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Haida Gwaii: Islands of the People

By Dennis Horwood

Haida Eagle Treasures: Tsath Lanas History and Narratives

By Pansy Collison

Review By Molly Clarkson

September 23, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 153-55

On the face of it, the only feature that the two books under review share is their connection to Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands. While Dennis Horwood’s Haida Gwaii: Islands of the People, first published in 2000 and currently in its fourth edition, remains a classic guidebook for the uninitiated, Pansy Collison’s Haida Eagle Treasures: Tsath Lanas History and Narratives (2010) offers a wholly different insight into the history and spirit of Haida culture and, consequently, the islands themselves.

Haida Eagle Treasures is a book that does not fit neatly into any genre or category. Described in the introduction as “a personal account of Haida history and culture” (22), the past and present history of the Haida Tsath Lasnas clan is lovingly and intentionally told through three generations of Collison women’s stories. The book is also, as the author herself points out, “the first of its kind to be told and written by a Haida woman” (22). The extensive literature on the Haida and their territory can be traced back to the early writings of missionaries, anthropologists, and geologists who came to the area in the 19th century; more contemporary works include Robert Bringhurst’s A Story as Sharp as a Knife (1999) and the Kathleen “Betty” Dalzell’s remarkable historical trilogy (1989). However, with the exception of Emerging from out of the Margins, Dr. Frederick White’s recent studies of Haida language, culture, and history (2014), Pansy Collison’s work represents a decidedly noteworthy contribution to the literature on the “Misty Isles” and its peoples.

In spite of the singular author listed on its front cover, Haida Eagle Treasures is a deeply collaborative work. Many members of Collison’s family contributed in the form of drawings, poems, obituaries, and autobiographies. Most poignant, perhaps, is a chapter written by Kaakuns, mother of Collison, whose stories of cannery work and raising a family on Haida Gwaii are simply and eloquently delivered. Collison’s long and distinguished career as a First Nations educator also permeates the book; meditations on the relationship between culture and education follow guides for classroom activities. In this book you will find family photographs interspersed with Haida stories and adapted plays, family recipes and instructions for sewing a button blanket and constructing a hide drum. For those fans of John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce there is an alternative telling of the experiences of the Haida community following the felling of K’iid K’iyaas (Old Tree) by a “crazed individual,” Grant Hadwin. At times, the eclectic organization of this wide array of content is confusing — at the beginning of each chapter the reader is left in suspense as they wait to discover what it is that they are reading. The abbreviated and direct style in which Collison writes can, at times, detract from otherwise compelling content. Overall, however, the book reads as a gift from someone who has intimately experienced and is proud to share her culture and history.

Haida Gwaii: Islands of the People is in definite contrast to Collison’s book. Written for prospective and current visitors to the archipelago, Kitimat resident Dennis Horwood provides an organized, helpful, and enjoyable account of his Haida Gwaii traipses that will no doubt whet the adventuring appetites of those who read it. Maps, botanical drawings, directions, accommodation details, and a whole slew of photographs accompany Horwood’s friendly and information-packed narratives. Several biographies of Island residents, seafood recipes, and navigational warnings will give would-be visitors a taste of everyday life on the archipelago. A dedicated birder himself, Horwood at times indulges in pages of avian rhapsodies that are of only minor interest to those of us who can barely distinguish a crow from a raven. Birding enthusiasts, however, may wish to take note.

Individually, these books will lead aspiring travellers and curious armchair adventurers in entirely different directions. Without Horwood, you might not know that in wintertime the gas stations here close at 6:00 pm, and that you can’t get cell phone service in Tlell (except for that one field across from the Misty Meadows campsite, that is: stop by in the summer for an amusing vista of tourists wandering around, arms up, with their cellphones in the air!). Pansy Collison’s book, in turn, may guide your perception of Haida Gwaii — if not your road trip itinerary — towards the more intangible elements of these beautiful islands and their people.

Haida Gwaii: Islands of the People
Dennis Horwood
Victoria: Heritage House, 2014. 264 pp. $19.95 paper

Haida Eagle Treasures: Tsath Lanas History and Narratives
Pansy Collison
Calgary: Brush Education, 2010. 244 pp. $25.95 paper