One Family's Commitment to Responsible Travel: Taking the Haida Gwaii Pledge

Share  Facebook Twitter pinterest logoPinterest
Balance Rock, Haida Gwaii | Northern BC Tourism/Shayd Johnson

The waters of Kandaliigwii, or Hecate Strait, can be some of the stormiest in the world. But summer tends to bring calmer seas, and we’ve been blessed by blue skies and light winds as the Northern Adventure carries us west to the islands of Haida Gwaii, the ancestral homeland of the Haida and one of Canada’s most biologically diverse areas because it escaped glaciation during the last Ice Age. 

The Haida language in the Pledge is represented throughout in the order of ­Xaayda Kil (Skidegate dialect) followed by Xaad Kíl (Old Massett dialect) then its English translation.

Haida Carver and artist Leo Gagnon (Oot Iiwaans) | Northern BC Tourism/Shayd Johnson

A Responsibility to Protect

A day earlier, we’d finished loading our truck with camping gear, cameras, wetsuits, paddleboards, and everything else we’d need for a week and a half of family exploration on the trails and beaches. As we waited to drive onto the ferry, we’d also done something that was new to us—reading and signing the Haida Gwaii Pledge, a statement of respect and responsibility for the place we were visiting. 

Haida Knowledge Keepers helped craft the Pledge to encourage travellers to be mindful of how their choices and actions might impact the culture and environment that make this place so profoundly unique.

“Haida citizens carry the inherent right to govern and steward our homeland,” the Pledge explains, “and all people in Haida Territories hold a responsibility to protect this place for future generations.”

XaaydaGa Xaaynang.ngaay, yaahgudang dang ad Xaayda Gwaay guu hll k’awkaa


Xaads Xíináangaa: Xaayda Gwáay díi .ahl stúujuus dluu díi an yahgúudángáasaang 

“I will respect Haida Gwaii and Haida Ways of Being during my visit”

As the hours of the crossing pass and we draw closer to the BC Ferries terminal at Skidegate (HlGaagilda) on Graham Island, the largest in the archipelago, we look out from the upper deck as details of the islands emerge from the distance—the rocky shorelines, the richly forested mountains, the emerald bays and inlets where the Haida have lived and fished for time immemorial. 

Now on our fourth trip to Haida Gwaii, my partner and I are keenly aware that all we can see in front of us is a treasured home that we’re privileged to visit. We learn more each time we come, and we’re hoping that the Pledge will help us travel in good accordance with Haida principles—as well as help us to pass on its simple but powerful guidance to our two young kids. From the Haida viewpoint, every visitor enters a reciprocal relationship when they arrive, no matter how old they are, how many times they’ve been here, or how long they plan to stay.

At its heart, the Haida Gwaii Pledge isn’t about restrictions or limitations, but helping travellers protect the islands through the Haida Ways of Being.
Haida Heritage Centre / Haida Gwaii Museum at Ḵay 'Llnagaay | Northern BC Tourism/Shayd Johnson

Sharing the Haida Voice

After a few idyllic days of paddling, swimming, and beachcombing at Diinal GawGa, or Gray Bay, in the Kunxalas Heritage Site/Conservancy, we return to Skidegate for a tour of the Haida Heritage Centre at Kay ‘Llnagaay, an oceanfront museum and cultural centre that should be on every traveller’s itinerary. Built on an ancient village site to celebrate the culture of the Haida and share their voice with the world, it’s one of the best places to immerse yourself in the ever-evolving art, language, and stories that have been so carefully carried forward into the present day. 

Enjoying the quiet of the morning, our family of four happily explores the museum’s exhibitions of ornate masks, centuries-old fishing gear, intricately carved argillite, beautifully crafted bentwood boxes, and an incredible abundance of other masterworks. 

After seeing it all—or as much as we can, since the attention spans of little ones are inevitably limited—we step outside to admire the graceful Haida seafaring canoes in the adjoining Canoe House, marveling at the fact that families in open boats would paddle the same strait that took our ferry almost eight hours to cross. Before we move on, we enjoy a few more quiet moments in the public, grassy area behind the centre, the kids snacking on red huckleberries and gazing up in awe at the six towering, monumental poles that face the sea. 

Yahguudang  /  Yahgudáng

“Respect for all beings” 

The Pledge reminds travelers that they’ll be visiting as guests of the Haida people.“In return for your respectful actions,” the Pledge says, “we will welcome you as guests to experience our Air, Ocean, Land and People.” To help explain how you can put these principles into practice, the Pledge lists some commonplace examples—among them are speaking kindly and listening thoughtfully, asking before taking pictures, and taking only what you need to feed yourself that day if you’re out gathering food.  

Ad kyaanang  /  Ahl kyáanáng tláagang

“Ask permission first” 

Our next destination lies 120 kilometres away, where we’ve booked a tent site a few steps from North Beach at the Hiellen Village Longhouses. It’s mid-afternoon when we arrive at the end of the road, sunlight flashing off the water as we cross the small bridge over the Hl’yáalan Gáandlee, or Hiellen River, and pull into the Haida-owned campground. We find our spot and start setting up camp, but before long the kids are scampering barefoot to the beach, running along soft sand where the cedar-coloured river water meets white sheets of incoming surf. 

