Old Masset

Sep 02, 2019 - National Geographic Sea Lion


National Geographic Sea Lion was in bound to Queen Charlotte City this morning. We were returning from Sgang Gwaii and preparing for a day in the northern regions of Haida Gwaii.

Once breakfast was finished, we made our way up the docks and boarded the complete large transportation available in the islands. Our two school buses and one van left Queen Charlotte City heading up island towards the northern community of Old Masset. Our two groups would be split between two locations. Group A made their way all the way through town to the northern tip where Master Carver James Hart and his family have their home tucked into a stand of Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock. As we walked from the bus and van, we passed the carving shed that James and his crew use for the many monumental sculptures and totem poles James is in process of creation. He spoke at length about his workflow and his personal enjoyment of going from project to project making his way towards completion. We were invited into his home and around the kitchen table in the center of the room, we listened to a dedicated Northwest Coast artist speak about his life as an artist and how he worked with clients and “saw” a monumental sculpture that might fit with the client individually and in their personal world.

To quote a Northwest Coast Artist: “Knowledge is the new harpoon, and the carver is the hunter. Carving, that aspect of shaping the world according to personal perception…continues.” Tlingit Jim Shoppert.

After a lovely visit inside the Hart home, we all joined James in his carving shed next to his home. There we got to walk through several works in process, listening again to what is involved in working with huge pieces of Western red cedar, allowing the wood to become an expression of a vision scene and then shaped by the artist, into a story told by the hands of the carver.

From the Hart home and carving shed, we made our way to Christian Whites Big House and very large carving shed. After an explanation of the two totems standing in front of Christians Big House, we all made our way behind the house to his carving shop. The building was large enough to hold 60-foot logs to make into either poles or canoes. Christian is part of the Haida Canoe family so over the years he has carved and finished several canoes and as we arrived Christian was beginning work on a monumental canoe. He plans to finish this canoe, his largest made yet, by next year’s Canoe Journey which will be hosted in Nanaimo, British Columbia.

After great conversations with Christian, his wife Candace came to the door of the carving shed, and announced in Haida, “it’s time for lunch!” We made our way around the Big House to the front door and entered another world. The house was built by Christian, true to Haida Big House tradition and then filled with Northwest coastal art. A large set of tables were lined up in front of a group of chairs. The tables were covered in plates of traditional foods of the Northwest Coast. Clam fritters, pickled, spicy sea asparagus, salmon in every form, dried seaweed and a lovely rice salad and a bean salad. Hot venison stew was on another table and then...there was desert: a lovely cake with wild harvested berries from the area. What a feast! After a lovely meal Christian and Candace came forward to talk about recent art projects. Candace was obviously very proud of the pole in the shed that was recently finished and represents a fabulous peace settlement with the Helsik people, who live on the mainland of British Columbia just across from Haida Gwaii.

Just as we were absorbing the importance of this great gesture between formally warring nations our hosts began to enter the main room from the kitchen dressed in their traditional regalia. Christian was waiting patiently and to his surprise his nephew Jackson reached through an opening in the totem in the main room with his hand, reaching for his uncle who broke into a huge smile!

During the next hour we were treated to many traditional Haida dances and even invited to entire the dance floor for a ladies’ and men’s dance! So much good fortune, to be able to be invited into the homes of such renowned artists, to meet their families, to talk and laugh and eat with friends. These are the traditions of being immersed in Northwest coastal culture…it may have been brief, but it was a privilege to step for a moment into the world of the Haida people….it is not just the wild and beautiful country it is also the people who have chosen this area as their home. HaaWaa as is said in Haida, “Thank you” to all who have shared with us today.

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About the Author

Sharon Grainger

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Sharon’s degrees in Psychology and Anthropology from Eastern Washington University have given her a good base to pursue her profession as a naturalist and photographer. With five generations of artists behind her, she has developed a portfolio of images covering many interests including indigenous cultures, ethnobotany, natural and cultural history. Photography gives voice and interpretation to her experience of the world. Spending many years with Native peoples has dramatically affected her attitude towards how and what she sees. She recognized, through these experiences, the diversity of peoples around the world. This began a lifelong curiosity about the variety of ways in which different cultures relate to each other and this planet.

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