Haida Gwaii: Telling an indigenous people’s success story


Around the world, colonialism has imperiled indigenous languages, razed lands and eradicated entire cultures. But Inverness resident and longtime journalist Mark Dowie wants to turn the success of one people—from a North American archipelago into a guide for native communities to win back land rights.  

“I believe I can go back and research their story and make a playbook that can be used by native people around the world,” Mr. Dowie said of a new project (for which he crowdfunding) on the Haida, who live on the Haida Gwaii islands off the Canadian coast. 

In 2009, Mr. Dowie, himself Canadian-born, published a book called “Conservation Refugees,” about the long conflict between worldwide conservation efforts and indigenous peoples. He visited six continents to research communities that had lost their sovereignty, often to colonial powers. The book spurred him on to a new project: to write about people who had succeeded in regaining land. 

He found that success story in the Haida, a community of roughly 5,000, about half of whom live on the islands, the rest in other parts of Canada.  Haida Gwaii has been inhabited for at least 13,000 years, and its people and are one of the few indigenous tribes with a written language and literature, Mr. Dowie said. (The island is also host to such diverse wildlife that it is sometimes called the Galapagos of the North.) 

The archipelago was “discovered” by European explorers in the 18th century and, eventually, exploited for timber and resources. It was also named the Queen Charlotte Islands, after the English monarch, and eventually became part of British Columbia, a Canadian province. 

In the 1970s, the Haida started to push back. Finally, in a set of rulings from 2004 and 2009, they were granted autonomy. Mr. Dowie said the Haida figured out how to use the court system—and the media—to win back their territory. 

“Their tactics were brilliant,” he said. “They got a lot of public support by being just the way they should be: respectful but militant. And they told their story very well.” Haida Gwaii is still part of Canada, but the Haida control resource extraction and tourism. 

If Mr. Dowie reaches his $28,080 goal on Inkshares, he will travel to Haida Gwaii to conduct interviews and write on location. But that will also depend on securing a Haida passport. “They could deny me,” he said. “They don’t give everyone a passport.” 


Editor’s note: Mark Dowie is the board president of Marin Media Institute, which holds the interest in the Point Reyes Light Publishing Company. View his Inkshares campaign by visiting inkshares.com and searching for “The Haida Gwaii Lesson.”