For the last 4 years I lived on Haida Gwaii, the unceded territory of the Haida Nation, off the northwest coast of Canada. Haida Gwaii is a remote, and rugged archipelago with less than 4,500 people. Near the end of my time there I had the privilege of witnessing a monumental achievement among western health practitioners and the Haida community, that has stuck with me.
For the first time in over 200 years, a monumental pole was raised in Daajing Giids (Queen Charlotte). Named the Skidegate Inlet Healing House Pole/Sahgwii X̲aana K̲aahlii Ngaaysdll Naay GyaaG̲ang, the pole stands at the Haida Gwaii Hospital and Health Centre/Xaayda Gwaay Ngaaysdll Naay. This newly built hospital marks the coming together of two communities, Skidegate and Daajing Giids, to provide better care in the region.
Photo via Haida Nation
It was a Saturday in June, 2018 at the 110th annual Hospital Day celebration. The sun was beaming high above as the Skidegate and Daajing Giids communities gathered around the hospital. Onlookers sat on building roofs, tourists piled into the streets and the long-term and palliative care patients came out onto the balcony to take in the symbolic event.
Ropes lined in parallel from the top of the pole down across the hospital parking lot. After speeches, prayers, and blessings, the community and a few lucky tourists grabbed hold of the ropes and pulled in unison. The pole was raised using a blended approach of the Haida tradition of using the strength of the community, and a levered steal base.
“Pull!” was yelled into the mic every 5 seconds prompting a roar by the crowd. The community pulled until the pole stood over 40-feet tall and stable. It was said by many, that the pole was heavier than expected.
Photo via Allison Smith
The pole was carved by the master carver Tim Boyko and his apprentices Billy Yovanovich III, Tyler York, and Tony Greene. The carvers danced the pole during the raising ceremony, and witnesses joined in. Haida dancers danced in their regalia, masks, and song in celebration. The pole was commissioned by local doctors and funders, who joined the celebration as well.
Totem poles are a way to honour history, and to tell a story. This pole combines the story of traditional and modern medicine, including carvings of a bear teaching a doctor, a Haida shaman in regalia, an eagle, and three watchmen representing nurses and a doctor. The pole embodies the commitment of Islands communities to learn from the past, heal, and work together towards a better future.
During the feast at the George Brown Recreational Centre in Skidegate, Chiefs, planners, and community leaders described the meaning of the pole in healing the past. They recognized that although the past cannot be changed, it is our collective efforts that are important in addressing the trauma of our shared history. They recognized that the path forward is rooted in allyship and relationship building to overcome the institutional racism and genocide that happened in Canada. The act of raising the pole was symbolic in the communities healing journey, as both take a village to make happen.
By Allison Smith-
Allison is a writer, artist & filmmaker. Her work is inspired by the wilderness, landscape, and communities of Alberta and Haida Gwaii. You can find more of her exceptional art, writings, and filmmaking here.