The People - The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)

Chapter 4. The People

The island was nothing but saltwater, they say. Raven flew around. He looked for a place to land in the water. By and by, he flew to a reef…to sit on it. But the great mass of supernatural beings had their necks resting on one another, like sea cucumbers. The weak supernatural beings floated out from it sleeping, every which way, this way and that way. It was both light and dark, they say.

—from “Raven Who Kept Walking,” a Haida creation story

SEVEN HUNDRED KILOMETRES northwest of Gold Bridge, the Haida village of Old Masset hugs the beach on the eastern shore of Masset Sound at the upper end of Graham Island. The sound is a broad channel that winds through dense forest and swampland, and in the course of cutting the island almost in half, it links the Yakoun River to the sea. Big, determined tides push and pull along its serpentine length, and are felt as far upstream as the golden spruce, more than fifty kilometres to the south. Just past Old Masset’s graveyard, this brackish two-way river makes a final dogleg turn around a spit of sand before emptying into the broad gap between Graham and Prince of Wales Islands, a nasty stretch of water called Dixon Entrance. Fully exposed to the Pacific, it is one of several gateways for the sudden tempests that plague Hecate Strait. Even on the calmest days, the sea rolls by in long hillocks, the lumbering, whale-backed memories of storms that once wracked Hokkaido, Kamchatka, or the Aleutians.

Along the beachfront at Old Masset, monumental poles—the elaborately carved spines of trees—stand vigil. Many have been raised to honour the dead, but at the north end of the village, in front of a prominent chief’s house, there is one with a different purpose. The chief himself is a master carver, and his house is an imposing structure of broad cedar planks and heavy bevelled beams. It stands apart from the other village houses, which have been built in orderly rows, closely following the contours of the shore. Most of the houses and all of the poles are oriented toward Masset Sound, but this pole and the ferocious creatures that compose it are angled away, toward the open sea. The pole is around twelve metres tall and more than a metre through at the base. Its lower section is carved in the shape of an enormous grizzly bear, and cradled in its forepaws is a dugout canoe. To get an idea of the weather that blows through here on a regular basis, one need only look inside this canoe; though it is three metres off the ground, it must be emptied periodically of windborne sand and seaweed. There are other animals higher up on the pole, and there is an eagle on the top—an indicator of the chief’s lineage—but it is the bear and its carefully held canoe that grab the eye and hold it. There is something strangely familiar about them, but it takes a moment to realize what it is.

On the opposite side of the continent, in another small fishing town, there is a statue of a human being named Mary who can be seen holding a boat of her own. What is difficult to determine with certainty about either the spirit bear in Old Masset or the spirit woman in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is whether they are truly protecting these vessels, or simply preparing to offer them up. In any case, generations of Gloucester fishermen and their families have knelt before Our Lady of Good Voyage and prayed for the safe passage of their ships, their loved ones, and themselves. And on a soft spring afternoon in 2003, in the parallel universe of Old Masset, a similar ritual is taking place at the foot of the chief’s pole. If you had been there that day, and happened to close your eyes, relying solely on your remaining senses, time would have slipped out from under you. You would have found yourself grasping at centuries.

In a pit nearby, a driftwood fire is burning, and a cedar plank arrayed with slabs of carefully seasoned salmon and halibut has been laid upon the flames. But none of the people who stand and sing around the fire has any intention of eating this rough feast; these delicacies are not for them. The smoke moves from quarter to quarter in the testy wind like a broken compass needle as the fish incinerates, its essence corkscrewing into the cloud-streaked sky on its way to feed Skilay. Skilay was the spokesman for the golden spruce, and now he is dead. Today the people have gathered by the hundreds to fill the dark hole he has left behind.

