SGang Gwaay

From the World Heritage inscription for SGang Gwaay:

At the village of SGang Gwaay llnagaay (Nan Sdins) the remains of large cedar longhouses, 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 to 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 are removing moss and plant growth from the poles, keeping the area around the poles clear and propping up some of them. 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, which served as tombs for high ranking Haidas. A box was literally put atop the pole where the corpse 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.


Totem Pole in SGang Gwaay village
Totem Pole in SGang Gwaay village

SGang Gwaay is a cultural site recognized by UNESCO as one of the World Heritage Sites in Canada. It was inscribed on the list in 1981 as a significantly archaeological and pre-Columbian site. With the naming of this site as a UNESCO protected area, it will hopefully aid in the preservation of an ancient Haida village located on the eastern part of Anthony Island. According to expert archaeologists, this village is important as it provides insight into the traditional First Nations village site in the Northwestern Coast of Canada.

In fact, when you visit SGang Gwaay today, you will still find many remains from the traditional village. These remains include cedar loghouses and totem poles.

About SGang Gwaay

SGang Gwaay

According to the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing, SGang Gwaay is an archipelago located on the western coast of British Columbia, Canada. This area showcases the culture of Haida in the region. There are several remains like carved poles in the area and are one of the best examples of this type of art and culture in the world.

The Haida community was one of the strongest communities in Canada during its heyday. However, this was a small and intimate community consisting of only about 300 people. Today, the only proofs of the small community’s existence are the loghouses and carved poles that are impressively preserved. Aside from the poles, there are also fragmented house frames, mortuary and memorial sites that have remained intact in the area.

Some of the carved poles that were recovered at the site protected within the SGang Gwaay UNESCO site were moved to a museum (there are about 15 of them). The process of moving these poles took place from the 1930s to the 1950s. Other aspects of the village had been overcome by nature and the elements. However, the 10 houses and 32 mortuary poles are preserved to serve as a symbol of the power of the Haida community from the past.

It is believed that the Haida village and community, despite being small, thrived because they relied on both the sea and forest for resources. According to archaeologists, the people of Haida relied on salmon and shellfish as their staple diet. They also utilized the giant red cedars within the nearby forest to build canoes, totem poles, and plank houses. This society thrived for thousands of years until they disappeared; all that is left are the remains of the society’s source of living and the houses they built. This story of how the Haida people utilized their natural resources to build a settlement and their own little society is one of the reasons why UNESCO considered it of global significance.

Tips for Visiting SGang Gwaay

Fallen timbers in SGang Gwaay
Fallen timbers in SGang Gwaay

If you are going to visit SGang Gwaay, here are some tips you need to keep in mind:

  • SGang Gwaay is extremely remote. You can only access it by air or sea.
  • Kayaking or the use of boats is not allowed in the bay right across the village. This helps to preserve the experience for the visitors to this UNESCO site.
  • This village is considered a sacred site by the Haida culture since many of the villagers and ancestors were buried on the site.
  • There are walking paths provided within the village. Make sure to stay on the path to avoid walking onto sacred sites.

View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada.

Gary Arndt
Gary Arndt

Gary began traveling the world in 2007. His travels have taken him to over 200 countries and territories and 400 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

He is a 3x Lowell Thomas Award winner and a 3x North American Travel Photographer of the Year.