Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Story of K'iid K'iyaas (The Golden Spruce)

Two days ago outdoors writer Margaret Carney published an article entitled "It's hard not to love a tree -- do you have a favorite?"

Here's the story of my own favorite tree.

Exactly fourteen years ago today a deranged act of eco-terrorism resulted in a sacred tree being cut down on Haida Gwaii.

Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) lies about 100 miles off the Northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada. Covered in lush temperate rainforest, these islands provide habitat for a broad range of unique plant, animal, fish and bird species. For at least 10,000 years, Haida Gwaii has also been home to the Haida First Nation, a powerful and enduring tribe famous for their warrior culture, their myths, and their totemic art forms.

One enduring mystical story derived from Haida folklore is that of K'iid K'iyaas, which loosely translates as "Old Tree". Haida legend tells of a young man who was disrespectful of nature's ways. When his village was destroyed by a snowstorm, only a boy and his grandfather were able to flee. Despite warnings not to look back, the boy disobeyed and instantly his arms were turned into branches and his legs became roots, and he was transformed into the magnificent golden spruce that became sacred to the Haida people.

Although genetically a Sitka Spruce, this tree's survival for over 300 years defied all conventional scientific explanation. Lacking cartenoid, a sort of arboreal sunscreen that protects leaves from excessive sunlight, the Golden Spruce should have withered and died. Instead, it flourished on the bank of the Yakoun River, and its inability to photosynthesize sunlight gave its needles a magnificent golden hue.

All this came to an end on January 22, 1997 when an unemployed forester named Thomas Grant Hadwin cut the tree down and sent a Unabomber-type manifesto to the Haida First Nation, environmentalists, and several newspapers. Hadwin was a vocal critic of logging industry practices in British Columbia. He was particularly angered by what he perceived to be MacMillan Bloedel's hypocrisy of clear-cutting hundreds of thousands of trees, while professing to be good corporate citizens by cordoning off a small segment of rainforest around the Golden Spruce.

His letter proclaimed that "I didn't enjoy butchering this magnificent old plant, but you apparently needed a wake-up call that even a university-trained professional should be able to understand." Hadwin was arrested and charged, but he mysteriously disappeared before ever coming to trial.

The Haida were devastated because they considered themselves responsible for the tree's stewardship. Even more upsetting, the falling of the Golden Spruce also heralded the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy.

Upon first hearing of this tragedy in 1997 I felt rocked to the very core of my being, and in that moment I made a promise that if I ever got to the west coast of Canada I would visit the site of this fallen tree to pay my respects. On some level this simple promise seemed to trigger a series of strange coincidental events which culminated in my making the trip in December 2000. In many ways the experience became an epiphany for me.

Unbeknownst to me at the time some other people were also having serendipities of their own with respect to the Golden Spruce. One of these was a writer by the name of John Vaillant. At the time John was freelancing for several publications including The New Yorker, and he initially travelled to Haida Gwaii to write an article about kayaking. Upon hearing of the Golden Spruce he got sidetracked enough to write first an article entitled "The Golden Bough" and, later, this book:

John's book "The Golden Spruce" ended up winning the Governor General's Award for literature, and it does a remarkable job of documenting the history and extenuating circumstances that led to the ultimate demise of K'iid K'iyaas.

During this same time Mark Leiren-Young was also working on his award winning film "The Green Chain" , and he paid homage to K'iid K'iyaas by incorporating its story into a rivetting monologue delivered by actor August Schellenberg.

By this point you may be wondering what the story is behind this tree. For this I believe the story of K'iid K'iyaas is best told by Haida artist Hazel Wilson. What follows is a repost of a series of images that first appeared on a website in 2005, as part of an exhibition of button blankets by Hazel at the Marion Scott Gallery in Vancouver.

Born in 1941, Hazel Wilson grew up in the village of Old Massett on Haida Gwaii. Called Jut-ke-Nay in her native Haida language, she is a member of the Duugwaa St’Langng 7laanaas clan on the Raven side.

When she was 14, Wilson’s aunts informed her that she was to become a maker of appliqu├ęd button blankets—ceremonial robes created from melton cloth and decorated with pieces of abalone, copper and pearl buttons.

Wilson mastered her designated craft in due course, making countless robes for friends and relatives over the years. In the early 1970s she moved with her children to Vancouver, where she continued to create robes for family members and the contemporary art market. Now her extended family’s matriarch, Wilson is widely recognized as an important innovator within Haida artistic tradition.

For the majority of her artistic career, Wilson has concentrated on creating button blankets that feature stylized interpretations of various family crests, such as frogs and ravens. Traditional in conception, Wilson’s crest designs are nonetheless distinctive and contemporary: in addition to buttons, she attaches a range of materials to her images, including pieces of brass, shells from the sea and beadwork.

In more recent years, Wilson has undertaken less traditional projects and directions. In 2005, she completed a unprecedented series of 17 button blankets that chronicle the life and tragic demise of the famed Golden Spruce Tree; and in 2006 she began work on an even larger blanket series that records many of the stories told to her as a child growing up on Haida Gwaii.

This, then, is the story of K'iid K'iyaas, as told by Hazel Wilson:

1. Young Thunderwoman

"This blanket is a portrait of Thunderwoman
- the first Golden Spruce -
whom the Haida call Hiilang Jaat.
During the last ice age she made a wish
to be perpetually young;
for that reason I always
portray her as a beautiful young woman.
The white shells around her head indicate
that this is in the time of the last ice age."

