SpruceRoots Magazine - September/October 2000
by Ian Lordon
Could there be a better way to herald the beginning of a monumental project intended to preserve, celebrate, and nourish Haida culture than by raising half a dozen Haida monuments?
The directors of the Qay'llnagaay Heritage Centre Society obviously didn't think so, and chose to set their ambitious plans in motion by commissioning the carving of six poles at the future centre's site on Second beach.
According to the society's executive director, Amanda Reid-Stevens, when the centre is completed it will boast an expanded museum, a 250-seat performing arts theatre, a teaching studio, a canoe house, a program management centre, and an interpretive centre featuring an archive, library, classroom, gift shop, snack bar, and interactive computer and recording station.
But don't ask Reid-Stevens to explain what it will all look like because the project is still in the design phase. "We can't say because we haven't got the design done yet," she says. "We did decide that we don't want the welcome centre and interpretive centre and the museum and all that stuff in separate little components. The design team talked about it and we want one flowing experience. Things are going to be interspersed throughout the facility so you don't end up with a chopped up feeling. We really like that idea and we're committed to it."
The centre, a community vision patiently nurtured for more than three decades, will finally make the leap from dream to reality when construction begins at Qay'llnagaay, or Sea Lion Town, in December 2001.
"This isn't a new idea, it's been around a long time," Reid-Stevens says. "The site was chosen about thirty years ago by the band council of the day who set it aside for something cultural. That's why there's very little development there - successive band councils carried on that hope and dream until about eight years ago when work began on the planning of the heritage centre."
The centre is expected to cost over $16-million by the time it's completed. Organizers have already secured more than $11-million in funding from a variety of sources including Forest Renewal BC, the Millennium Fund, the Vancouver Foundation, the Gwaii Trust, the Skidegate Band Council, the Museum Assistance Program and the Community Economic Adjustment Initiative to name only a few. They hope to have the rest nailed down before construction begins.Gwaii Haanas will be highlighted at the centre and the Archipelago Management Board, a stakeholder in the project, will have office space in the completed facility along with the Haida Gwaii Watchmen program, and the Qay'llnagaay Heritage Centre Society.
Reid-Stevens admits that planning, designing, and managing the project, coordinating stakeholders, and tracking down funding is a huge, challenging, and ongoing task that will only get tougher once construction begins, but it's been shared by many dedicated people and the payoff will carry on years after the facility is finished.
"It will showcase Haida culture past and present, Gwaii Haanas, the people who lived there, and it will serve as a general introduction to Haida art. It will provide wonderful educational opportunities for Islands people and people off-Island. It will provide employment opportunities, and it will help explain the Haida connection to the land and the sea," she says.
"I know that's a little old-sounding, you hear it over and over again, but it needs to be explained to people - what that attachment is, and how important it is to the people."
One of the best ways to begin drawing these connections - with the land and the sea, the past and the present, and Haida people - is to create something that transcends all of them. Something like, for example, a monumental carved red cedar pole or six. "We decided to have poles carved because they tell stories of our clans, and because we need them," Reid-Stevens says. "We don't have many and this was a tremendous opportunity to change that."
Initially the Heritage Society wanted to commission 14 poles, one for each of the southern clans. But that number was later reduced to six, a pole to represent each of the main historic village sites of the southern Haida - Skidegate, T'aanuu, SGaang Gwaii, Ts'aahl (Chaatl), K'uuna (Skedans), and Cumshewa.
The society put out a call for interested carvers to forward their names, along with a resume and letter, if they wanted to participate in the project. Each pole would be assigned a lead carver and two assistants.
The response was overwhelming, which according to Reid-Stevens made selecting the carvers 'true agony.' Once the lead carvers were chosen the society held a draw to determine which village they would be assigned, and then they were asked to submit a drawing of their proposed poles.
Finding the logs for the poles was also a challenge. "We were asking for a minimum of 40 to 50 feet," says Reid-Stevens, which means old growth red cedar - a vanishing cultural resource on Haida Gwaii.
But trees were eventually found, and for five months now most of the carving teams have been hard at work. "I think every one of them is really, really enjoying it." The society gave the carvers until December 31 to finish their poles and Reid-Stevens says the plan is to raise them around March 31 in what promises to be, for lack of a better expression, a monumental party. But the celebration won't mark the end of carving at Qay'llnagaay. The society plans to commission a second round of carvings, although these may not all be like the traditional poles already underway.
"It was originally intended there would be another eight or ten poles carved," Reid-Stevens says. "There's some talk now that they may not all be poles but a mixture of poles and stand alone figures, carvings attached to the building, or inside the building."
And while the society may also prefer to give different carvers an opportunity to work on this second set of pieces, Reid-Stevens says there might not be enough carvers with the experience and skill to avoid using at least some of the same ones.
"This first phase has opened a lot of carvers' eyes about what's involved in a huge project like this," Reid-Stevens says. "We would like to have new people work on the second pieces, but they do have to have experience, and there just aren't a lot of people with that experience in the community."
Which, of course, is one of the things the society hopes the carving project and the heritage centre will help change. "The more people who get experience on this project the better. I know some of the apprentices now have the confidence that they could do a pole themselves. That's good, because they go on to train people, who train other people, and so on."
SpruceRoots Magazine - September/October 2000