IN 1859, WILLIAM DOWNIE, a successful American gold prospector, travelled to British Columbia, where he worked both as a prospector and as an explorer for the British colonial governor. In the course of his travels Downie visited the Queen Charlottes, where some large gold strikes, including a single six-hundred-gram nugget, had been found. In his report to the governor, Downie wrote that he had found the Haida were “first-class prospectors, and know all about gold mining.” But he was even more impressed with their seamanship: “They are the best boatmen I have ever met, and in saying this I refer to both sexes. They have, indeed, an amphibious-like nature, for they seem to be as much at home in the water as they are ashore, and for feats of diving and swimming their equals are not easily found.”

In 1873 James Swan, an American writer, judge, historian, customs collector, and promoter of the Northwest, visited the Queen Charlottes on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. While there, he reported seeing canoes that were “very large and capable of carrying one hundred persons with all their equipments for a long voyage [sic].”

Native peoples throughout the Americas have used dugout canoes (hewn from a single log) for a variety of purposes ranging from offshore whaling expeditions to warfare and the transport of people and trade goods. Dugouts were used widely on both coasts of North America, but it is the First Nations people of the Northwest who are credited with building the biggest canoes made by anyone anywhere in the world; some approached thirty metres in length. Once a canoe-worthy tree had been selected, it would be felled with stone axes and fire; carvers would rough it out on the spot and then drag it—sometimes for several kilometres—through the woods to the carver’s village for finishing. Failed attempts can still be found scattered throughout the forest. Traveling in these giant cedar canoes, the Haida would regularly paddle their home into, and out of, existence. With each collective paddle stroke they would have seen their islands sinking steadily into the sea while distant snow-covered peaks scrolled up before them like a new planet. Few people alive today have any notion of how it might feel to pull worlds up from beyond the horizon by faith and muscle alone.

Like all the coastal tribes, from Northern California to southeast Alaska, virtually everything the Haida made began as a tree. Their hats and baskets were woven from spruce roots, and just about everything else, including much of their clothing, came from the bark and wood of the red cedar; tall, straight-grained, and easy to work, it encourages construction on a massive scale. Their houses are the size of small airplane hangars; their carved poles can be as long as their canoes. Launching from their remote marine base, the Haida raided and traded up and down the coast as well as far into the interior by river. They suffered casualties but rarely retribution because few of the coastal tribes had the skill or audacity to pursue them across Hecate Strait. While some of these journeys were dedicated to peaceful commerce, many expeditions—even those to neighbouring villages—were devoted to raiding and slave-taking. By 1850, the tribe had become legendary for a ferocity, mobility, and naval daring comparable to the Vikings. There has been a great deal of speculation about how far the Haida travelled, but it has since been demonstrated that a nineteenth-century dugout canoe can make the journey from British Columbia to Hawai’i. (Based on existing trade routes and maritime technology it would have been possible—in theory—for a Greek to get to the West Coast as early as 400 A.D.)

Several adjacent mainland tribes, the Tlingit and Tsimshian in particular, had reputations as fierce as the Haida, though with more territory, trading opportunities, and enemies at their immediate disposal, they tended not to travel as far afield. Despite their mutual hostility, all the Northwest Coast tribes share strong cultural ties. They travelled by canoe, carved poles, and had similar tribe and clan structures; in some cases they intermarried, and they all attached a high value to wealth and status which found its purest expression in the potlatch ceremony. A potlatch can serve many purposes, from celebrating the construction of a house or demonstrating an individual’s worthiness to lead, to saving face or making amends for an injury—social or physical—that has been suffered upon a member of another family or clan. They are also held to acknowledge the passing of a remarkable person. No matter what the purpose, the host provides food and gifts for all who attend, thus obligating them to be witnesses to whatever has transpired. The tribes of the Northwest Coast are the only ones on the continent who had so many possessions, and such effective means of transporting them that they could store their belongings in heavy wooden chests, some of which can hold a person with ease.

