Monthly Archives: December 2009

Captain Vancouver and Camas

Saranne, or lily, harvesting on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in May 1792.

I am sure it is well known to local ethnobotanists, but I don’t recall seeing the above account of plant cultivation reference before.  It is from page 123 of Captain Vancouver’s “Voyage of Discovery …. ” (1801 edition, which you can browse online here).

I didn’t figure out the exact locale of this camp but it is probably very close to Port Discovery, near Port Townsend at the north end of Puget Sound.  The camp is carefully noted as a plant-harvesting camp and also a place where shellfish were being processed. The houses are mere lean-tos.  It is interesting to see that the considerable number of “eighty or a hundred” women, men and children were engaged in turning over the earth here, “like swine” (!).  It gives a vivid impression of a well-orchestrated, community-level harvesting event.  Vancouver comments favourably on the product, a sort of paste or flour.

Vancouver refers to one plant as a species of wild onion, while the other two plants being cultivated are termed as resembling “saranne”.  That being a new term to me, I turned to the OED only to find it not listed, which is quite surprising.  Googling turned up some interesting historical references though, in which it is clearly a term used for members of the Lily family (camas is also a member of this family).  For example, see this 1792 clip from Pennant’s Arctic Zoology Volume 3, on the use of Saranne, or Lilium kamchatschense, by the inhabitants of (yes) Kamchatka (let your eyes skim, gentle reader, over the foregoing section on the use and abuse of hallucinogenic mushrooms). Perhaps this term, Saranne, was in use around the North Pacific at that time but it strikes me as odd it did not find its way into the OED.

Anyway, a few pages down from p. 123 you can also find a nice description of the Coast Salish wool dog, which is described as being much like a Pomeranian.

Camas flowers and bulbs. Source: Brenda Beckwith Ph.D. thesis, 2004. http://hdl.handle.net/1828/632

Annotation: Richardson Island Stratigraphy

Annotated stratigraphy of lowest Richardson Island archaeological deposits.

Richardson Island is a remarkable archaeological site in southern Haida Gwaii.  When it was occupied, sea levels were about 10 metres higher than today, and rising.  Then, sea levels stopped rising and occupation continued.  We have dates ranging from 10,500 cal BP to 2900 cal BP (calendar years before present).  However, the early part of the record includes the most impressive stratigraphy.  The shoreline configuration at that time likely included a supra-tidal marine berm feature, which would have had a flattish top and have been well-drained and probably vegetation free: a perfect place to camp.  Occasional storms or even tsunamis would build this berm in the winter, and with rising sea levels the berm was “pushed uphill” so to speak.  The berm-building process would have involved sudden dumps of sorted pea-gravel onto the occupation layers at the site, sealing and preserving them.  Overall, though, the site is in a well-protected location, at least relative to the enormously dynamic winter sea conditions of Haida Gwaii. Continue reading

Haida, Argillite, and the Pig War

Carved argillite from Belle Vue Sheep Farm, San Juan Island. Source: NPS.

I don’t know as much about the 1859 Pig War as you might think, having spent an awful lot of time on San Juan Island. This “war”, which was more of an armed standoff between British and American troops, was a key event in the various mid-19th century boundary disputes.  One key location was Belle Vue Sheep Farm, near the southern tip of San Juan Island, where there has recently been some interesting historical archaeological work by the U.S. National Parks Service.

One interesting find at this dig is a piece of carved argillite, shown above, which most likely stems from Haida Gwaii (see page 7 of this PDF report, browse other NW NPS reports here).  Around this time there were plenty of Haida and other North Coast Nations around the Victoria area, and so it is not surprising, really, to see this piece.  And yet, it is also a stroke of massive good fortune to have such a distinctive piece of the turbulent 19th century history of First Nations.

Intriguingly, a key figure on the American side of the Pig War was George Pickett, who later achieved substantial fame for leading Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War,

Ironically for someone who later fought for the racist Confederacy, Pickett was once married to a Haida woman by the name of Sâkis Tiigang.   (More often known as “Morning Mist”, this site gives her Haida name as beSakkis Tiigang while the Pickett Society in a detailed article gives her the slightly more authoritative-seeming name Sâkis Tiigang, meaning “Mist Lying Down”).  They had a son together, the artist James Tilton Pickett who, without wanting to generalize overly, certainly looks like a Haida man.  Shortly after the birth of young James in 1857, Sâkis Tiigang passed away.

Probably there is no tangible connection between Morning Mist/Sâkis Tiigang and this carved piece of her homeland, but surely there is a poetic one.

James Tilton Pickett, son of Sâkis Tiigang and George Pickett/ 1857-1889. Source: Pickett Society.

Toys for Christmas

Miniature ulu, or woman's knife, from west Greenland. Source: field notes blog/ Genevieve LeMoine

OK, so it is not from the NW Coast, but this thousand year old miniature (toy?) ulu from Cape Grinnell, Western Greenland is close enough.  Close to the North Pole, Reindeer, and all that, that is.  It even has a miniature blade made from meteoric iron.  Via field notes.

Google and the Indigenous Mapping Network

Nisga'a Place Names. Click for interactive version.

