Students from Earl Marriott Secondary in Surrey recently spent eight days touring through cultural sites in Haida Gwaii. (Michael Mackay-Dunn photo)

Surrey students explore cultural history of Haida Gwaii

With a map of Haida Gwaii on the table, three Indigenous students from Earl Marriott Secondary in Surrey spoke about their recent trip to the islands.

Organized by teacher Michael Mackay-Dunn and Aboriginal child and youth care worker Dawne Kalenuik in partnership with Semiahmoo First Nation, students on the eight-day trip toured Haida heritage sites while mingling with students from Gudangaay Tlaats’gaa Naay Secondary in Masset.

Grade 11 student Regan Malcolm, who is of Gitxsan heritage, said one of the most moving parts of the adventure was visiting Rose Spit, known as the birthplace of the Haida people and other First Nations across the northwest.

“In my culture, it’s also where we all come from… it truly is a birthplace, it’s an incredible place to be,” Malcolm said. “It’s where man first emerged from a giant clam. I don’t know the whole story, that’s just the story that I know.”

Teachers joined the 18 Indigenous students on the trip, along with Surrey RCMP Constable Troy Derrick, who is also from the Gitxsan First Nation.

Gitxsan and Haida people would cross the sea for trading purposes, Malcolm said.

“Just being surrounded by that community was really nice. It made me miss Prince Rupert and the area I come from, it also makes me wish we do more of an Aboriginal program here. There’s more that can be done. I just want the Aboriginal students here, and the non-Aboriginal students here, to be passionate about the land that they live on and where it comes from, and where the people on it come from.”

Grade 10 student Domenik Couture, who is of Métis heritage but has little knowledge of his ancestral roots, said it was his first time being immersed in Indigenous culture.

Couture spoke about the estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people who lived on Haida Gwaii before European people made contact, and the decimation that followed the smallpox epidemic of 1862.

Couture also spoke about the Haida tradition of placing the bodies of loved ones inside mortuary posts. Standing upright, the body would eventually be reclaimed by nature. Some of the posts, and remains, were taken from the islands to museums.

“And to know that they’re still working on getting the bodies back, it makes me a little mad to know that people would do that,” Couture said. “Take bodies and put them in museums like art? It makes me upset.”

The group visited a cemetery, and Couture said it was proof that nature reclaims the deceased.

“Moss growing over the graves, it shows that the earth is reclaiming the body,” he said.

Grade 8 student Isabelle Gould, who has lineage in the Interior Salish, said the trip gave her a new perspective.

“I’ve learned a lot about the culture and how they lived, and how important a lot of things are to them that we don’t usually think about,” she said, such as the Golden Spruce and the protected areas across Haida Gwaii.

Kiidk’yaas, the Golden Spruce, was a sitka spruce tree that grew on the Yakoun River. Malcolm spoke about how it was known for its vibrant, glowing gold appearance before it was cut down in 1997 by Grant Hadwin. Hadwin was to stand trial for the act, but disappeared while kayaking across the Hecate Strait to court.

Malcolm talked about how the tree was believed to be the spirit of a child from Haida Gwaii, and the people held a service to honour the tree.

“To them, the Golden Spruce was a little boy, it had a spirit. It was very special, that’s why it was so devastating when it was cut down.”

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