On the south end of an archipelago sixty miles off the coast of mainland Canada lie the last remnants of the rich artistic heritage of the Haida people.
The early people called this land Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai or “Islands at the Boundary of the World.” It has since been shortened to Haida Gwaii, or “Land of the Haida.” Also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the area represents more than 3,600 islands in all, with an oral history that can be traced back 7,000 years.
The largest grouping of these Haida totems are found in the once thriving village Ninstints, which is guarded by twenty-six of these massive totem poles. Totems are at many of the old village sites, including Hotspring Island, a favourite stop for kayakers, all around the Southern region of the archipelago, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A note for those who venture to see the totems: the unparalleled beauty of these islands sometimes obscures the truth that you are on the open ocean where even experienced kayakers can find themselves in peril. Still, it’s well worth the risk to see the haunting beauty of these spirits who still guard this land.
Other wonderful places to experience Haida Gwaii’s totems are just outside of Skidegate in Kaay Llnangaay at the Haida Heritage Centre. Here both ancient and modern totems can be found, as well as a carvers studio to view artists creating these majestic giants from the ground up. Renowned Canadian artist and author Emily Carr brought these enchanting totem poles to the world stage with her representations of these abandoned villages painted in the 1930s. Carr was an intrepid traveller in her own right and was one of few non-Indigenous people to visit Haida Gwaii at such an early time.