Hydaburg has a bad rap. People from outside the city have said they felt unwelcome, and people from within the city have left over the years due to a lack of housing and job opportunities. But the community is actively working to reverse that trend—through tourism.
Lisa Lang is an active Hydaurg community member. She’s the executive director of the Xaadas Kil Kuyaas Foundation (Precious Haida Words Foundation), teaches for SEARHC Traditional Food Foundation, is a chair person at the Haida Corporation and is a local Hydaburg artist.
“I mean everybody just does everything. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Lang met me and fellow reporter Ruth Eddy in Hydaburg late last month on an important mission: She wanted to take us on a town tour.
“When were little kids they had no roads, right? This was called the other side.”
“What was ‘The other side’ for?”
“It was just the other side, you would go swimming or you play.”
While Lang could still point to the places she played as child, the majority of the town has gone through some major, decade-long renovations.
“If you were here 15 years ago, the roads weren’t paved; the totem poles were in disarray. It was very reflective of where the town is and all the work that’s gone into working together. It’s just really magic.”
Over the last few years, Haida Corporation, Haida Tribe and the city have worked together to level and remove old damaged houses, pave rutted dirt roads, sort through and clean the town dump, and raise about $6 million for a new dock, complete with a fish-processing station.
“They have beautified the town. It looks cleaner, it looks better. And we have a couple guys at the city that are like clean-a-maniacs. They really do, you see them picking up all the time. Arney is one of them. Always picking up, cleaning up, and I think that’s really great.”
For the residents, there’s a new pole-carving and wood-working shop, and about $2 million worth of boulders recently placed around shoreline houses to combat erosion. Haida Corporation Director Sidney Edenshaw says these steps were important for everyone.
“And so a lot of the property owners were real happy because I think like, anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 dollars to do it on their own. It would have eroded.”
And that’s just what’s already done. Some projects in progress include a new traditional-style cedar long-house to be used as a community space, the 5 megawatt Híilangaay hydro facility, a gas station and a locally-owned grocery store.
Lang says a large portion of these projects go toward creating local jobs, and trying and get a handhold in Southeast’s tourism market. Lang says if they’re successful in becoming a niche tourism destination, that’ll mean they can more easily keep their way of life: they’ll be able to work on traditional artwork and tell their Haida stories while making money to support their family and community.
“It’s about, ‘This is where we’re from, we’re very proud of our community and we’re willing to work extra hard to have an economy.’ I mean if you can get someone make their own economy, you have just given them a life, a livelihood.”
Lang says their main tourist draw at the moment is their 22-piece totem pole park.
“Aren’t they beautiful?
“Yeah, we have the prettiest poles on Prince of Wales.”
The poles almost completely take up a small, rectangular area in front of the school library and gym, and stand in uniform straight lines. The poles look brand new, as all but a few were replicated in the last 10 years. There’s no informational guides or placards yet, but Lang says she’s been giving personal tours and taking donations for Culture Camp. Lang says she hopes it will expand to become the largest collection in the world, which means surpassing Saxman Village Totem Park’s 25 poles.
“Yeah, there’s our park, girls. I’m hoping that’ll be, I don’t know. I don’t where we’d make it bigger. We’d have to put poles in between the poles, huh?”
“On top of each other or something?”
“Yeah. I think we could run a whole other row, I don’t know…”
Lang says the town plans to continue to improve upon the park and the town as a whole.
In the future, Lang sees people traveling to Hydaburg to see the poles, and staying to learn about the culture. She sees new jobs created and families moving back to populate newly-acquired empty lots. She sees a thriving community.
Lang’s vision rests on people traveling to Hydaburg, a 350-person town that’s about 30 miles away from the nearest ferry terminal on a secluded island often overlooked by cruise ships and sightseers.
And still, while we were talking outside the new totem park, an old RV pulled up and a curious couple asked where they could find information on the poles. Their license plate read Maryland.