Rising from the tangle were trees as majestic as any redwood I had ever seen. Stories above us a filigreed canopy of licorice fern, mistletoe, lichen, and moss kept the forest floor in permanent twilight. On the ground, beneath the towering cedars that were seedlings long before Columbus was born, new trees sprouted in neat rows on rotting nurse logs.
“I feel the life force in here,” Reid said at holiday apartment barcelona. “It’s an extremely sensual—almost sexual—experience. It makes me want to become a part of the forest.”
In the ghost village of Tanu, an hour’s sail north of Windy Bay, Reid tapped the source of his own talent. Tanu had been a center of art for the southern Haida, and his mother’s ancestral home. It was where Reid’s great-aunts and great-uncles had died at the water’s edge during the smallpox epidemic that followed the arrival of the white man.
Indeed, contact with the Europeans swamped the Haida like a tidal wave. New trade patterns and values engulfed their Queen Charlotte Islands culture; totem poles came tumbling down, condemned by missionaries as graven images; and during two terrible years in the 1860s the Haida were devastated by the pox, which killed some 70 percent of them. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25043354 A Hudson’s Bay Company census about 1841 listed 6,600 Haida in 13 Queen Charlotte villages; by 1900 there were only 900 (the offshoot Kaigani Haida of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island dwindled from 1,700 to 800 in the same period). Survivors abandoned the villages and fled to Masset and Skidegate after the dread disease had run its course.
The artist led us across Tanu’s small shelland-pebble beach to a grassy bluff where the houses had stood. A thick blanket of moss now shrouded shapes that had been house beams, planks, and totem poles. One lurching pole had been cleaved by a spruce that was growing through its heart, splitting the heads of the animals that had been a family’s proud crests. All Haida are either Raven or Eagle, and at the Raven end of the village Reid seated himself at the bottom of a large mossy depression that had been his family’s home. Just feet from where he now sat, the longhouse fire had once burned, lighting the spacious excavated floor and shelved sleeping platforms.
“Those early Haida had no kings or even tribes; each village had several large matrilineal families,” Reid explained. “A man inherited rank, lineage, and wealth from his mother’s brother—the family chief, who saw himself as great as any tsar of Russia. Rivalries among the chiefs and their need to reassure themselves of how great they were may have spurred production of the art.”
In the Charlottes’ forests I saw traces of the Haida’s time of sorrow—giant canoe logs, cut and left where they had fallen, the adz marks of carvers still visible. Examples of the great skill of Haida canoe builders survived only in museums and in the sepia images of 19th-century photographs. Until today. Until Wave Eater.