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Weaving spirit, spruce, and cedar
a conversation with April Churchill Davis, Old Massett
What does it mean to be a weaver in this time?
It means the same thing today as it did in our previous lives except I am
not weaving clothing for my children. It is about my responsibility of harvesting
spruce roots, cedar bark and other plants associate to the art of basketry.
Each of these trees has a spirit. Each of us has a spirit. The trees, the
blades of grass, the rocks, mankind and all things of this earth have a
spirit. No spirit is greater or more valuable than the other. All of us
fit together, we are all part of each other and we all depend on each other.
The bark, the roots, the flesh on the fish is not our right. Each of these
things that are given to us are the gifts from living spirits. Anyone who
has gone harvesting for bark has experienced speaking to and felling the
spirit of the tree. It is not a made up fairy tale thing. It is a real thing.
We speak to the tree and it speaks to us. Harvesting is a responsibility
to all things. It is an annual event that reminds us that we have a responsibility
to all things. It is an annual reminder that I am only a small part of a
big thing that is happening.
There are many rules that go along with harvesting. The way we go about
doing it, the way we treat the material when done, and the place of harvest
are all governed by rules. When I weave my mind needs to be clean. I can't
be thinking, "I have a meeting at 10 tomorrow," or "we have
these people coming tonight." When I am weaving and my mind is clean
my Nanni Selina is with me. When my mind is not at peace the weaving just
When I go into a grove to pull cedar bark, there may be ten wonderful trees
there, but, maybe only one or two trees are talking to me. Just because
all those trees are there doesn't mean I have the right to take all the
available bark. I take only what is offered. The trees tell you whether
they are ready or not. Those that don't speak are waiting for another person
at another time. That is how the harvesters think.
When I flew over the Ian (Ian Lake area of Masset Inlet), it was tragic.
I'd suggest everyone on-Island save their money, find a group of friends
and charter a plane. Fly over these Islands. You will be absolutely shocked
by what you see. People on the ground are looking at all the nice little
trees along the road but up in the air my tears started running and my tears
could not stop. We were up very high in a helicopter and even at that height
I could see the gigantic stumps all over the place. The land is treated
with such disregard, it is like a war zone. I know there is a new Forest
Practices Code but what is interesting is MacMillan Bloedel staff -- even
with the new logging techniques -- are not even sure how it is working.
When I listen to MB people talk, it sounds like they are in the middle of
One of the things I asked an MB staff person when visiting the Ian was,
"What are your plans for a five hundred year old tree five hundred
years from now?" I don't know anything about forestry, I am a weaver,
I know a little about the plants I use but all of a sudden I am struck trying
to figure this out. The MB staff person's reply was that those old trees
would be in the riparian zones, which I understand are the zones set aside
to protect the water environment. So that is their 500 year old solution.
In 500 years the only trees available will be in a zone that was created
to protect the water ways. Somehow this does not make sense.
The way we need to operate now is with the idea that what we have today
is going to be here forever. We need to work only with what we know and
have now. When I come back., whether that be 100 years from now or 500 years
from now, I am asking please leave standing forest for me. When the forest
is destroyed, when the fish are all gone, the Haida will have also been
extinguished. We are the trees, the ocean, and the land.
As long as this society believes that we have dominion over the earth then
mankind can rape and plunder, which is what is happening here on Haida Gwaii
today. I have heard that someone wants to put up a sign which says, "Welcome
to Haida Gwaii, where there used to be trees and fish." It is not funny,
it is very sad.
After I had spoken about cedar and weaving at the Cedar Symposium (held
in Queen Charlotte/Skidegate, May 1996) I had a strong feeling people didn't
want to hear what I was saying. I gave them the words to say, "those
Haida people are spiritual and emotional." It did not occur to me that
they might be thinking that spirit and emotion are separate from the logic
and order that they understand. I feel that what I said at the Symposium
allowed people to say and think that what I said was really nice and sweet
but it wasn't really relevant to the logic and order that they understand
and see. I do not understand how they are able to separate everything into
little blocks. In my understanding, all things are connected to create a
whole. Spiritual, emotional, logic and order, they all fit neatly together.
