By Ken Gordon, Potlatch Fund, Executive Director
Heather Miller and I have just spent the last week in Hydaburg, AK working with representatives of Hydaburg and the Haida Nation on fundraising and community development projects.
I first travelled to Hydaburg to assist with their community projects just over three years ago. The changes that have occurred between then and now have been nothing less than outstanding. Often I don’t talk about the difficult things that we see within Native communities, but I will make an exception on this occasion to highlight just how much has changed.
On the previous trip there were literally burnt out or boarded up houses on every block. Most of the roads were unpaved, the community was concerned about losing its fluent speakers and culture holders, the world famous Totem Pole park was in a dangerous state, the community was fighting among itself and people were definitely not feeling proud. In addition the city itself was on the verge of bankruptcy and the State and Federal Government seemed to have washed their hands of all of these issues and their responsibilities.
We can tell you now that Alaskan Native pride is back in force in Hydaburg. The burnt out/bordered up houses have gone. The roads have been paved and the street names have the name in both English and in Haida. A new road has been named after Mr Morrison (Mijuu) a Haida elder who will celebrate his 100th birthday with the whole community in a few weeks.
The annual summer Culture Camp has grown to having up to 500 people (both Native and non-Native) in attendance, and with something like 10,000 meals being provided during the week. In the last two years eight of the communities 23 Totem and Story Poles have been replaced. The community has raised nearly $400,000 to help with the replacement of these Poles. However, this amount is just the tip of the iceberg. For each Pole there has been literally thousands of hours of volunteer labor and donated equipment, timber and services. The local cable channel is showing a slide show of two of the four Poles that were raised this year. As the pictures flashed across the screen, both Heather and I noted how significant this must have been for the community. Poles were being carried by about 100 people and one pole was carried by only women from the town. We saw the pride radiate from our host’s face as she shared these details with us. At the Culture camp community members are given master class instruction in language, dance, songs, regalia making, cedar bark weaving, carving, preserving foods and the list goes on.
And the community is proud. They are proud that they have been able to make such significant progress in just three years. They are proud that they have done most of this by themselves. They have had a few grants but most of their project has been funded by themselves and with their voluntary labor and in-kind contributions. For example the food provided at the Culture camp and for the Pole raising (some 10,000 meals) has been gathered from the local area. Haida people are proud to say that while the community as a whole is poor no one ever goes hungry.
Heather and I witnessed the generosity of the community, with community members taking pleasure in showing us all of the different traditional foods and the different ways of preparation (our marathon preparation may have taken a step back as we certainly haven’t lost weight here). We also witnessed Salmon travelling up the creek in phenomenal numbers and watched with delight as local children competed with each other to catch the biggest and most Coho. I spoke to an elder from Lower Elwha once who said that before the dams on the Elwha the fish runs were so plentiful that it looked like you could walk across the river on the backs of the Salmon. It is hard to imagine that quantity of fish, but that is what we had the privilege to see in Hydaburg.
The community has even bigger plans. They know that they have made huge progress, and they also know that there is more to do. They want to find ways to keep their children in school and support them to go to higher and other educational opportunities. They want to create more employment so that their children can stay and be attracted back to home to fulfilling jobs. They want to revitalize the language and the culture. They want to replace the remaining Totem and Story Poles. They also want to share their success with the wider community. During our workshop one local community member said that Haida culture will be their salvation and after spending five days with the community we couldn’t agree more. By the way we were given their permission to write this story.
Their dreams and their vision are huge. In most circumstances we would normally counsel for small obtainable projects with incremental steps. However, this community has made such progress in a short period that we think that what they dream will be reality.
We have helped them to set up a fundraising non-profit to attract philanthropic funds to this amazing work. We think that this work will be very attractive to mainstream foundations as they have been able to show that they can achieve so much with so little.
We were honored to work with the Hydaburg community, and we are returning home with much more than we left with, both bags stuffed with salmon and hearts filled with pride for our Native friends in Hydaburg. This community may not have much money but in all other respects they are rich in the best meaning of that word.
Thank you for hosting us.