While they splash in the waves, my partner and I take a few breaths and admire this stunning, unspoiled shoreline that has become one of our favourite places in the world. It gets more vivid and familiar each time we’re here—the green cedars rising up the flanks of Taaw Tldáaw, or Tow Hill, the blue ocean rolling to the horizon, the long, unspoiled curve of white sand that stretches 20 kilometres to Née Kún, or Rose Spit. It’s easy to fall in love with this place, but at the same time, we know there are many people whose connections will always be far deeper than ours. Like everywhere else in this archipelago, this beach is the ancestral home of people whose families have lived here for countless generations, who truly belong to this place—and to whom this place truly belongs in turn. Through all that time, it’s the stewardship of the Haida people that has kept this place as special as it is. To them, as travellers, we owe our thanks. 

Kii'iljuus (Barbara Wilson) | Northern BC Tourism/Shayd Johnson

Asking for Guidance

For Kii’iljuus (Barbara Wilson), a Haida elder who participated in its creation, the greatest value of the Haida Gwaii Pledge is how it helps build deeper recognition, understanding, and acknowledgement of Haida land, title, and culture, whether it’s a traveller’s first, second, or tenth time to the islands.

“It’s really about being respectful,” she says, “and understanding that there are boundaries. Sometimes people think that this is a wilderness, and they don’t always think about the people that live here. Haida Gwaii is our home, and we love it and want to protect it. There might not be a roof that you can see, but this is our home.” 

The respect Kii’iljuus teaches can be as simple as cleaning up after a picnic, not pocketing rocks or shells, or not camping outside of public campgrounds—leaving each place as you found it, or better, and not taking more than you’re given. It’s also about how you treat people on the islands, how you choose to spend your travel budget, and how you use resources while you visit—following local customs and guidelines, supporting locally owned businesses and artisans, and working to minimize the impact of your trip by limiting your driving, properly disposing of waste, keeping a safe distance from wildlife, and staying on designated trails. If you’re interested in a location or activity that isn’t clearly open to visitors, ask for guidance or permission before proceeding. 

Tll yahda  /  Tll yahda

“Making it right” 

As Kii’iljuus explains, the Pledge is a new way to communicate traditional knowledge to present-day travellers like ourselves—and, just as importantly, to help mitigate the challenges that growing popularity can bring to small communities.  

“We’re going back to what our ancestors learned and passed on, after thousands and thousands of years of looking after our land and everything that lives on it with us. Now, our kids are going to be left with whatever we do—or don’t—look after. To think that the Pledge will be the answer to every issue is unrealistic, but we have to start somewhere. And this is a starting place.”

Combined with the visitor orientation created by the Council of the Haida Nation, which  contains must-know information about Haida history, language and more, reading and following the Haida Gwaii Pledge is a way for travellers to help the Haida protect their land. Even if you’re only visiting for a few days, it’s important to remember that your time here will have an impact. By taking the Pledge, you can ensure that impact is a positive one. 

Gina ‘waadluxan gud ad kwaagid  /  Ginn ‘wáadluwaan gud .ahl kwáagíidang

“Everything depends on everything else”

As many have found, the Pledge can also make a trip to Haida Gwaii even more memorable by giving you a deeper understanding of what you’re seeing and experiencing—or, as Kathy James, the director of Haida Tourism, points out, by inviting you to ask further questions once you’re here. 

“It’s really like a portal that helps people come more prepared,” she explains. “It educates everybody, whether you’re on an all-inclusive package or you’re a cyclist here on your own. It opens a window for people who may not yet know much about this place, and it helps them feel like they’re part of it. And depending on where they’re from, the ideas in the Pledge might be entirely new, so it really brings up that curiosity for people to know more. 

“What I’ve always found really amazing,” she continues, “is how completely generous and friendly people are here. So many of the Haida artists are the perfect examples of that—how willing they are to share their passion and the meaning of what they do. I think the Pledge really helps people get in the right headspace to visit and to have those conversations. But at the end, it’s really about having that respect for all living things, and non-living things as well. Everything emanates from that.” 

"It opens a window for people who may not yet know much about this place, and it helps them feel like they’re part of it."

The day after we arrive at the Hiellen campground, we pull on our wetsuits, buckle our kids into lifejackets, and start carrying our paddleboards down to the beach. 

At the foot of the brightly coloured gya’aang, or monumental pole, that honours ancestors who once lived at the Hiellen rivermouth, Staast David Elliot Vanderhoop of Haida Tide is explaining the pole’s carvings to a group of visitors renting e-bikes to ride out to Rose Spit. We ask to join in, our kids captivated by the stories of how the first Haida lived and talked with bears, ravens, and eagles. 

David Vanderhoop (Staast) | Northern BC Tourism/Shayd Johnson

Looking Forward

As David finishes the stories, we wander the rest of the way to the sand, launching our boards into the calm river water to float out to the waves. It’s a quiet morning with glass-smooth seas, and for an hour or so, we ride empty, knee-high surf while our kids hang onto the bungee straps at the front of the boards. We’re all laughing and smiling, a few wipeouts aside, and I know it’s a moment we’ll always remember.

The only thing that could make it better, I think to myself, is for our kids to someday have these same experiences with kids of their own in this magical place—and I hope and pledge that travellers like us can play a part, however small, in preserving its magic for the future.