Moving ceremony brings tears, joy as author Christie Harris’s ashes are scattered on North Beach

  • Sep. 3, 2008 11:00 a.m.

By Jeff King–“It was one of the great, splendid moments in our family life. Somehow a full circle has been completed here.” That’s how Moira Johnston Block described scattering the ashes of her mother, Christie Harris, at North Beach the day after the Heritage Centre opening. Christie Harris, who died in 2002, was the author of some 20 books, none more popular than Raven’s Cry, written in 1966, with illustrations by Bill Reid. “That summer of 1964 (which Christie and family including daughter Moira spent here) is a treasured highlight of my life,” Ms Block said, telling the Observer that throughout that summer, Florence Davidson shared with her mother the story that became Raven’s Cry. The book, about the life of Charles Edenshaw and the tragedy of European contact with the Haida, became a classic. Ms Harris wanted to tell the story, then unknown except to the Haida. With a grant from the Canada Council and Bill Reid’s participation, the book was born. “She could not write a word without feeling she had made it as authentic and true as it could be,” Ms Block said. Raven’s Cry is described as a moving, powerful work, a fictionalized retelling of the near destruction of the Haida. Until Europeans arrived in 1775, the Haida were the lords of the coast. The meeting of cultures was fateful: the Europeans had firearms and immunity to their own deadly diseases. In just 150 years, the Haida and their culture were pushed to the edge of extinction. Christie Harris recreates this tale of tragedy and the ultimate survival of native spirit with dignity, beauty and ethnographic accuracy.” Ms Harris wrote prolifically in the years between 1966 and her death, but Haida Gwaii was always special, and her daughter knew her ashes, or at least some of them, should find a resting place here. We thought seven years ago, ‘we must go up to Tow Hill, the seven of us, up to scatter mother’s ashes,'” Ms Block said. In the end, a dozen members of the family came, five children and their partners and three grandchildren. They sought permission from the Haida, and “chatted with the Davidson family, Guujaaw, Miles Richardson, people she cared deeply about,” Ms Block said, “I asked for their blessing. We were so thrilled the Haida wanted her ashes tossed onto North Beach to mix with the chain of life.” Ms Block then described the happy tears on the beach, and shared a family tradition. “She was very Irish, we shared a little bit of Irish whisky to toast her and to toast our Irish tradition.” “We spent perhaps an hour on the beach, we laughed, hugged, revelled in the beauty of it in the rain.” Ms Block says her mother handed down to her the sense of the potlatch as gift-giving, and that she tries to give back as much as she can. With that in mind, the family donated a couple of boxes of their mother’s books to the schools in Masset and Skidegate while they were here, and that sense has underpinned Ms Block’s own writing, which includes the article about the fight for Gwaii Haanas published by National Geographic in 1987. ” I have tried to honour the Haida by being truthful and by trying to build more bridges,” she said. Thanks to this visit, the family’s connection with Haida Gwaii may not be over. Christie Johnston, granddaughter of Christie Harris and daughter of Ms Block, may have been enchanted by the islands. “I can see we have the third generation professionally involved, in a way,” Ms Block said of her photojournalist daughter, “Perhaps we can build more bridges.”

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