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Watch Your Step

Seeking reconciliation, the heart of the gospel, in Haida Gwaii

“Watch your step,” we were told by our soft-spoken guide.

And then a second time as we drew in close to see what he was referring to: “Watch where you step – this is a mass grave; you cannot step here.”

The second time, I turned my gaze from the mossy rise of green in front of me to watch as a member of our group silently lowered her camera, slowly mouthing the words mass grave to herself, a wave of disbelief and dismay sweeping over her face.

I had the same response the first time I heard those words. Now, a year later, I stood in the same spot and found myself experiencing the emotions and questions all over again. Mass grave! How can it be?! Even as I type these words now in the comfort of my own home, I find it hard to acknowledge such a thing can exist in Canada. Mass graves have to do with other places in other times: the Holocaust, Serbia, Rwanda. Not Canada, not B.C. – certainly not in my backyard.  Mass grave leads to an even more horrific word: genocide.

The truth is, we were not looking at one mass grave, but at least three. 

A corner of paradise

The contrasts could not have been sharper that sunny July morning. Behind us, the emerald blue-green waters of Hecate Strait were calm – rich with brown kelp forests swaying in the low tide. The skies were brilliantly blue and warm. In front of us, the Sitka spruce and cedar trees stood silently, hauntingly growing over the remains of what was once the vibrant Haida village of Tanu’u. All around us, there was evidence of Eden. And yet – it was not this abundance that we noticed as we stared silently at the moss-covered ground. I would learn later from members of our group – 11 Christian school educators on a summer learning experience – that each of us was simply trying to process an inconvenient truth: before us that beautiful morning lay buried the remains of hundreds of nameless victims of a smallpox epidemic that swept through this corner of paradise, decimating the Haida people by upwards of 90 percent. 

Europeans who came to trade with the Haida brought more than new diseases – they brought new burial practices for the Haida to adopt as well. The custom of burying the dead itself was not a traditional Haida practice, who interned their dead according to rank: nobility and chiefs high off the ground in cedar bentwood boxes placed in the top cavity of beautifully carved cedar mortuary poles. Others were placed in bentwood boxes in mortuary houses at the back of villages. Tragically, as the Haida were scrambling to bury their dead in mass graves during this dark time, newcomers would soon arrive to cut down those same mortuary poles in order to loot not only the bentwood boxes, but the very dead themselves. It was to protect the sacredness of the dead and their ancient village sites from this theft that the Haida created the Watchmen program a generation ago. And it was a Haida Watchman who now served as our guide and graciously welcomed us – Christian educators from across B.C. – as guests to learn from the Haida about Indigenous ways of being and knowing so that we might be more effective educators when we returned to the classroom in September.

Only a few feet behind us, ironically, on a prominent outcrop of rock overlooking the beach stood a single headstone that marked the solitary grave of Bill Reid. A descendant of Tanu’u on his mother’s side, Bill Reid requested to be buried in his maternal family’s ancestral village. Here we stood that morning between two very different grave sites, our minds swirling with questions that we could not even find the words to express. Rather, we simply stood and listened to our Haida Watchman relate the tragic history of his people’s struggle with so much injustice, steadfast in their refusal to allow these mass graves to be dug and their ancestors be violated in death. Something within me wondered if our host might harbour a lingering distrust of us, people who seem to come to Haida Gwaii only to take away from these islands and its people.

 
 Eleven Christian educators from across B.C. spent eight days as guests in Haida Gwaii. 

Everything is connected

These were not the first remains we had seen on Haida Gwaii. The day before, we had walked parallel to the beach through the second growth forest near Mather’s Creek on Louise Island. There we saw the remains of a very different and more recent economic sort: rusted and broken machinery, rubber tires, tools and loggers’ boots littering the forest floor as evidence of what was once a busy WW II logging operation. At the end of the abandoned logging camp, where Mather’s Creek enters the ocean, we found headstones marking the graves of Haida survivors of Tanu’u, evacuated from their village site under the direction of Christian missionaries to attempt a fresh start in a new location. On each of the headstones, “Christian” names such as John, Thomas and Mary have replaced traditional Haida names, and their epitaphs – “Asleep in Jesus” – testify to the massive social upheaval that the Haida were powerless to stop. What went through the minds of those born into one culture and location, only to die shortly thereafter in another with foreign names, foreign diseases and foreign customs?

I cannot help but grieve the history of Canada’s messy relationship with Indigenous peoples everywhere, and wonder also at what could have been done differently.  Christians especially have much to grieve as we slowly become aware of the destructive impact of generations of church-run residential schools. As we move forward in our desire for reconciliation and restoration, a good starting point in our relationship with Indigenous people is to consider a fundamental Haida teaching we learned at the Ḵay Llnagaay Heritage Centre: “gina ‘waadluuxan gud kwaagid” – everything is connected to everything else. What may be self-evident to the Haida (and presumably all Indigenous peoples in Canada) is slowly becoming evident to the rest of us – that we cannot address reconciliation and restoration in isolation from other complex and related topics: colonialism, resource development, education and even smallpox and mass graves in distant beaches on islands at the edge of the world. Perhaps even the Kingdom of God.

As we do, and as we move forward in reconciliation, may we heed the words of our Watchman: watch your step. 

  • Jonathan lives in Smithers, B.C., and teaches high school at Bulkley Valley Christian School, on the Gitumd’en house territory of Woos.

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