiefs lost their titles in the aftermath of a corruption scandal involving Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. Of course, a potlatch was held to announce this decision. I learned from some attendees of that 2016 potlatch that there was, naturally, significant tension which resulted. This tension spilled over into subsequent potlatches. Christian and matriarch Candace White made it abundantly clear that their intent was to host something joyful, for sharing knowledge, and to strengthen the community.

The room was packed, the energy was electric

At dinner time on the first day, the audience was called upon to help serve. A settler woman I was sitting beside went to help and asked me if I could keep an eye on her two daughters. Dinner was full of seafood. Salmon. Halibut. And, excitingly for me, K’aaw — the traditional herring roe on kelp — including rice and soy sauce. Nathan and I saved food for our friends who were serving. When my bench-mate came back, she sat down and picked up her plate, looked at me, and pointed at her K’aaw and excitedly said “what’s this?!” I described it, herring roe on seaweed. She takes a bite and looks at me, “we have this in Japan!” Nathan looks at me and says, “remember what we learned last night?!” So I retold the history I learned, about how Japanese whalers had inspired K’aaw in its current form. She was very excited. And I was amazed at the connection… an ocean apart, traditions shared. It’s histories, serendipities, and connections like this that defined my time in Haida Gwaii.

Something that needs to be made abundantly clear is that potlatches are places of doing business. Nathan drew the comparison with a business meeting, which I don’t quite think does it justice, having sat in a few of those myself. We don’t quite have an equivalent in western culture. The Haida tell oral histories, and potlatches are ways of communicating new events to the wider community (such as namings, chief status, trade relationships, etc.), as well as echoing old histories and events, with the songs and dances involving retelling of oral histories. We have a lot to learn from this tradition, in how we communicate and share knowledge.

The first of what would turn out to be many beautiful meals. K’aaw is the spotted-white piece on the left. The generosity of this potlatch… I’m without words

The potlatch ran past 10:30pm. Nathan and I drove off to meet up with our friends and camp for the night, and prepare for the next morning.

Saturday morning, we woke up, went for a walk down the beach, and slowly made our way to the coffee shop and on to the second day of the potlatch. I decided that I wanted to volunteer for the day, so I walked into the back and looked at someone and said “how can I help?” The next 12 hours were busy, and so fun. I took out the trash, shredded lettuce, and served litres and litres of juice. While I was still able to watch the potlatch, I was also able to make a bunch of new friends in the back, and do some more listening and learning. Short of recounting each of my conversations, all I can say is that this was truly an eye opening experience. I felt like over the course of that 12 hour day, I built relationships with people. Aunties who were trying to figure out if Nathan and I were a couple, children hunting for juice, and even members of the crowd who went the extra mile to help serve those around them. One new friend said it best, “this is what it’s all about.” Being a part of a community, working together, building relationships. It was on this day that I thought “wow, I could move to Haida Gwaii.”

There was a family tree in the back of the room, where people were supposed to fill in where they fit relative to the others in the clan. This grew from just a few names on the first night to completely full by the end of the second day of the potlatch

After the potlatch ended at midnight, Nathan and I stayed to help with the cleanup as well. The real highlight here is that Nathan got to use a drill on a ladder. Nathan loves to use drills on ladders, a trait inherited from his dad who would have jumped on the opportunity to use a drill on a ladder at a potlatch. Jay and Silvia raised a good one. At 2:30am, we made our way to the party happening at Christian’s long house. The community was out, young and old, talking, singing, and dancing. The party went on until the stars disappeared and the sky started to turn blue. There was a moment where people realised the morning had come, and started singing a song together. I was talking to a teacher from the local elementary school, and she said “this song I know! I sing the morning song every day with my students.” At this point, 6am or so, Nathan and I went to the van, and slept.

Nathan with a drill on a ladder

I’m still unpacking my experience at the Potlatch. It was simultaneously exciting and new, but I also felt at home and cared for in a way that I’ve only experienced when staying with close friends while travelling. People were not only excited to talk about themselves, but to learn about me. Not about my work but about my identity and the things that shape that. I felt seen, and heard, and even understood, in ways that I rarely, if ever, feel in the city. The people in Haida Gwaii are incredible.

When we woke up, at around 10am, people were still singing! We decided to go for a hike and to slowly head back to Daajing Giids. Though I was around for the start of the cheering at the pole raising, I couldn’t actually tell you when the cheering stopped, but it was at least 3 days later.

After a stop at the coffee shop, where some uncles — including a man named Guujaaw — teased me for wearing a hoodie in 20C weather (my brain was exhausted) — Nathan, Rita, and I went to hike Tow Hill. We got a beautiful view of Rose Spit, and the blowhole. Then we were on our way back to Daajing Giids to go on our next adventure.

The view towards Rose Spit, beautiful

To be continued...

Head back and read part 1 if you haven't already, and stay tuned for part 3! Please consider subscribing to be notified by email when the next post is published.

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