EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an excerpt from Mark Dowie’s The Haida Gwaii Lesson: A Strategic Playbook for Indigenous Sovereignty, published by Inkshares in August 2017.
On June 17, 2010, the Haida people gave something to Canada… actually, gave something back. Gordon Campbell, then-premier of British Columbia, was invited to the Haida’s remote homeland, an archipelago of over 200 islands located roughly 400 miles northwest of Vancouver. Awaiting the premier were many of the most powerful and respected members of the Haida nation, dressed in full ceremonial garb and prepared for a totem raising, one of their most sacred ceremonies. The president of the Haida nation at the time, a singer and wood carver named Guujaaw, explained to premier Campbell that the Haida were giving back the name “Queen Charlotte Islands,” which a British explorer had bestowed upon the islands 230 years earlier. Henceforth, the archipelago would bear the name it had carried for thousands of years: “Haida Gwaii.”
“What we are really doing here is unwinding colonialism,” President Guujaaw added. Premier Campbell, according to onlookers, was visibly shaken. Guujaaw continued: “After a hundred years of conflict, we are setting the ground for a more productive era of peace. The interesting part is yet to come. How do we make this work? I think we can do it. And the world needs these little places to start turning the tide. I think we have a good chance to set an example.”
The Haida have indeed set an example, an example that could help indigenous people throughout the world achieve self-determination—and in so doing reverse environmental perils that threaten all people everywhere. This is not sentimentality speaking. The 370 million self-described “indigenous people” on earth today occupy roughly 20 percent of the planet’s land surface but are stewards of 80 percent of its remaining biological diversity—the plants, animals, and other organisms without which human societies would quickly collapse. Indigenous people know from ancient experience how to manage this biological diversity in an equitable and sustainable manner, if they are allowed to do so. Too often, though, their practices have been overridden by outside interests: foreign governments that colonized them and foreign companies that logged, mined, drilled, and otherwise extracted natural resources like there was no tomorrow.
The story of the Haida’s victory over foreign domination, fully told here for the first time, offers concrete lessons that indigenous peoples everywhere can use to regain their sovereignty and halt destructive environmental practices. Over the past 40 years, the Haida have conducted one of the most brilliant campaigns for self-determination ever mounted. This book describes how the Haida did it, and how other native peoples can replicate their example.
Here, in three words, is the secret of the Haida’s success: Timing is everything. By creatively using the courts, human blockades, public testimony, and the news media, and by applying each tactic at precisely the right time, the Haida won the support of enough Canadian citizens, government officials, and judges to triumph. As a consequence of their legal petitions, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed aboriginal title to their land. The southern part of their archipelago is now a national park, co-managed by the Haida and Canada. Logging has been severely reduced and is controlled by the Haida, not by outside companies. And “Queen Charlotte Islands,” the name given to a place that the Queen of England never set foot upon, has been tossed in the dustbin of history.