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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 doesn't work.

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 an experiment.

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 been using.
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 settle."
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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