Sgang Gwaay

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ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
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Culture(s) Late Graham Tradition
Temporal Period(s) PERIOD

Summary Details

Totem poles at SGang Gwaay

Significance

SGang Gwaay was the latest occupied, the largest, and very likely the oldest, of the villages of the Kunghit Haida in southern Haida Gwaii, and is therefore an excellent type site for studying Kunghit culture (Acheson 1998).

This site also has the distinction of a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, which was granted in 1981, as “Nowhere else can one view the in-situ remains of an entire Northwest Coast Indian village, in ruins, and stand in awe of the powerful presence of its monolithic carved cedar totems and mortuary columns” (Bennett 1980). However, at this time, little was still known about the site's occupational history (Acheson 2005).

Research History

Site Description and Initial Study

SGang Gwaay is a large Kunghit Haida village located on Anthony Island in southern Haida Gwaii. It is situated in a sheltered bay, where it is shielded from the brunt of harsh Pacific winter storms by a rocky inlet that faces the village. The village consisted of 20 plank houses and dozens of totem and mortuary poles at its peak, and was occupied by about 300 Kunghit Haida (MacDonald 1983; MacDonald 1996). Unlike many other Haida settlements, SGang Gwaay survived well into the historic period, but was finally abandoned in 1888 after a dramatic decline in population due to European disease and the failing maritime fur trade (Hebda et al. 2005).

Anthropological studies of SGang Gwaay, and the Haida more broadly, have been conducted since the late 19th century with inquiries into the origin of the multi-lineage Haida villages of the historic period (Boas 1898; Acheson 2005). Two photographic inventory projects followed – the first carried out between 1897 and 1913 by Charles Newcombe, and the second in 1947 by Marius Barbeau (MacDonald 1983). These projects were both undertaken as efforts to protect the heritage of the site that had been abandoned at the end of the 19th century and was already falling into a state of ruin. Barbeau’s expedition had also negotiated with the Haida descendants of the original owners of artifacts and totem poles regarding the removal of the pieces in order to have them preserved and protected (MacDonald 1983).

In 1957, the purchase of many of these pieces was arranged by Wilson Duff, and a salvage expedition was funded by the University of British Columbia and the Provincial Museum of British Columbia. This expedition allowed for the first archaeology of the site to be conducted by Wayne Suttles and Michael Kew, who conducted limited excavations within the village site, at a field just south of the village, and in burial caves near the village (Hebda et al. 2005; MacDonald 1983).

Major Insights

Archaeology at SGang Gwaay has been particularly advantageous for studying the effects of external influences on a culture’s development, and especially in the context of European contact with North American native communities (Mackie and Acheson 2005). Through settlement archaeology and ethnographic evidence, the initial formation of a multi-lineage Haida village can be clearly observed at SGang Gwaay, and can clearly be seen as a product of European contact (Acheson 2005). While SGang Gwaay grew in size following first contact with European fur traders in the 18th century, this was the result of declining Kunghit Haida populations, as they converged on SGang Gwaay from the surrounding area. Though the population of SGang Gwaay was quickly bolstered with multiple lineages, it was only a short lived boost, and the village still declined and was eventually abandoned as the few remaining survivors relocated to larger Masset and Skidegate to the north (Acheson 2005). This study of changing settlement patterns SGang Gwaay is important to our understanding of the history of Haida Gwaii as a whole, as it appears as a microcosm of what occurred throughout the rest of the islands during the historic period, which led to a region encompassing hundreds of settlements and thousands of people being reduced to just two villages with a population of just a few hundred (Mac Donald 1996).

While there is not yet much know about the early prehistoric occupation of SGang Gwaay, the site’s remoteness and isolation has also made it ideal for studying the impact of occupation on the environment. Hebda et al.’s (2005) study on the vegetation history of the island has demonstrated that shortly after the site’s initial occupation around 360 CE, pine stands appear to have been actively selected for and this was controlled by human activities such as clearing the forest and possibly the use of controlled fires.

Difficulties with Continued Investigations

There currently appears to be little, if any, research being done at SGang Gwaay, which is due to a number of factors. The first is the simple inaccessibility of the site, as it is geographically difficult to reach, and only 12 people are permitted on the site at any one time in order to protect and preserve its cultural resources (Acheson 1998; Parks Canada 2006). This understandably makes organizing work on SGang Gwaay difficult and costly.

It is also worth noting that very few excavations have been undertaken when compared to mainland sites largely because the Haida themselves have not encouraged further study in this manner. As a result of the smallpox epidemics of the 19th century, it is extremely difficult to conduct archaeological research without disturbing burials at the site (MacDonald 1996).

However, if research could be properly funded and conducted without disturbing burials, there are a few areas of study that should be explored. These include further excavation of the village in the marshy northern area, which is likely to yield well-preserved wooden artifacts, and an investigation into paleoshorelines, which may yield a longer human occupation record (Acheson 1998; Fedje et al. 2005).

Formation and Occupational History

Layout and Construction

The location of SGang Gwaay, in a sheltered bay on the eastern coast of Anthony Island, appears to have been consciously chosen with protection, defensibility, and resource access in mind (Acheson 1998; MacDonald 1983).


About twenty houses were eventually constructed, though the houses of the northern side of the village were not built until the beginning of the post-contact period (MacDonald 1983). Two exterior plank house types were used in Haida Gwaii, which differ only in construction method rather than finished appearance. The question of whether these two different house types are simply different methods of construction that developed through time or if they are methods practiced simultaneously for differing purposes, is still up for debate (MacDonald 1983; Acheson 1998).


Many of these houses have elaborate frontal totem poles and interior poles that are carved with the crests of the inhabiting family’s lineage that were earned or inherited (MacDonald 1983). Carved mortuary poles were also erected in SGang Gwaay, in which nobles’ remains were installed (Kew and Duff 1957).

Prehistoric Period

Historic Period

Decline and Abandonment

Material Culture

General Notes

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