On the other side of the international boundary that divides our Haida Nation,
the United States government has passed laws about the sacred sites of aboriginal
people. At a meeting about spiritual sites with the Parks people, Forestry
people, and a panel of very old aboriginal people, a Pueblo man spoke to
us. He said, "You people have a very hard road to go on, because what
you know, what you see, and what you feel," then he turned with his
other hand towards the Parks and Forestry people, "these people, do
not know, they have not seen, and they have not felt." How do you prove
to scientists and the "highly educated" that to us it is logic,
we have seen it and felt it, and those moments are not in a state of drugs
or that sort of thing. It is while digging roots and pulling bark.
At the Cedar Symposium you said that you had been picking spruce roots
and were asked to leave the land that you were harvesting. What are you
going to do, where are you able to collect roots and pull bark? It sounds
as if you are being moved off and alienated from the places that you have
That incident was ten years ago. Today I go there and harvest. If I am asked
again to remove myself from that property I will not go. We have always
dug roots at the Ecological Reserve near Tow Hill. Technically people aren't
supposed to take anything out of an Ecological Reserve but I do not care
what reserves they say I can or cannot go into, I am harvesting roots there
and I intend on getting roots there until I am physically unable to harvest.
I have instructed my children that they are to collect roots there no matter
what the foreign law says. If I must be arrested, so be it. When I am let
out, I will go back and accept my gift of roots the next season.
We have to do what we have been doing. As a people we have never stopped
harvesting. We are part of the eco-systems on these Islands. If I need a
tree to make a bunch of bentwood boxes, why can't I just go up to Ian or
Diana and harvest a tree? Today I would be arrested on Haida property and
put away for doing something that is very normal to us to do. It wasn't
that long ago when anyone could just get a tree. Now the Ministry of Forests
has a new easy system. They have come up with wonderful paper work. Now
we are supposed to fill out forms, get approval, jump through hoops. The
single trees we take have to be catalogued. Is each and every tree that
the logging companies cut down catalogued?
Is there much cedar left?
I don't think there is much left. Ian is a major traditional use area and
the primary use sites were logged off long ago. Actually most of the areas
that were easily accessible to us have already been logged. Recently, people
from the mainland needed a canoe log and could not find an appropriate tree
on the mainland so they came and searched for one here. They were finally
able to locate the tree that wanted to be a canoe over by Dinan. If my generation
is finding it difficult to find the trees that are needed what does it mean
for my children and grandchildren when they need a tree?
What do you do when the desire of some is to take it all?
I believe there should be an absolute stop of all logging on these Islands
until everyone can sit down at the table and get reasonable. As long as
there is logging and people are benefiting from it there is no reason for
those in power to enter into any "good faith" negotiation. If
we stopped the logging it would force everyone to sit down and say, "let's
There are many problems with the Alaska Native Land Claims -- I do not hold
that horror up as an example, other than to say that because the governments
needed a pipeline built and it would not be allowed until a settlement was
struck they were able to sit down and negotiate. They hit the economic pocketbooks
of the wealthy. The Haida have been "starving" on our own lands,
I think that now everyone should starve along with us until we sit down
and figure this out. We need to even this out, it is not right that a handful
of people can shop on Howe Street because logging barges are carrying the
pillage out of our land. As long as they are able to continue to cut, there
will never be "honorable" agreements made.
It is interesting to watch the government deal with the Islands Community
Stability Initiative (ICSI). They are doing the same thing to this group
that has been done to us by every branch of government-offer a bone, with
promise of meat-while we chew on the bone they steal the meat. As far as
I can see there is no honest, straight forward attempt by this government
to find a solution to the horrible situation we are subjected to everyday.
What is the most important thing?
The most important thing I say wherever I speak, is our language is near
extinction. We are less than one generation away from losing it. The reason
language is so important is because it defines our culture. Right now we
have the luxury of going to people to advise us culturally, based on the
concepts of the language. They know the language that is related to the
earth, our values and beliefs, they are able to give us proper direction.
When they are gone, all we will be left with are the answers to the questions
we asked -- there are still many questions in need of answers. To answer
the questions we need to know our language.
-- illustration of basket constructed of red and yellow cedar made
by Colleen Williams, Old Massett
-- questions posed to April Churchill Davis by Simon Davies
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