2. Thunderwoman

"Hiilang Jaat and her nephew were originally humans who
lived through the Flood. They always have their hands out,
praying to the Creator that they would survive or be remembered."
"Hiilang Jaat became the first Golden Spruce."

3. Thunderwoman, middle-aged

"This blanket represents the time of the smallpox epidemic,
shown by the coloured buttons around Thunderwoman's head.
According to our oral traditions, Hiilang Jaat and her nephew
were the only two survivors."

4. Hiilang Jaat

"Another image of Hiilang Jaat in the Ice Age.
Because she always wanted to be beautiful,
she wears a blouse decorated with many shells."

5. Hiilang Jaat

"Her expression is solemn because she is remembering
the smallpox epidemic that devastated her people.
Her top is dark to reflect her sombre mood.
The designs in her hair symbolize the lightning
that would one day strike her down."

"She wears a piece of beadwork that belonged to my mother.
I always include a piece from my mother's collection of beadwork
when portraying Hiilang Jaat."

6. Thunderwoman

"Hiilang Jaat in her prime - a representation of the first
Golden Spruce remembered in all her beauty.
The buttons in her palms remind us that she
has returned to the stars.
She has gone Home."

7. Young K'iid K'iyaas

"K'iid K'iyaas and his aunt, Hiilang Jaat, were the only two
survivors of the smallpox epidemic. When Hiilang Jaat died,
K'iid K'iyaas lay down beside the dead tree.
Instead of dying himself,
he was transformed into the second Golden Spruce."

8. Young K'iid K'iyaas

"Another image of K'iid K'iyaas in his youth.
The red cuts in his side
foretell what is going to happen."

9. Young K'iid K'iyaas

"K'iid K'iyaas in his prime.
He is slim, golden and handsome -a beautiful young spruce.
K'iid K'iyaas was once a human being - a man - whose aunt
became the first Golden Spruce.
The three coppers signify that he would grow tall
and live to be 300 years old."

10. Not Reproducible

"The Golden Spruce is middle-aged here.
His branches have been shot off
in hopes of creating a new tree by grafting,
to no avail."

11. Ancient Tree

"This is a portrait of K'iid K'iyaas from the perspective
of the last person to see him alive and intact.
To this person, K'iid K'iyaas appeared to be just an old, shiny tree.
The green branches at the bottom
show that there is strength and vitality under the skin of age."

"The spirit of the Golden Spruce
is looking back at the individual with sadness,
knowing what is to come."

12: Falling

"When K'iid K'iyaas was cut down, he was filled
with pain, sadness and tears.
He was fallen."

13. The Hand Reaches Out

"K'iid K'iyaas, fallen, is being raised up
by the hand of the Creator,
who will reunite him with his aunt, Hiilang Jaat.
The heart with the teardrop in the centre
shows that he is remembered and mourned."

14. Tears of Haida Gwaii

"When K'iid K'iyaas was felled in 1997 by a man from the mainland,
it filled the Haida with pain and sadness.
This is K'iid K'iyaas after he was cut down.
The red marks on his sides indicate where he chainsaw ripped through him.
The tears in the background are the tears of the Haida people.
K'iid K'iyaas has fallen, but his spirit is still present."

15. Together

"All the legends come together here - the Flood,
the Ice Age, and the smallpox."

"The aunt and the nephew are alone; all the other people are gone.
They hold the last of the magic in their hands.
K'iid K'iyaas holds the Raven who, during the Flood, was not lost.
Hiilang Jaat holds the crystals of magic for the last time
before they were hidden in the mountains forever."

"This is just befoe Hiilang Jaat was transformed into the first
Golden Spruce."

16. New Hope

"A new Golden Spruce is growing out of the fallen trunk,
while the spirits of Hiilang Jaat and K'iid K'iyaas look on.
The severed hand of K'iid K'iyaas is remerging in the form of the little tree.
The smiling spirit of K'iid K'iyaas is confident that the new tree
will survive and grow to a great height;
Hiilang Jaat, on the other hand, is more anxious about the future
of the young spruce."

(Special thanks to Russ Heinl for sharing his amazing photograph of K'iid K'iyaas, taken while it was still standing. Thanks also to August, John and Mark for keeping the spirit of K'iid K'iyaas alive through their efforts to share the story. Thanks to Donna Bisschop for her donation of the painting "The Spirit of K'iid K'iyaas", which was presented to the Haida at a special ceremony in April 2002, as a gesture of Hope over the loss of this sacred tree. Last but not least, thanks to Hazel Wilson, Leo Gagnon and the Haida people for allowing the story of K'iid K'iyaas to be shared with the rest of the world.)


  1. Greetings from Haida Gwaii, very good post about a complex story.
    Only Hadwin's empty canoe was found but no trace of him. No one knows, if he's alive.

  2. Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I'm happy also that the story of K'iid K'iyaas continues to live on.

  3. Greetings John, Thank you for sharing this sad and poignant story. I have been trying to find a copy of Hadwin's The Judgement, a 15-page description of his thinking at that time. I would like to read of the vision he received from God about logging - something has to be done before all the forests are leveled forever. Thank you for your sensitive sharing of this story and the soulful art of Hazel Wilson.

  4. Hello - Is Hazel's exhibition of button blankets available to view anywhere?