UNESCO World Heritage Site #177: SGang Gwaay

UNESCO World Heritage Site #177: SGang Gwaay

UNESCO World Heritage Site #177: SGang Gwaay

From the World Heritage inscription:

At the village of SGang Gwaay llnagaay (Nan Sdins) the remains of large cedar long houses, together with a number of carved mortuary and memorial poles, illustrate the art and way of life of the Haida. The site commemorates the living culture of the Haida, based on fishing and hunting, their relationship with the land and sea, and offers a visual key to their oral traditions. The village was occupied until shortly after 1880. What survives is unique in the world, a 19th century Haida village where the ruins of houses and memorial or mortuary poles illustrate the power and artistry of Haida society.

SGang Gwaay (pronounced Skung Gwhy) is easily one of the most difficult World Heritage sites I have ever visited. Getting there requires a trip to Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and then a 4-day zodiac trip to get to the island and back.

SGang Gwaay is one of three abandoned Haida villages which are protected by Parks Canada and the Haida Watchmen program. The others include Skedans and Tanu.

While SGang Gwaay is the best preserved of the villages, there is still remarkably little left from when the village was abandoned in the late 19th Century. As is Haida tradition, the poles are being left to return into the earth. As such, every year there is less and less which is visible. The only efforts which are being taken in SGang Gwaay in terms of preservation is removing moss and plant growth from the poles, keeping the area around the poles clear and propping some of them up. Beyond that, nothing is being done to stop the decay of the wood.

In other villages such as Tanu, there is almost nothing left. Other than some moss covered logs on the ground which happen to be parallel, it would be hard to guess there was ever a human settlement there. Many of the poles in the other villages (which are not part of the UNESCO site) have been completely taken over by the root system of other trees.

The remaining poles in SGang Gwaay are all mortuary poles, wich served as tombs for high ranking Haidas. A box was literally put atop the pole where the corpose of a person was put. It is believed that this way they are close to the heavens. Other poles, such as house poles and memorial poles, have been taken down and placed in museums.

Because of the Haida policy of letting the poles and longhouses revert back to the Earth, there will probably be little to nothing left of SGang Gwaay in 20 years. The other villages have almost disappeared and what little remains will probably vanish even sooner. If you want to see this last remnant of original native Northwest Pacific village culture, you had better act quick.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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