In addition to being master mariners, the Haida were sea hunters who pursued shark, seal, sea lion, halibut, and occasionally whales. But it hardly seemed necessary; shellfish were so abundant, and the runs of salmon, herring, and pilchard, among others, so vast and easily harvested, that the Haida’s environment could be described as a kind of subaqueous buffet enlivened by revolving seasonal specials. Whatever they lacked on the islands they could trade or fight for on the mainland. Even today, island bays will turn white with herring milt (semen), and flocks of seagulls over a kilometre wide and many kilometres long can be seen pursuing eulachon*3 up the Skeena River, across Hecate Strait. It was because of this bounty that the Northwest Coast had one of the densest non-agricultural populations on earth. With food so plentiful and the climate so moderate, the Haida, like their tropical counterparts, had an enormous amount of free time to feast, fight, tell stories, make monumental art, and build gigantic dugout canoes—in short, to develop a highly complex culture. It has been estimated that as much as 40 percent of the region’s inhabitants were slaves.

The Haida’s masks, “totem” poles, bighouses, and canoes represent a high point in North American art and craftmanship. Without knowing who made them, most people would recognize their artworks, which have become international symbols of North American Native culture. A Haida canoe, sixteen metres in length, is on permanent display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. An even larger canoe—nineteen metres long and elaborately decorated—is the centrepiece for the Northwest Indians exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.†4

Many traces of this early legacy remain. Dotted throughout the islands that constitute the Haida’s historical domain are abandoned villages where one can still see the same red cedar poles that greeted and alarmed the archipelago’s first European visitors. Nowhere else on the coast—or in the world—do so many old poles survive in their original beachfront locations. Cedar is exceptionally durable, but out here, a typical pole lives only about as long as a human being before it falls over and is consumed by the forest. These poles are the Easter Island and Angkor Wat of the Pacific Northwest, but where the latter could last indefinitely, the Haida poles’ woodenness is their death sentence; in all likelihood any poles still in situ will revert to nature in our lifetimes (in accordance with the Haida’s wishes). The village of Nan Sdins (NIN-stints), at the southern tip of the archipelago, is the most famous and best preserved of these places, and it has been classified as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Due to the village’s sheltered location and recent conservation measures, more than two dozen poles still stand here despite being well over a hundred years old.

Half of these poles are visibly fire-scarred because, once the village had been abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century, members of one of the coastal tribes who had been raided repeatedly by Nan Sdins warriors crossed Hecate Strait and set fire to the village in an act of long-deferred revenge. Today, it is still possible to see what fire, anthropologists, and time have left behind. Bleached like bones, the fixed and staring eyes of eagle, raven, killer whale, frog, bear, and beaver—heraldic crests and spiritual allies of the former inhabitants—gaze back from the intentional forest of poles. Carved from single trees, the creatures are stacked upon one another more than ten metres high, merging together as if sample specimens of the local fauna—humans included—had been stuffed, one after the other, into giant test tubes and petrified. Their deftly carved features are exaggerated and intimidating: tongues loll, nostrils flare, teeth are bared, but now these expressions seem more the effects of rigor mortis than of the vigorous ferocity of life; this is a place of ghosts. It seems appropriate, then, that almost all that remain are mortuary poles, once topped with bentwood boxes filled with the remains of wealthy people. One struggles to imagine the lives lived out there: the ambitious sculptors thrilled to be carving with European iron rather than Tsimshian beaver teeth; the barn-sized longhouses made of cedar planks and posts; the lavish potlatches in which chiefs and nobles gained status by demonstrating how much they could afford to give away.

IT IS A MEMORIAL POTLATCH for Skilay that has brought so many people to Old Masset. Skilay, also called Ernie “Big Eagle” Collison, was one of the most powerful members, not just of his clan but of the entire Haida Nation. He was not a chief, but he occupied a position that was equally admired and, in day-to-day life, even more practically important. A talented fisherman, carver, and singer, and a dedicated politician and activist, he was one who could transcend boundaries; when everyone else was too angry or too discouraged to talk, he could get them laughing again. Skilay was also known as the Steersman; he was one who made sure the canoe—the Haidas’ ship of state—was going in the right direction. For many of the assembled, Skilay was, warts and all, a living embodiment of what it means to be Haida—in other words, a human being.

