Freelance lifeLanguagesTravel diaries

Thoughts and impressions of a Language Nerd: discovering the world of the Haida

While the ferry starts moving on the pitch black waters of the Hecate Strait, my brain tries in vain to give a voice to the scattered mix of feelings buzzing through my tired being. Haida Gwaii, a group of islands sprinkled on the Pacific Ocean half way between British Columbia and Alaska, has this effect on people.

It’s more than just the breathtaking scenery, which embraces you with colors, sounds and beauty, it’s more than the kindness of its people, it’s more than the sense of quiet and peaceful communion with nature. The islands themselves tell their stories through their trees, their art, their carvings, their animals, their very own spirit. Even though decimated in comparison to their glorious days, the Haida are still fierce and dignified people, who take great pride in their traditions and culture and do their best to preserve their identity.

A highly endangered language

The Haida language, once a vibrant idiom with many different dialects, is now only spoken by a handful of haida languageElders – no more than 80 in both the communities of Old Masset and Skidegate – who are trying their best to pass it on to posterity by teaching intensive programs and recording words and phrases. Last year, a one thousand pages glossary of the Southern Haida language was compiled by the community and distributed to every household on the island. I had the chance to get my hands on one during my stay in Port Clements and let me tell you, that thing was quite intimidating!

Xaayda kil (the Haida language) is considered a linguistic isolate, which means that it has no ties to any other language in the world. To my inexpert ear, it sounds a bit like a Polynesian language, probably because of its guttural sounds pronounced directly in the throat. Like all mainly oral languages, it’s highly expressive, evoking lost notes of ancestral music, ancient traditions and the strength and determination of people who had to fend for themselves.

Hitchhiking stories: what I learned on the road about the Haida

There’s no public transportation on the islands, therefore, you either rent a car or you hitchhike (but scooters may be introduced soon, thanks to the contribution of yours truly). I don’t like relying on other people, but I had to surrender to the fact that 50-60 km walks with my luggage were not exactly feasible. Sticking out that thumb on the highway was not easy, but it turned out to be a wonderful lesson on human compassion and a great resource of first-hand information about these fascinating islands.

  • The Haida are divided in two main clans, Raven and Eagle and every member has a beautiful blanket with their crest embroidered. The clan system is exogamic and matrilineal, meaning that Ravens have to marry Eagles and children will be accepted in their mother’s clan. [So, no Montecchi and Capuleti drama here]
  • The Haida were one of the most powerful tribes back in the day and used to enslave their opponents in a very efficient way: in fact, they would only take the strongest enemies, who could strengthen the Haida genetic heritage in the long run.
  • Haida women, despite being the ones running all the practical aspects of the family life and village organization, have no actual power until they turn 60-70, when their status of eldest person in the village makes them the most authoritative and powerful figure of them all.
  • Building a Haida canoe required 3.5 months of work. The Haida were building their canoes with the most efficient structure for ocean traveling hundreds of years before we adopted the same technique in the West. If you ask them, however, they will tell you that the canoe was a gift from the supernatural beings, they never developed its concept.
  • The Haida came from the ocean and therefore have unique characteristics impossible to find anywhere else in Canada. They refuse, however, to undergo any kind of bone or DNA test, in part because of their unpleasant experience with westerners stealing their ancestors’ bones, in part for fear of the results being used as an excuse to treat them less respectfully.

“The best way to help the First Nations is to not put them on a pedestal. Because, you know, people who get on a pedestal tend to fall.”

There’s something magical on these islands that grows on you, slowly and steadily, and envelops your heart with emotions and colors. “I kept coming back here and it was just harder and harder to leave” told me a good half of the people I had the chance to meet, “there’s something here that just makes you want to stay”. After a few days here, I don’t find it hard to believe and I still haven’t even seen the cultural gem of the islands, the Gwaii Hanaas Protected Reserve.

Along the highway there is the so called St. Mary’s Spring: according to the legend, if you drink from it, you will return to Haida Gwaii for sure. I didn’t have the chance to drink its water, but something tells me that I’ll definitely be back one day.

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