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As a new book shows, what Haida Gwaii has going is a closer approximation to democracy than what the rest of us have so far achieved. Years ago, sitting in a Port Clements cafe, my wife and I chatted with a couple of cheerful young Haida men. I don’t recall much of what we talked about, but one of them made an observation that stuck with me:

“Things happen here that don’t happen in Canada.”

They do indeed, and one of the things that happens on Haida Gwaii is a closer approximation to democracy than the rest of us have so far achieved. If we paid more attention to the Haida — if we really cared about them and other Indigenous peoples — we ourselves might be a more democratic nation.

This remarkable book appears to be about the parochial political culture of Old Massett, a small village of about 600 at the north end of Graham Island, and by extension the politics of the 6,000 members of the Haida nation. But it is also about the whole relationship of “settler” Canada to the peoples whose lands we’ve occupied, right up to the current SNC-Lavalin mess.

Joseph Weiss is an anthropologist at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, but he did his BA at the University of British Columbia and spent years studying the society and politics of Old Massett.

Like its counterpart Skidegate, at the south end of Graham Island, Old Massett is essentially a long-lasting refugee camp. It was founded to house the fragments of ancient clans that had survived the smallpox pandemic of the 1860s, and the ensuing social collapse, but were too few to survive on their own ancestral lands.

The survivors depended on the dubious kindness of the Canadian government, which sent their children to residential schools and dictated the terms under which they would be tolerated until they and other Indigenous nations “assimilated” into a self-evidently “superior” culture.

That racist attitude persists on the B.C. coast and across Canada. A history of Alert Bay, published in 1958 and reprinted in 1971, observed that after a long decline, Indigenous populations were growing.

“It may be owing to the infusion of white blood that these results are occurring,” the author wrote. “A large percentage of the Indians today are not of pure Indian blood, but have a large admixture of other races. This will hasten the time when the Indians as such will be no more, but will be absorbed into the white race.”

Stubbornly growing back

But cultures are stubborn organisms that can grow back. Settler Canada saw Indigenous culture as willful barbarism, a refusal to leave the past. The “Indians” had sealed themselves off from “modern,” “advanced” civilization. If they did not assimilate, they would vanish. This has been a disastrous misreading of constantly changing Indigenous cultures.

Weiss demands a price for his insights. The first couple of chapters are rich in anthropologese, with terms like “temporal modality.” But it’s a price worth paying, because he then shows us a society far more engaged with its future than with its past.

The Haida have kept much of their original culture, including hereditary chiefs and matriarchs, while also accepting the electoral politics imposed on them. So they deal with clan chiefs as well as the Old Massett Village Council , the Council of the Haida Nation , and a host of provincial and federal agencies.

Weiss shows how they also deal with the arbitrary “time discipline” of events set by settlers, like school years and ferry schedules, while also adjusting to the seasonal vagaries of resource gathering — “what we have done forever.”

Preventing ‘nightmare futures’

Weiss […]

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