“Watch your step,” we were told by our soft-spoken guide.
And then a second time as we drew in close to see what he was referring to: “Watch where you step—this is a mass grave; you cannot step here.”
The second time, I turned my gaze from the mossy rise of green in front of me to watch as a member of our group silently lowered her camera, slowly mouthing the words mass grave to herself, a wave of disbelief and dismay sweeping over her face.
I had the same response when I heard those words the first time a year earlier. Now, I stood in the same spot and found myself experiencing the same emotions and questions all over again. Mass grave! How can it be?! Even as I type these words now, in the comfort of my own home, I find it hard to acknowledge such a thing can exist in Canada. Mass graves have to do with other places in other times: Germany, Serbia, Rwanda. Not Canada, not British Columbia—certainly not in my backyard. The words mass grave lead to an even more horrific word: genocide.
The truth is, we were looking at not one mass grave but at least three.
A Corner of Paradise
The contrasts could not have been sharper that sunny July morning. Behind us, the emerald blue-green waters of Hecate Strait were calm—rich with brown kelp forests swaying in the low tide. The skies were brilliantly blue and warm. In front of us, the Sitka spruce and cedar trees stood silently, hauntingly growing over the remains of what was once the vibrant Haida village of Tanu’u. All around us, there was evidence of Eden. And yet, it was not this abundance that we noticed as we stared silently at the moss-covered ground. I would learn later from members of our group (Christian school educators on a summer professional development learning experience) that each of us was simply trying to process an inconvenient truth: before us that beautiful morning lay buried the remains of hundreds of nameless victims of a smallpox epidemic that swept through this corner of paradise, destroying the Haida people by upwards of 90 percent.
Europeans who came to trade with the Haida brought more than new diseases—they brought new burial practices for the Haida to adopt as well. The custom of burying the dead itself was not a traditional Haida practice. The Haida interned their dead according to rank: nobility and chiefs high off the ground in cedar bentwood boxes placed in the top cavity of beautifully carved cedar mortuary poles. Others were placed in bentwood boxes in mortuary houses at the back of villages. Tragically, as the Haida were scrambling to bury their dead in mass graves during this dark time, newcomers would soon arrive to cut down those same mortuary poles in order to loot not only the bentwood boxes but the dead themselves. It was to protect the sacredness of the dead and their ancient village sites from this theft that the Haida created the Watchman program a generation ago. And it was a Haida Watchman who now served as our guide and graciously welcomed us as his guests in this remote ancestral location, even if it meant having to ask us to be mindful of where we unintentionally stepped.
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Jonathan Boone lives in Smithers, BC, and teaches high school at Bulkley Valley Christian School.