The word “Haida” simply means “people,” which is really just another word for “us.” In fact, throughout the world, the names used by most indigenous peoples to describe themselves translate to this, the implication being that “We are Us: the People—and the rest of you are not.” The Haida call their island home Haida Gwaii, which means, literally, “Place (Islands) of the People,” but there is an older name, and it translates, roughly, to “Islands Coming Out of (Supernatural) Concealment.” In this sense, the islands represent a sort of existential intertidal zone—not just between the forest and the sea but between the surface and spirit worlds. Haida Gwaii is the most remote archipelago anywhere on the West Coast, and there is no other North American tribe whose ancestral home is located farther offshore, or whose territorial boundaries are so clearly and unambiguously delineated. It is generally believed that parts of the islands were refugia, places left untouched by the great ice sheets which covered so much of North America during the last ice age. As a result, these islands are sometimes referred to as the “Canadian Galápagos,” and in many ways they are a world apart, hosting numerous species and subspecies that occur nowhere else. The Haida language, too, is what linguists refer to as an “isolate,” unrelated to that of any other West Coast tribe.

Like the vast ocean and the fitful weather that surround them, virtually everything in the Haidas’ world is capable of changing form and function as whim or circumstance dictate. Thus, a rock is never just a rock, and a crab is always more than a crab. Mountains can take the form of killer whales, and a canoe can open its mouth and tear out the throat of a grizzly bear. Virtually every rock, reef, island, and inlet in the archipelago has some supernatural association, just as prominent geographical features in Australia’s Outback do for Aborigines, and those in the Holy Land do for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The golden spruce is woven into this web of shape-shifting, interconnected meaning as well. Many representatives from these multiple dimensions have been summoned to Old Masset in order to honour Skilay.

Skilay was an Eagle, one of two primary Haida tribal affiliations, or moieties (the other being Raven), and beneath these heraldic umbrellas are dozens of clans. Moiety and clan affiliation are inherited from one’s mother and each is represented by a crest. While most of these take the form of birds, animals, sea creatures, or humans, far more abstract symbols such as rainbows, clouds, and even avalanches are used as well. As a result of intermarriage, most families possess several crests, and when it comes to sheer, hyphenated complexity, the peoples of the Northwest Coast make European noble families look like amateurs. Anthropologists have compared their kinship systems to higher math. Skilay’s primary clan affiliation was Tsiij git’anee [cheets-GIT-nay] (Tsiij island eagle people), the same clan whose historic territory includes the northern reaches of the Yakoun River which encompass the land around the golden spruce. In addition to his many other roles, Skilay represented this tree—K’iid K’iyaas, a being whom he loved and whom he and his clan were obliged to protect. But Skilay had been killed in his prime, and now, nearly two years after his death, the family has everything in place for his memorial potlatch. They have amassed the capital, bought and made the gifts, sent many hundreds of invitations, prepared the food, and paid for the carving of a carefully chosen twelve-metre-tall cedar pole. Properly executed, all of these things will ensure that suitable honour is done, not just to their beloved Skilay but to his family, his clan, his moiety and his tribe.

Skilay was a big man who loved to cook and to eat; he was a good provider and generous to a fault—so generous that he would take in people no one else wanted—even those outside the tribe. Skilay adopted an Anglo boy called Bone—short for Bonehead—and he gave him a family, a tribe, and a life worth living. Bone is big and bald and he will carry the heavy soup pots at his adoptive father’s memorial feasts; he will clean the great hall each morning after the hundreds of guests have gone to bed at sunrise, laden with gifts. On the second night of feasting, he will be given a proper Haida name and then he will surprise everyone with his eloquence.

