#681 Haida matrilineal magic

Magical Beings of Haida Gwaii
by Gid7ahl-Gudsllaay Lalaxaaygans (Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson) and SGaan Jaadgu San Glans (Sara Florence Davidson), illustrated by Judy Hilgemann and Alyssa Koski

Victoria: Heritage House, 2019
$22.95 / 9781772032963

Reviewed by Molly Clarkson


This review contains words in the Haida Language. Both Gaw Tlagee Xaad Kil (Haida Northern Dialect, which brings together several dialects from Gaw Tlagee Old Massett and other northern villages) and HlGaagilda Xaayda Kil (Haida Southern Dialect, which brings together several dialects from HlGaagilda Skidegate and other southern villages) are included. For the purposes of this review the dialects will be marked with an “-n” or an “-s,” respectively, with the exception of the place and proper names. The English approximate of the Haida words are also provided — Molly Clarkson.


Gid7ahl-Gudsllaay Lalaxaaygans (Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson)

I’m sitting on a hard plastic chair at the Sk’aadGaa Naay Elementary School in HlGaagilda. To my left, the school’s students wiggle and whisper, restrained only by the occasional glance from a teacher seated at the end of each row. Then G̲uud San Glans (Robert Davidson) begins to beat his drum, and the crowd stills. Two young women dressed in traditional regalia — the granddaughters of Guud San Glans and step-granddaughters of Gid7ahl-Gudsllaay Lalaxaaygans — come forward, smiling proudly as they hold up the slim volume for the gathered crowd to see. In this way, Magical Beings of Haida Gwaii is brought into being.

The book opens with a watercolour of the Haida Gwaii archipelago and surrounding waters. Thin lines link specific places — the ancient Haida village at K’yuusda, the mouth of the Awun river, the sky above the offshore ocean — with each of the Magical Beings described in the following pages. In this way, the authors begin the book by reminding us that the power of the Magical Being is drawn from the lands and waters of Haida territory.

White Raven_Xuuya Gaada
SGaan Jaadgu San Glans (Sara Florence Davidson)

An introduction follows. Gid7ahl-Gudsllaay Lalaxaaygans explains where and who she comes from, and what drew her to the Magical Beings and to the creation of this book. “As a child and throughout my life, I tried to imagine how the Magical Beings might look […] I imagined that children today might also be curious” (p. 2). She explains that the Magical Beings may take many forms, but that she has worked with the book’s illustrators to depict the Magical Beings as human women to honour the central role of women in matrilineal Haida culture, and in recognition that many of the Magical Beings are described in oral narratives as female.

Turning the pages, we see intricate watercolour paintings of Haida Gwaii’s mountains, forests, bogs, and berry patches by Judy Hilgemann. The Magical Beings illustrated by Alyssa Koski take centre stage on each page, and the modern form-line of Guud San Glans hides within the wings of sdlakam-n/kulGaay.yaagung-s/butterfly and in the crevasses of kalga-n + s/ice. Like the images that they mirror, each accompanying poem is a collage, filled with references from Yaahl Kaagangs-n/ Xuuya Kaagangs.ngas –s/Raven Travelling (oral narratives)[1] and the Haida laws and teachings that may be inferred from these Magical Beings and their stories.

Fern Woman_Snanjag Jaad

Following each image and associated poem, the authors repeat the story of each Magical Being — this time in narrative form — and interpret the image on the previous page. They explain, for example, why the legs and arms of Hlk’yaan K’uust’aan Jaad-n/Hlk’yan K’uust’aan Jaad-s/Frog Woman are a blotchy green-olive and why Wiid Jaad-n/Wiid Jaada-s/Swainson’s Thrush Woman wears feather on her face and around her neck. They help us to understand what we are seeing.

The book is completed by a pronunciation guide, created by Kihlguula Gaay.ya (Severn Cullis-Suzuki), Jaskwaan (Amanda Bedard), and the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program. This is intended to assist children and their parents in pronouncing and practising the Haida language. There is also a link to Gid7ahl-Gudsllaay Lalaxaaygans’ production company — Raven Calling Productions — where readers can listen to words and refine their pronunciation.

Artistry and advocacy are blended seamlessly in Magical Beings of Haida Gwaii. In the authors’ hands, a children’s book is transformed into a powerful tool for the creation of connection between children and the land and sea, and the reintegration of a Haida worldview into the lives of the next generation of Haida citizens. In the words of Elder GwaaGanad Diane Brown, this book is part of a broader project to reintegrate the Magical Beings into “our natural ways again, as it was with our grandparents.”

If the excited responses of the children at Sk’aadGaa Naay Elementary to the images and poems of Magical Beings are any indication, then this next generation is ready to answer the call.

Sk’aadGaa Naay Elementary School in HlGaagilda (Skidegate). Photo courtesy CBC


Molly Clarkson

Molly Clarkson has a BA and MA in Human Geography from the University of British Columbia. She lives with her partner in HlGaagilda / Skidegate on the Haida Gwaii archipelago, where she works for the Council of the Haida Nation’s Marine Planning Program.

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


[1] This set of stories form a key part of the Haida canon of oral histories.


Illustrator Judy Hilgemann of Campbell River
Illustrator Alyssa Koski of the Kainai Nation (Káínawa, or Blood Tribe) with her grandmother’s Blackfoot dress. Photo by Brent Calver courtesy Okotoks Today

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