Google is putting together a workshop together with the Indigenous Mapping Network:

On February 25th and 26th, 2010, Google and IMN will host a workshop on the Google campus for members and staff of indigenous groups who want to learn about Google geospatial and mobile technologies. This hands-on workshop will approach Google technologies with the special concerns of indigenous communities in mind, and will focus on the technical aspects of using Google Earth, Google Maps, Sketchup, Android mobile phones and Open Data Kit, among other technologies.

I’m pretty sure both parties are on it, but despite Google’s corporate motto of “Do No Evil” uploading sensitive, spatially-referenced cultural information to their servers seems like something that would need some thought.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to see this as a pro-active direction Google is taking.  Canadian First Nations are some of the most GIS-savvy anywhere in the world.  One of their main networks seems to be the Aboriginal Mapping Network, who have an excellent-looking book coming out soon called Living Proof: The Essential Data-Collection Guide for Indigenous Use-and-Occupancy Map Surveys by Terry N. Tobias.  Also see their handy link to data sources especially for BC.

Duff and Kew: 1957 article on SGang Gwaay Town

Map of SGang Gwaay Town. Duff and Kew, 1957

As promised, I am linking to a copy of the 1957 report (PDF) by Wilson Duff and Michael Kew on the Kunghit Haida town of  SGang Gwaay, which has also been known erroneously as Ninstints. Little mention is made of the pole recovery aspect which was the subject of previous posts, though if you scroll all the way down in Duff and Kew’s article I append Duff’s report from that same issue of the “Report of the Provincial Museum of Natural History and Anthropology”.  In that report, the personnel involved are noted and there is also a discussion of  the activity of the  “B.C. Totem Pole Restoration Committee.”

Anyway, Duff and Kew describe in full the environment and setting of Anthony Island, the town site and associated archaeological sites, and also gives a full account of the early period conflict between Haida and trading ships.  In particular, vivid detail is given of the rise and fall of Chief Koyah and the serial raids he led on trading ships.  As Duff notes, this escalation in violence may well have been the resulted of an ill-advised power-play by Captain Kendrick who temporarily held Koyah hostage, a mortal insult in Haida society:

What Kendrick regarded as a simple” lesson” must to Koyah have been a monstrous and shattering indignity. No Coast Indian chief could endure even the slightest insult without taking steps immediately to restore his damaged prestige. To be taken captive, even by a white man, was like being made a slave, and that stigma could be removed only by the greatest feats of revenge or distributions of wealth. This humiliating violation of Koyah’s person must have been shattering to his prestige in the tribe. The Indian account of the incident told to Captain Gray a year later (but before Gray had heard Kendrick’s version) states this very clearly.

“On Coyah the chief’s being asked for, we were informed by several of the natives . . . that Captain Kendrick was here some time ago . . . that he took Coyah, tied a rope around his neck, whipped him, painted his face, cut off his hair, took away from him a great many skins, and then turned him ashore. Coyah was now no longer a chief, but an ‘AWiko,’ or one of the lower class. They have now no head chief, but many inferior chiefs. . . .” (Hoskins, in Howay, 1941, p. 200).

Kendrick had hurt Koyah more than he knew.  On Koyah’s part, if we understand the motivations of a Haida chief correctly, only bloody revenge or a great distribution of wealth would restore his lost prestige. To capture and destroy Kendrick’s ship, for example, and then distribute the loot, would fill the bill nicely. Koyah watched for his chance, and John Kendrick’s carelessness soon gave it to him.

Continue reading

Speaking of Wilson Duff and Bill Reid

Roy Jones of Skidegate climbs a pole at SGang Gwaay. Source: CBC.

Yesterday I noted the upcoming musical about the Bill Reid-Wilson Duff expedition to “rescue” carved poles at the Haida Village of SGang Gwaay (Ninstints).  I’ve just found that the CBC has posted online a short documentary, (2013:edit, use this link)  first broadcast in 1959 and narrated by Bill Reid, showing the removal of these poles to the Museum of Anthropology at UVIC.  The expedition also included Wayne Suttles and Michael Kew, as well as Wilson Duff of course.  The Haida crew consisted of Roy Jones, Clarence Jones and Frank Jones of Skidegate. Some aspects of the trip are recounted in the BC Provincial Museum Annual Report of 1957, which I will scan and post some other day.

The spoken component of the documentary is a fascinating account by Reid, at that time just beginning his carving career, but the real jaw-dropping element is the depiction of the use of axes and saws and climbing spikes to log this forest of poles.  Necessary, of course, but jarring nonetheless.

Broadcast Date: May 21, 1959

A small boat ferrying Bill Reid and a team of anthropologists approaches the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Reid documents the rescue mission to salvage and relocate the last of the crumbling Haida totems as revealed in this CBC documentary. With a sense of excited urgency, Reid describes and catalogues the enormous poles on the approaching shore. As they are gently felled, the majestic cultural landmarks will creak and groan before they are prepared for transport.

It’s low resolution and grainy, but the general impression is a very powerful one.

Felling a tree, surely, not a pole at SGang Gwaay. Source: CBC.