Like all potlatches, this one has been carefully choreographed, and the food ritual being performed beneath the chief’s pole is just one part of an elaborate process that will take days to complete. Even as the salmon and halibut turn to ash and vapour, the chief himself puts the finishing touches on Skilay’s memorial pole, which is topped with a hummingbird, the Tsiij git’anee clan crest. Later in the day, the pole will be raised beside his house, a difficult and dangerous task that will take literally hundreds of people to accomplish. Guests have prepared for months and travelled for days to be here; they have come from the north and the south and the mainland. Most of the senior guests wear spruce root hats. Woven tight enough to shed the rain and broad enough to block the sun, they are painted in highly refined and stylized designs of black and red; some of the brims are hung with ermine pelts and miniature canoe paddles which play about the wearer’s face. On their wrists, the wealthier women wear heavy cuffs of gold and silver that look like treasures from a pharaoh’s tomb. To those within the tribe, it is clear at a glance who the esteemed artisans are as well as the nature of their connection to the wearer. Artist and patron alike are, in most cases, nobility, and from these ornaments alone can be deduced more about the wearer’s lineage and income—her place in the community, the tribe, the world—than any modern credit check or social insurance number ever could supply.

The chiefs and their powerful wives have come wrapped in the skins of bears, in shawls of mountain goat fur, and in capes of leather and melton wool trimmed with ermine skins and abalone buttons; some carry heavy talking sticks as tall as a man. Like the ladies’ bracelets, all this regalia is decorated with tribal and family crests: raven, eagle, frog, bear, and berry-woman-in-the-moon, among many others, and all are more than they seem. The boundary between simply donning a cape and assuming the mantle of another being is a fine one. As with the poles that stand in front of the village’s more important homes and buildings, the assembled hats, capes, bracelets, and pendants represent a sort of cosmic social register. They link together, through their woven, painted, and deeply scriven hands, paws, claws, talons, fins, and flippers, everyone from immediate family to the remotest spiritual allies and animal ancestors. It is for this reason that after a dance performed to honour people of the Eagle moiety, a hall may fill with the shrill, dry, and unmistakable sound of eagle whistles, as if those gathered there had been temporarily inhabited by birds. One need only imagine this animal energy redirected in armed and painted anger to get a sense of the bowel-loosening terror felt by foreign adversaries.

IT IS MIDDAY and the offering of salmon and halibut has been received; scent and substance have blown away in the shifting wind that hustles now, southbound down the sound. The feast of flesh is followed by an offering of the spirit, and it is delivered in a box made from a single plank of cedar that has been notched, steamed, and bent into a perfect cube. Ordinarily these bentwood boxes are elaborately decorated, but this one has been left blank, painted black. It is a box in mourning, a box that contains something best left unlabelled. Inside it is a mask that took weeks to carve and that, if sold, would go for thousands of dollars. But this is not the kind of mask that can be bought or hung on a wall; it cannot be reused in any way. This is Skilay’s spirit mask; it can be danced only once, and its time was last night. The dancer who danced it with its sightless eyes fixed in a pale moon face was led about the crowded hall by another dancer shaking a rattle. Drums were pulsing from different corners of the great room, moving through the bursting crowd and coalescing with stomping feet into a floor-shaking tumult that rumbled like big stones in the surf. Outside, it was blowing hard and raining. Huge, heavy-browed ravens stalled against the driving wind and hung there, motionless by the roof peak, and then, with an imperceptible tilt of a blue-black wing tip, they would disappear, as if jerked away by an unseen string. Inside, the singers’ voices rose into the air in hackle-raising frequencies, resonating with the overtone of grief that permeated the room as more dancers in masks representing Frog, Eagle, and other spirit beings from beyond welcomed Skilay home. Skilay’s body was dead and buried, but this was really it: his spirit was leaving town, and there was scarcely a dry eye in the house.

