11 Ways the Haida Nation Protects Its Land and Heritage

Beauty isn’t hard to find on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago located off the coast of northern British Columbia, Canada. It can be seen within the islands’ dense forests, crashing ocean waves, and soaring seabirds, but also in the Haida people’s reverence for this place they have called home for thousands of years.

After decades of successful fights against logging corporations and the Canadian government, the people of the Haida Nation put forth a Land Use Vision that sets up stringent restrictions to protect the land, forests, and wildlife of the islands.

The following are a few of the ways the Haida protect their land and traditions—while profiting economically—on sustainably managed, Haida-owned forestry operations. It is a delicate balance, but the Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) are proud to work with the Haida people to ensure that their land, traditions and livelihoods thrive.

1. The Overarching Spirit of Yah’guudang

Ferry ride, British Columbia, Canada
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

Yah’guudang, a Haida phrase that means “respect for all living beings,” has driven the cultural, environmental, political and business decisions of the Haida people since their beginnings on the islands over 13,000 years ago.

2. Protecting Culturally Modified Trees

Cedar 'Culturally Modified Tree'
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

An agreement between the Haida Nation, British Columbia and forestry companies, the Haida Land Use Order protects “Culturally Modified Trees,” known as CMTs, which have been modified by the Haida as part of their traditions and rituals. Above, a hole was bored into a cedar to test the strength and health of the core for possible use as a canoe or totem pole.

3. Connecting Craft and Nature

Culturally modified cedar tree
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

Another type of CMT, the markings on the side of this cedar are from stripping bark to use for weaving traditional hats, baskets and other crafts. April Churchill, a Haida weaver says, “the annual [cedar] harvest is about making a commitment and promise between the forest, the tree, and yourself. So when you’re accepting the harvest, you’re saying, ‘I’m here. I’ll protect you no matter what.’”

4. Plants for Medicinal and Traditional Use

Devil's Club plant
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

The Haida people have many reasons to protect and nurture plants–from their proven medicinal benefits to providing food sources for animals they share the islands with. Among the sacred plants and trees that receive special protection on Haida Gwaii, Devil’s Club (above) is used medicinally for pain relief, arthritis, and general colds as well as for more spiritual protective powers.

5. Monumental Cedars for Traditional Haida Use

Monumental cedars
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

Also protected are “monumental cedars,” old-growth cedar trees of high enough quality to be used in traditional Haida practices such as canoe and pole carving and the construction of traditional-style buildings. Seen above, a portion of the protected “monumentals,” which are at least 100cm in diamater, are available only to people of the Haida Nation after obtaining a permit for traditional use.

6. Continuing the Carving Tradition

Haida Gwaii traditional carving
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

One of the cultural uses for monumental cedars is the ancient craft of pole carving. Above, a small team of carvers at the Haida Heritage Center, including master carver Garner Moody, work on a brand-new pole to be raised in the town of Skidegate. The design of this new pole features carvings that represent each of the clans on the island.

7. Rainforest Alliance/FSC-Certification

Rainforest Alliance FSC Certificate at Taan office, Haida Gwaii
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

The Haida already enforce incredibly strict forestry policies in their land-use plan, which made it relatively easy for Taan, the forestry operation owned by the Haida Nation, to meet the criteria for Rainforest Alliance certification to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards, the benchmark of sustainability in the global timber marketplace.

8. Protecting Wildlife

Bald eagle in Haida Gwaii
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

The protection of wildlife on Haida Gwaii has deep roots in the native culture. The two main clans of the Haida people are Eagles and Ravens, two birds that call the archipelago home. The cultural ties to animals, including black bears (taan in Haida) whose dens are protected, are reflected in the many logging protections and reserves enforced through FSC and Haida Land Use Orders.

9. Spotlight on Northern Goshawk Breeding Grounds

Female northern goshawk
Photo credit: Steve Garvie

One of the most stringent restrictions in the Land Use Order benefits the nesting and breeding grounds of the Northern Goshawk that soars above Haida Gwaii. When a Northern Goshawk nest is discovered outside of an existing reserve, no timber harvesting can occur within a minimum of 200 hectares (nearly 500 acres) to protect the bird’s nesting and foraging habitat. (Photo: Steve Garvie)

10. Preserving Culture and Language

Totem pole
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

Throughout much of the 20th century, Haida children attended residential schools on the mainland and were forbidden to use their native Haida language. Today, the integrated schools (about half Haida and half non-Haida students) on the islands offer classes in Haida culture and language, which is regarded as an endangered language isolate. The photograph here shows one of two new poles raised in June 2015 at the Queen Charlotte Secondary School.

11. The Past and Future of Haida Sustainability

Mossy log with mushroom in Haida Gwaii
Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

Armed with ancient traditions and modern business practices to protect the health and vitality of the land, the Haida people “can hold our heads up and know that we have taken the right steps in our day.” The Rainforest Alliance is proud to play a small role in this sustainable future for Haida Gwaii.

People collecting dirty river water

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