Gwaii Haanas, a Place of Living Culture

February-March 2003

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
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Map courtesy of Neil Frazer from his book, Boat Camping Haida Gwaii.


Legends say that the role of the watchmen, symbolized by three human figures wearing high hats (often found perched on top of Haida poles) was to warn of the approach of an enemy or other important happenings. This is the symbol adopted by the Haida to represent the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program.

The Haida people recognize that natural and cultural elements cannot be separated, and that the protection of Gwaii Haanas ('Islands of Beauty') is essential to sustaining Haida culture. They initiated the Watchmen Program to protect culturally significant sites in the South Moresby region, now known as Gwaii Haanas. This vision is also reflected in the preamble of the Haida Constitution:

"Our culture, our heritage is the child of respect and intimacy with the land and sea. Like the forests, the roots of our people are intertwined such that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us. We owe our existence to Haida Gwaii. On these islands, our ancestors lived and died, and here too we will make our homes until called away to join them in the great beyond. The living generation accepts the responsibility to insure that our heritage is passed on to following generations."


In 1981, prior to Gwaii Haanas being designated a Haida Heritage Site and a National Park Reserve, the Skidegate Band Council and the Haida Nation responded to concerns about the potential for vandalism and other damage to old Haida village sites by initiating the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program. This program began with several parties of one or two volunteers who used their own boats to travel to these sites, where they would camp for the summer season. These volunteers acted as guardians for sites at K'uuna 'llnagaay (Skedans), T'anuu 'llnagaay (Tanu), SGang Gwaay (Anthony Island/Ninstints), Hlk'yaah GaawGa (Windy Bay), Burnaby Narrows, and Gandll K'in Gwaayaay (Hotspring Island), protecting their natural and cultural heritage. At the same time, they presented visitors with a first-hand introduction to Haida culture by exposing them to Haida life and sharing their knowledge of the environs as well as stories, songs and dances associated with the sites.



Boat Camping Haid Gwaii

Neil Frazer

Harbour Publishing, 2001, ISBN 1-55017-256-5, softcover, B&W images, 174 pp. $29.95 Cdn.

Neil Frazer's book offers fascinating information and detailed maps of the most interesting areas in Haida Gwaii based on his four summers of research. Included are anecdotes about the people, history and wildlife of the islands. It comes with a handy coil binding and useful appendices.


With the establishment of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and the Haida Heritage Site, key elements of the Haida Gwaii Watchmen program remain unchanged. Watchmen are posted at all the previous sites with the exception of Burnaby Narrows. The mandate of the program continues to be, first and foremost, the safeguarding of Gwaii Haanas. In addition to protecting the sites, Watchmen provide basic information services and emergency assistance to visitors.

Gwaii Haanas attracts visitors from around the world who are drawn to the natural beauty of its land and marine environments, and to the extraordinary Haida heritage found here. More than 500 archeological and historical sites have been documented in Gwaii Haanas itself, and it is thought that at one time there may have been more than 120 Haida villages and camps throughout Haida Gwaii. About twenty of these were permanent winter villages, generally situated with easy access to the river banks and coastal fisheries. During the rest of the year, family groups engaged in subsistence activities in the areas traditionally owned or used by each group. Not just a representation of the past, Gwaii Haanas continues to be a source of spiritual, cultural and economic activity to the Haida people - resource harvesting and ceremonies remain an integral part of Haida life. The Watchmen sites as well as other sites throughout Gwaii Haanas continue to be used seasonally by fishermen and others. Watchmen sites are locations for resource extraction, ceremony and for Haida elders to pass on their culture to their young people. The sites are also places where visitors may witness a living culture.

Visitors to the Watchmen sites can expect to share the site with up to a maximum of eleven other people. If you are interested in experiencing the living Haida culture, you can travel independently, or with a licenced operator. Your orientation session will describe how you can get the best out of your visit to Gwaii Haanas and the Watchmen sites.

For reservations and an information package, call 1-800-HELLO-BC (outside North America: 250-387-1642).

Email: . Web:

Thanks to Michele Deakin and the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve

Ed. Note: The final draft of a Heritage Tourism Strategy for Haida Gwaii will be presented to Islanders shortly. The Strategy was developed by a Heritage Tourism Strategy Working Group, made up of representatives of all the major Islands' communities. It incorporates input from individuals, local governments, and organizations, about how to maintain heritage while encouraging more local tourism.