The following afternoon, as the flames rise around the sealed black box, the people continue to sing. For a long time the box seems to sit in the fire as if it were comfortable there, but in time some cracks begin to show. As the box becomes fully engaged, a bag is passed, and one by one the people break out of the circle to sprinkle tobacco on the flames and reveal their private thoughts to the man they loved and admired. As if on cue, a bald eagle alights in the top of a nearby spruce, and for a moment she and the carved eagle atop the adjacent pole neatly bracket the chief’s house. But nothing here is new to her, and after a time she leans forward and, with a few downward thrusts of heavy wings as broad as a man is tall, she finds a draft, locks into it, and glides away. Shortly afterward, a strange thing happens: all at once, the top and sides of the box spontaneously lift off and fall to the side. It is hard to explain this in any structural or thermodynamic way, but it happens suddenly and, for a brief moment, the mask stares out from the pit, engulfed and yet untouched by the fire. The geisha-white face shines around the scarlet lips as flames burst from the eyes, mouth, and nostrils. When, at last, the heat becomes too much and the finely carved cheeks split beneath each eye, they do so simultaneously, along the grain, and it looks to some as if the mask is weeping molten tears. What is the carver feeling at this moment, before the chin and forehead give way and his labours crumble into glowing embers? What is happening in the hearts and bellies of Skilay’s children and the sombre chief as the dim shadow of a grizzly bear holding an empty canoe clocks slowly across the ground?

BY MIDAFTERNOON SKILAY’S POLE is finished and, with the paint still wet, the men gather to move it to his house. It is shockingly heavy—frighteningly so: the pole is three-and-a-half metres around and weighs six-and-a-half tons. Once again, the hole left by Skilay yawns open. He has always been the one to supervise the pole raisings. Will the pole still rise without him? Will this be the time someone gets killed? The first steps are awkward: a leg is almost crushed; decisions are made, not by an experienced leader, but by the group, in the same way that a school of fish decides to turn in a particular direction. Different leaders emerge and then recede and, in this way, with Eagles on one side and Ravens on the other, the pole finds its way to the grave-sized hole next to Skilay’s house. But the hardest part is yet to come; manoeuvring this giant statue into a standing position will be brute proof of the people’s devotion—the most difficult thing anyone there will do for a long time. One reason Skilay’s pole is so heavy is that it is a solid cylinder, not a hollowed-out half-pole like so many others. And unlike those lighter poles, this one is deeply carved, not only from top to bottom but all the way around. As with the weight and complexity of a gold bracelet, these details are all indicators of Skilay’s stature, and of his family’s wealth. The fact that his pole was carved by one of the best living carvers on the coast is further evidence of Skilay’s position in the tribe.

Ten heavy ropes as thick as a wrist are tied around the upper third of the pole. Care is taken not to damage the delicate hummingbird, or the heavy beak of the eagle that protrudes lower down; the dorsal fin of the wolf-headed blackfish that swims the length of the pole must also be treated with care (a human face peers from its blow-hole). At the base of the pole, nestled securely between the eagle’s wings, wearing a tall spruce root hat and holding a canoe paddle, is the Steersman himself.

The ropes radiate out from the horizontal pole like ribbons in a primordial maypole dance, and sturdy planks have been laid on angle to guide the butt into place. There are dozens of people holding each line, waiting for instructions, and it is now that a leader emerges. Standing on top of the pile of excavated sand and dirt is Skilay’s son, a young man doing his best to rise to a daunting occasion. He gives the call to haul back and the crowd surges toward the beach; the lines go taut and the pole grinds stubbornly across the ground. This is how it would have been to haul a whale ashore by hand. With another mighty heave, the far end of the pole lifts slightly and the butt slides down into the hole, splintering the planks as it goes. The sound is almost sickening, and it brings home the gravity of the task at hand; the crowd is so large and dense that if the pole should fall or roll, someone, maybe a number of people, will certainly be crushed or killed. But now there is no turning back, and carefully, arduously, the pole is hauled upright. There comes at last a moment when the pole is centred in its hole, supported only by the people who surround it, that it becomes clear to some what it means to be Haida—and plain to all how many hands it takes to resurrect a tree.