Friday, September 18

Watching over Haida Gwaii: First Nations ‘Watchmen’ guard precious sites, culture in misty, mysterious far-north BC.


Haida Gwaii Watchmen act as hosts and educators. Look for the original figures in tall hats, perched atop totem poles.

by Margo Pfeiff

Weathered faces of ravens, eagles and bears stare from toppling totem poles in the mossy, misty rainforest. The vibe is mysterious on tiny Tanu Island in Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands) of British Columbia. And it becomes even more so with the stories of spirits and ancestors told by our guide, Cody Wilson. A Haida Gwaii Watchman, she is one of five posted at the most frequently visited First Nations village and cultural sites in the islands’ south from May to September.

After a rainy tour, Wilson invites us into her warm and cozy cabin near the shore to dry out. She brews hot tea, feeds us cookies and cheerfully answers questions—anything we want to know about Haida culture, past and present. It’s a rare chance to learn from locals about the goings-on in one of British Columbia’s most intriguing corners.

Artifacts began disappearing in the early 1900s from village sites—abandoned after the Haida population was devastated by disease in the late 19th century. In the 1970s, locals began volunteering their summers to camp out at the sites to protect them. They still do, at sites such as Hotspring Island and Ninstints, a UNESCO World Heritage Site within Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, established in 1988.

These days visiting zodiacs, kayaks and cruise boats must radio in to the Watchmen for permission to come ashore. Watchmen might be elders or young folks, but they all act as hosts and educators.

When you visit, keep an eye open for three fellows in tall hats perched atop totem poles—these figures are the original Haida Gwaii Watchmen. Today’s watchmen are protectors, regulating the flow of visitors—strictly limited to 12 per site at a time to minimize damage and maximize the experience of this spiritual place.

Courtesy of the Canadian Toursim Commission

Why sweat? Why not? Learn about Canadian Aboriginal culture the traditional way—in a sweat lodge

These are sacred, often life-changing, rituals. If you’re lucky enough to get the chance to join, take it. A Winnipeg, MB downtown lodge invites outsiders into its steamy circle.

It’s as dark and close as the womb in here, hotter than a sauna. I’m hunkered down in a sweat lodge with half a dozen other people at the Circle of Life Thunderbird House in downtown Winnipeg, MB. Beneath chanting and drumming, I hear traffic buzzing around one of Winnipeg’s historic intersections, Higgins and Main. With every cupful of water the sweat conductor dashes onto fire-heated “grandfather” stones in the central pit, the lodge—made of tarps and blankets piled thick on a willow frame—gets steamier and more surreal. I follow the drumbeat with my rattle, considering life in general and the heat in particular.

This isn’t something just any tourist can buy a ticket to attend; sweat ceremonies are sacred, often life-changing rituals, deeply respected by those who do it. But some Canadian tribes and native organizations now offer sweats to outsiders—as educational experiences about traditional beliefs.

Sweats at Thunderbird House can be arranged through Winnipeg-based Heartland Travel or Ô Tours. Elsewhere in Manitoba, Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures’ Bloodvein River multi-day paddling journey includes a sweat and feast at an Ojibwa village.

In British Columbia, you can sweat at Talking Rock Resort and Quaaout Lodge on Little Shuswap Lake, a one-hour drive east of Kamloops; Talking Totem Tours’ multi-day journeys along the Sunshine Coast include a sweat.

In Morley, AB, a sweat is part of the Stoney tribe’s four-day Cultural Camp at Nakoda Lodge & Conference Centre. Thirty minutes east of Edmonton, Elk Island Retreat has sweats, too. And just west of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, some Eagle’s Nest Indian Village cultural packages come with building a sweat lodge and participating in a sweat.

Sweats aren’t for the claustrophobic or the frivolous. But if you’re genuinely interested, along with a good, sweaty glow you’ll get some bona fide insight into the complex cultures and belief systems of North American native peoples.