Mind Blowing Haida History Lessons: Kayaking Day 3 – T’aanuu Llnagaay (Tanu)

Our schedule has shifted to an efficient one: 6:30am wakeup call (ethereal flute played by Devjeet), 7am coffee and breakfast, then pack up tents and belongings, carry the boats to the water, load them with our stuff, and start paddling by 9-9:30.

boat packing

Paddle a few hours, taking advantage of the calm waters that always arrive in the mornings, then have lunch on a beautiful beach, maybe nap. Face the afternoon winds with your lunch-fueled energy, then make camp at your stunning campsite by 4-6pm. On average we cover 10 nautical miles each day, in 4ish hours of paddling.

Today I try the double kayak for the first time, forcing my sweet paddling partner to endure my endless questions for Amy. Did you know (I didn’t) that you can predict the weather using the clouds?

Clouds getting lower = low pressure system coming in = weather will get worse

Clouds getting higher = high pressure system coming = weather will get better

Cirrus (fluffy) clouds = weather will be good tomorrow

Scallop sky/wispy clouds = weather will get worse in 24 hours

Anvil shaped dark clouds = thunderstorms (because warm air is rising, making that shape).

toby captures my questions of amy.jpg

(I promise, she could explain it much better than I can.)(She also listens to the weather twice a day to get even more accurate weather to plan our trip, but often it just confirms what she already knows from the clouds and wind!)

Before lunch we stop at T’aanuu, and get a tour from Sunny, the Watchman who lives here with his family. Watchmen are Haida Nation members who live at the protected sites for 2-8 weeks, ensuring the areas are well cared for, clearing trails, and (on a voluntary basis) guiding tour groups through the villages of their ancestors. Sunny lives here with his wife and young daughter, enthusiastically sharing both archeological and family history with our grateful crew.

sunny at tanuT’aanuu Llnagaay (Tanu) translates to Eelgrass Town, because the people of the village were always seen in the water, modifying the environment and fishing. At its height, T’aanuu held 44 longhouses, 31 mortuary poles and 15 mortuary houses. House depressions and fallen roofbeams whisper the former glory to visitors. 24 of the houses were destroyed by logging companies before the standoff (which I’ll explain in the Windy Bay post), leaving 20 to decompose into the remnants we see today. 

Sideposts fall around the depression of a longhouse.

Before contact, it’s estimated the Haida population was as big as 60,000, scattered amoung dozens of village sites, each with their own language dialect. Most families had both winter homes and summer homes, the removable sideplanks of the home strapped to a canoe and paddled to the summer destination, leaving the giant front poles, roofs and corner beams in place for fall’s return. 



The depression of a massive longhouse, with roofbeams still floating, and spruce growing from the foundations. 

As with most First Nations populations in Canada, contact with outsiders meant a massive drop in population due to overwhelming diseases like smallpox, measles and tuberculosis. In less than 100 years, it is estimated that over 95% of the Haida population was killed by disease, leaving less than 600 Haida individuals. It is suspected that a rare genetic defect which caused arthritis provided immunity to the diseases; oral history records that an entire village of strong young warriors would be wiped out, but a frail grandmother with arthritis would survive. Mass graves were built in the villages, including T’aanuu. Survivors were forced to abandon the decimated villages, seeking refuge in Sgang Gwayy in the south and eventually settling in the two current reserves of Skidegate (in southern Graham Island) and Old Massett (in northern Graham Island). These two villages retain two distinct dialects of Haida, but the other variations of the language are no longer spoken.

These rocks were moved by the people of T’aanuu, to create an entrance at both high and low tides, and to catch octopus under giant rocks. Their construction of their water environment is one of the reasons they were called “The Eelgrass People”, always in the water. 

Near the back of the settlement, we pass a tiny wooden house on the forest floor, which I ask Sunny about. “People come and ask questions about residential schools, about disease, and they get real sad. So my wife carved these tiny Haida to come out of a clam shell here, where the well used to be, and I built this house around them. Now, we tell people of child bearing age that if they look inside and see tiny Haida, they’ll be pregnant in 9 months! My wife, she wanted to cheer people up, keep them laughing.”

It’s amazing to see the scale of the village, how the trees and mosses grow over it all now. “The forest has used up these poles – the spruce use up the old cedar until the cedar turns to dust, all the nutrients flowing into that spruce so it can grow big and tall.” Sure enough, almost everywhere there used to be a large house pole, there now stands a massive spruce. 


Despite this wonder though, I’m overcome with the weight of all those that died here. You can see holes where Sunny says they buried their valuables: the copper they mined and turned shields on their huge poles, using only stone tools; their other most precious things…all left behind by necessity but buried so when they returned to their villages they could dig them up. But they never got back here from Skidegate and Masset. All of those precious things were looted over the years, and the strong culture eroded like their houses under the moss.

Like every other First Nation I’ve been in contact with though, the culture was never completely lost, and now we are in a time of resurgance like never before. In Skidegate, there is a Haida Immersion Program where Elders go every day and speak Haida into microphones, recording the oral histories, differences in dialect, songs and stories. From this they have made a dictionary with thousands of words and phrases, both written and recorded on CDs. No matter what hardship is endured, culture continues.

Even when potlatches were banned by the Canadian government in the early 1900s, business continued as usual under the guise of basketball tournaments, where stories were told and business done in the stands. Today, this heritage continues in the “Battle of the Clans”, where Haida Nation members of all ages compete on mixed teams, and the best players (the All Saints), compete internationally and outrank Indigenous teams from all over the world.

I marvel at the similarities to the Blackfoot communities I work with at home, who dominate the basketball scene all over the world and have players in the NBA and WNBA – basketball fueled them when sundances, sweat lodges and ceremonies of all kinds were banned, and playing sports kept many alive in residential schools.


We paddle onwards in the afternoon winds and land at our mossy campsite, and I fall into a deep meditation before I can even set up my tent. At home I have such an intermittant practice, but here, the combination of relaxed schedule, paddling exhaustion, and sheer magic of the place allow me to fall into practicing effortlessly. It feels easy to stay in the flow of the day, rooted in each moment and guided without interference. 


One of our trip friends makes us delicious gluten free pasta with kale and lentils, and we roast marshmallows on the driftwood fire for the first time on the trip. Amy appears wet haired and glowing with joy, overflowing with news of a natural freshwater waterfall she just showered in.

natural spring

I clamber over the rocky beach and salt-bleached logs to the creek and wash days of sweat and salt in the cold water as the sun sets over the sea. If there’s a way to make this place better, I haven’t thought of it yet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s