Memorial poles at SGang Gwaay© Parks Canada, Bernard Pelletier
What was once a vigorous Haida community of 300 people is today a haunting assemblage of weathered and fragmented house frames and mortuary and memorial poles. By the 1880s, disease had decimated the population of Nan Sdins village on SGang Gwaay, an island at the southern tip of the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) archipelago, and by the turn of the century only remnants of the houses and poles remained.
Fifteen poles were moved to museums in the 1930s and 1950s. More of the village has been taken by nature, consumed by age and the elements, and returned to the forest. What remains is unique in the world, a 19th-century Haida village where the ruins of 10 houses and 32 memorial or mortuary poles bespeak the power and artistry of a rich and flamboyant society.
The Haida have always thrived on the wealth of both the sea and the forest. Shellfish and salmon were staple foods. Giant Western red cedars were the raw material of ocean-going canoes, vast post and plank houses, and great poles bearing both symbols of family history and, holding inside, the bones of ancestors. The Haida lived on SGang Gwaay for thousands of years (as two-metre-thick refuse heaps of shells attest). The remnants of the village represent an ongoing chapter in an epic story of human settlement and artistry.