• History

Fascinating Facts About Haida Mortuary Poles

The Haida people, who have inhabited the Haida Gwaii archipelago off British Columbia, Canada, for tens of thousands of years, were some of the finest wood carvers in the Pacific Northwest during the totem pole boom that began in the late 18th century and carried itself to about 1900. In Native Americans: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Peoples (1998), Barry Pritzker calls the Haida "outstanding wood-carvers" and speaks of their totem poles as some of the best in world history.

This high praise extends of course to Haida mortuary poles, which are simply totem poles specially modified to hold human remains in a box at the top. Here's an example from the 19th century, showing the pole and the frontal board behind which the boxed body rested.  

The Haida were not the only people to carve these mortuary poles; they just did it better than anyone else. Their totem pole death legacy is actually quite fascinating, but in a way that's more admirable than macabre. To imply that there is anything spooky or crude about these poles would be to totally miss the point ­– the Haida had, and still have, great respect for those among them who ended up atop poles.

  • Some Poles Are Purposely Left to Rot

    One might think the mortuary poles at the UNESCO heritage site and popular tourist destination SGang Gwaay in Haida Gwaii would have been preserved to last forever, but one would be wrong. There's a forest of old poles on the beach there, and they're slowly returning to the earth – because that's what the Haida people want. Andrew Todd writes:

    "In some cases, [native elders] have expressed a wish to be able to witness the gradual and natural decline of the wood and paint in their original placement. An example is the Haida decision regarding the mortuary and memorial poles still located on-site at the Ninstints World Heritage Site on Anthony Island, in the Queen Charlotte Islands. … The program honors the native point of view, permitting the poles to slowly deteriorate" (pg. 406).

    So, if you're planning to visit SGang Gwaay, you should probably do so in the next couple decades before the poles are gone forever.

  • The Spirits Stick Around

    Photo: seadog / Pixabay

    The Haida believe in a spirit world that coincides with our own physical world. The deceased go right on existing as spirits, and as such they tend to stay near their physical homes after death. It was and is considered an honor to have great chiefs hanging around the mortuary poles next door after they've left the physical world.

    The next time you find yourself within a stone's throw of a Haida mortuary pole, just remember, there might be a spirit of some badass Haida chief within a stone's throw of you, too.

  • There's a Chance a Corpse Could Fall Right Out of the Mortuary Pole

    As recounted by the Haida Chief Cumshewa, once upon a time a couple skulls fell out of some old rotting mortuary poles, and Canadian government archeologists thoughtfully buried them. This was a bad thing to do. Their action deeply disappointed the Haida chief, who said the skulls should have been left where they lay, undisturbed, to decompose in the natural order of things. It was an understandable error on the government's part, especially as this government accustomed to putting dead body parts underground as opposed to, you know, leaving them to rot out in the open.

    But sometimes mortuary remains got moved around for other, less accidental, reasons. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, people frequently robbed mortuary poles of their human remains. Much of this bone kleptomania came from American museum collectors, which explains why some Haida body parts have traveled as far away as the Field Museum and the Smithsonian.

    Fortunately, the Haida have managed to get back much of these stolen remains. Primitive Entertainment produced a feature-length film about their mission to reclaim their dead, and you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

  • Watchmen Stand Guard at SGang Gwaay

    Video: YouTube

    If you're thinking of running off with a mortuary pole or the remains contained in one, better not try it at SGang Gwaay because the watchmen will find you (assuming the spirits don't take you out first). These Haida Gwaii Watchmen have been operational for thousands of years, protecting the Haida lands and the people's heritage. The Haida consider the mortuary poles on SGang Gwaay sacred, the homes of spirits, and just having the chance to stand among them by yourself – unaccompanied by a watchman – is quite an honor in itself.

    To be fair, the watchmen seem to be pretty nice guys, but you get the point.