When Terri-Lynn Williams and Robert Davidson celebrated their wedding with a traditional ceremony, it was the first in over a century that was legalized under Haida law. Their book, A Haida Wedding, provides an intimate photographic window into that momentous day and marks the resurgence of a tradition that was nearly lost to colonial forces.
In the spring of 1996, we decided that we would be married in a traditional Haida wedding ceremony. Such ceremonies had not occurred in the living memory of the Elders and we wanted to draw upon our cultural teachings and honour Haida ceremonies and laws. We selected August 22 as our wedding day because it was on that date in 1969 that Robert raised the Bear Mother pole in Massset. Given the tenuous thread connecting us to Haida traditional ceremonies, it was important that our wedding ceremony be crafted jointly with our gwaaygang.ngaay |gwáaygang.gnee (Clans), as it would have been done in the past.
We began by seeking wise counsel, talking to our family and Elders from both of our villages. Terri-Lynn’s mother, Mabel Williams, was fluent in HlGaagilda Xaayda Kil (the Skidegate Haida language), and she provided the words for marriage: Gud iina Gihl | Gud íineehl (literally, to become married). Mabel had played “getting married” on the beach with her friends as a child, following the outline of a traditional Haida marriage ceremony. We learned elements of the marriage ceremony from Alberta Brown, and from Robert’s maternal aunt, Clara Peratrovich. We also drew upon the knowledge that our ancestors had shared with ethnographers and anthropologists. Some of these accounts were contradictory, but we sorted through those discrepancies with our families’ assistance and drafted a plan for the ceremony.
One of our sources of knowledge was Robert’s grandmother, Naanii Florence Edenshaw Davidson, whose life story had been recorded by anthropologist Margaret Blackman in the book During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman. Although she married Robert Davidson Sr. in a church, her marriage was arranged according to Haida customs that they drew upon throughout their wedding. In this way, the marriage ceremony survived “underground,” in the same way that the knowledge of other ceremonies survived.
As is the Haida way, we also met with the then Chief of the village of Skidegate, Clarence (Dempsey) Collinson, to ask permission first to hold the Gud íineehl Ceremony in Skidegate. Chief Skidegate and his wife, Irene Collinson, were close to Terri-Lynn: while Dempsey was her cousin—his father and Terri-Lynn’s father were brothers—she was taught to respect them and call them Uncle and Aunty. Robert was also close to them, as his father, Tlaajang nang kingaas, Claude Davidson, and Dempsey were close friends and fellow Hereditary Chiefs.
We learned that a Haida wedding is not an occasion for a Potlatch, but instead for a Feast. A Haida Feast is a lavish meal of mostly Haida foods, with several food courses, speeches, and dance performances. Sometimes payments are made to the opposite Clan witnessing the hosts’ business conducted at the Feast, which can include receiving Haida names, assuming new crests, or displaying new Clan property, such as songs, dances, and masks. A Potlatch also includes a Feast but involves more payments to those of the opposite Clan in attendance for witnessing more elaborate displays of Clan prerogatives. A Haida Wedding, however, is more than a marriage of two people: it is the joining of two families, and two Clans.
Terri-Lynn belongs to the Gagyals K'iiGawaay, the Ravens from Xuuajii 'Laanas (Grizzly Bear Town), also known as K'uuna Llnagaay (Edge Village), or the village of Skedans. This Clan name translates as “Those Born at Gagyals, a reef located offshore from HlGaay.yuu Kun (Dead Tree Point) north of Skidegate. This was the last place that the Gagyals K'iiGawaay lived before settling at Skedans. This Clan name reflects the southern Haida tradition of taking the name of the last town lived at, in this case, before the Clan name was documented by Europeans in the late 1800s.
Robert belongs to the Ts'aa.ahl 'Laanas, the Eagle Clan from the town of Ts'aahl, on K'iis Gwaay (Langara Island). He learned the old pronunciation for his clan name from Elder Amanda Edgars. This Clan name reflects the northern tradition of 'Laanas referring to both town and people. The northern Ts'aa.ahl 'Laanas migrated from the town of Ts'aahl Llnagaay on the west coast of southern Haida Gwaii. From Langara Island, some of the Clan, including Robert’s mother’s family, migrated to Howkan, Alaska.
We met with each of our gwaaygang.ngaay | gwáaygang.gnee (Clans) and reviewed our draft plans with them. We expressed our wish that the wedding ceremony follow the traditions as they were before the impact of missionaries, with only minimal elements from Western weddings that are familiar to most people today. We envisioned that our wedding would not be “legalized” by a Christian minister or a justice of the peace, but instead would be held in the presence of our Clans, witnesses, and guests in a Haida Feast setting—in other words, legalized under Haida law. We worked together with our Clans to finalize the agenda for our special day—a seven-part celebration with a canoe procession, ceremony, feast, dancing, and dowry payment, signifying the coming together of two people, two families, and two clans.
A Haida Wedding is the story of our Gud iina Gihl | Gud íineehl, the story of our “becoming married.”
Author’s Note: In A Haida Wedding, we show the two dialects of Haida Gwaii, since Terri-Lynn and Robert are language learners of the dialects from their two communities of Skidegate and Masset. Generally, Xaayda kil (Skidegate dialect) is shown first, followed by the Xaad Kil (Masset dialect); in some cases the words are the same in both dialects. We also follow Indigenous style guides and have chosen to italicize the Haida words, which has the benefit of highlighting them.
Excerpt from A Haida Wedding by Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson with Robert Davidson. © 2023. Published by Heritage House. All rights reserved.
A visual and cultural celebration of a traditional Haida wedding ceremony, exploring its roots, rituals, symbolism, joyfulness, and contemporary significance for a thriving Indigenous Nation.
In 1996, Terri-Lynn Williams and Robert Davidson celebrated their wedding with a traditional ceremony, the first in over a century that was legalized under Haida law. This book provides an intimate photographic window into that momentous day and marks the resurgence of a tradition that was nearly lost to colonial forces.
Relying on recorded knowledge their ancestors had shared with ethnographers and anthropologists, and the few details living Elders could recall about the tradition of guud ‘iina Gihl (“becoming married”) in the time before the arrival of Christian missionaries, the couple carefully planned out a seven-part celebration. It involved a canoe procession, ceremony, feast, dancing, and dowry payment, signifying the coming together of two people, two families, and two clans. The occasion is lovingly and painstakingly recounted through imagery and text in this fascinating tribute to a resilient culture and the unbreakable bonds of love and family.
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