The worldwide Augustana College experience

Crossing the clam shell line

Aug. 13

You are free to explore wherever you want, but do not cross the clam shell line.
— Doug, one of the Haida Watchmen, at SGaang Gwaay Llnagaay in Gwaii Haanas National Park on Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, Canada


Gwaii Haanas National Park, on the islands of Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) off the coast of British Columbia is called the best national park in North America by National Geographic Traveler magazine. It’s accessible only by boat or floatplane and, because of its remote location, has just a few thousand visitors a year. Jane and I had the privilege of being two of those visitors, taking a four-day Zodiac tour into the park with Moresby Adventures.

We saw many wonderful things, including a black bear feeding on clams and mussels in a tidal pool, Dall porpoises leaping by our boat, humpback whales, misty fjords, ancient forests where every log was dripping with moss, and natural hot spring pools overlooking a bay dotted with islands. But the highlight was visiting ancient Haida villages. The Haida are a First Nations group that had much in common with the Vikings. It was a sophisticated society, whose ocean-going dugout canoes engaged in commerce (and conquest) with distant peoples. The Haida lived in longhouse villages on islands in the Pacific Ocean. They once numbered between 10,000 and 30,000 people. But after contact with the West, western diseases such as small pox reduced their numbers to about 600. Traditional villages were abandoned and the remaining Haida people were resettled by the government and missionaries in two towns.

The ancient town sites are abandoned except for the Haida Watchmen who live in cabins at primary sites in the summertime, to protect the artifacts and interpret them to visitors like us. Visitors must radio the Watchmen from their boats and request permission to visit in groups of no more than twelve.

The ancient villages are largely grown over with moss and trees, but several important features remain – the collapsed longhouses of chiefs and the carved poles (incorrectly known as totem poles—but they played no religious purpose). The poles are either house poles (to mark the front of a home), memorial poles (to honor a deceased loved one) or mortuary poles (at the top of which the bones of the deceased are contained in a bentwood box). The poles are more than 100 years old and are made from huge cedar trees. They are decaying, but it is an important Haida belief that what comes from the ground should return to the ground, so there are no preservation efforts underway.

At each of these sites, the Haida have created a line of clamshells to separate the visitors from the poles. Visitors are requested not to cross the clam shell line. The clam shell line separates the visitors of today with the traditions of yesterday. In a sense, it separates the sacred from the secular.

I like the image of a clamshell line separating the necessities and practicability of today from the traditions and history of yesterday. As I think about Augustana, I often think about these two parts of the college. On one side of the line is the necessity to meet our students where they are, and do so by providing the kind of contemporary education demanded by today’s world. But on the other side of the line are the history and traditions of the founders of the college.

As we look at Augustana College, we should be respectful of the clam shell line. In our eagerness to provide the education demanded by our students, we should honor our traditions, mission and history. It is important to not only prepare students for their professions, but, as important, continue our tradition of helping students grow in mind, body and spirit through a solid foundation in the liberal arts.

The Haida recognized that what happens on the sacred side of the clam shell line changes also, albeit slowly. The poles are decaying, but as Helen, a Haida Watchman, pointed out to us, the poles are a symbol of the culture, but not the culture itself. She pointed out that the culture was really a set of beliefs and a set of ways. Young people should be encouraged to appreciate the culture, but also put their own mark on the culture.

On the “sacred” side of the clamshell line at Augustana are our core beliefs and core ways of doing things. We should be careful before changing our culture, because it is time-tested and time-honored. Yet it is also important to recognize that successive generations need to put their mark, carefully and respectfully, on this culture.

Visiting these cultural sites was a moving experience for us, and safe to say it’s one that we will never forget. In the months ahead at Augustana, through our next strategic planning process, we will be deliberate in pondering the division between the pull of the pragmatic and the need to honor the traditions that have sustained us for 152 years. In this process, we need to be thoughtful and careful when approaching the clam shell line.

Leave a Reply