Nan Sdins

by Joanna Streetly

After years of sea-kayaking elsewhere, the Haida Gwaii archipelago felt more remote and spacious. The islands lie 160 kilometres off the coast of northwestern British Columbia and are known for their misty beauty, vibrant Native culture, and for pockets of refugia – little miracles of land and life untouched by the last glaciation.

I’d come here to help a tour-guide friend with a week-long trip to the 19th century village of Ninstints, (Nan Sdins,) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There was no certainty that we’d reach our destination. The village is perched on a tiny island at the very edge of the continental shelf. Here, the ocean depth slides from 60 metres to 3000. The swell height fluctuates without warning. And the average water temperature can render a person unconscious within an hour.

But an abundance of seafood allowed people to thrive here and create a rich, artistic culture. My guidebook showed the locations of the renowned mortuary totem poles and longhouse remains, and the names of the families who lived and died there.

 

By day three, I had re-discovered quietness. The inlets, with their flapping sandhill cranes seemed to echo and vanish into the soft distance. No motorboats hurried from point to point; no other groups of kayakers dotted the horizon.

In the open, moss-muffled forest along our way to Nan Sdins, occasional green rectangular outlines showed where longhouses had once stood. Sitting beside one of these, I looked up family names: Raven Moiety, Eagle Moiety, Striped Town People, Sand Town People…

I pictured the beach alive with children playing. But the image couldn’t last. There were no people in this part of Haida Gwaii. Smallpox had come and life had ended. It was that simple, that brutal. The few who survived were moved to villages in the north of the archipelago.

As the days passed with no trace of other people, I realised I had mistaken spaciousness for emptiness. The people had been poured out of the land and the lonely echo was that of their lost voices.

 

We finally reached Nan Sdins after a heart-pounding passage through mountainous swells. A dark, densely treed path led to the village. Even as we approached, goose bumps rose on my arms. We came into the bright clearing of the bay and the sight of the tip-tilted grey totem poles brought me to tears.

Each carving was unique, magnificent, achingly beautiful. But it was the decay that was so poignant. The crumbling poles – once perfect – told stories of life on Nan Sdins. According to custom, these chapters of history close with the rotting of the poles. The poles weren’t going to be replaced by fresh poles and fresh stories. They were dying, just as the people had died.

Through their death – in terrible irony – history became inescapably alive.

No other place has awakened my understanding the way Nan Sdins did. It is less a memory, now, than a part of me – like an extra rib, moss covered.

• 300 word essay, written for The Guardian’s travel writing contest on UNESCO world heritage sites, for which it turned out I was ineligible due to a residency requirement.

 

 

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