By Evelyn von Almassy–On February 18, 1997, I took my grade two/three class from Tahayghen Elementary School to the courthouse in Masset. We went to watch the court proceedings of the person who had killed the Golden Spruce Tree in Port Clements. Grant Hadwin, who had admitted to this act, did not show up for his court date. That day was brought back to me in many ways at the Haida Rose CafÃ© on Sunday evening.
I’ve been assisting with the readings that John Vaillant, the author of “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed” has been giving around Haida Gwaii. Fran Fowler of the QC Islands Arts Council had set them up in Charlotte, Masset and Old Massett.
Sunday night was the reading in Old Massett, with an attentive multi-generational audience. After John read some passages, people had comments and questions. Leo Gagnon, of the Tsiij git’anne clan stated, “Outsiders, throughout our whole history have been robbing us blind.” He said that the “three g’s” have always been in action: “greed, glory and personal gain”. He was thankful that John did all the work of collecting the information that formed his book. (Leo, along with other members of his clan, is acknowledged in the book for granting John permission to write about the story of the golden spruce.) Leo remarked that the spruce had “been a part of his family”, and that “it brought people together”.
Leo went on to say that three guitars were made from the felled tree and they will be back on the islands this summer. Leo has written a song about the golden spruce, and he announced that he would be playing his song on one of these guitars when that happens
Frank Collison also attended. He movingly recounted that at the time of the golden spruce’s death, he thought, “How can anyone do this to us?” Â…”I remember the tree from the time I was a little boy; it was part of our lives, part of our family, part of our nation.”
Margaret Edgars, an elder who is known for her knowledge of plants, said her grandmother used to tell the story about a boy that doesn’t listen. He walked down the river, looked back (against his mother’s advice), stood still, and became the golden spruce.
Throughout the readings in all the communities, you could hear a pin drop. It was as if the audiences were trying to work through the puzzle of why this happened. John emphasized that the main character of his book is the golden spruce. The life of Grant Hadwin, the person who cut down this beloved tree with the golden needles, was delved into, but the tree was the focal point. John was often asked if he thought Hadwin was still alive. He thought that he was not; audience members had their own varied opinions as to the fate of Hadwin.
One of the most powerful things that John talked about were the reburials of the Haida remains in Old Massett. For him it was like a thunderbolt: “400 years of North American history telescoped for me at the reburial of the Haida remains”.
After the reading, Andrea Medley from old Massett reminded me that she had been in that grade two/three class nine ago that went to the courthouse. That was a startling reminder to me that the past comes hurtling to the future and reminds us of the power of history and people’s memories. When John asked her what she remembered from that day, she replied she remembered it being about justice, and that is was an important day.
John said that he would return to the islands in the future with his family. For this, his first book, he won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction and the B.C. Writer’s Trust Award for Non-Fiction. He is also nominated for the Regional B.C. Award, the Non-Fiction B.C. Award and the Kuriayma Foundation Award.
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