Joseph Julian Ziems Weiss is a PH.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. In the fall of 2011 he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Unsettled Co-Existence: Political Community and Everyday Life on Canada’s Northwest Coast,’ supervised by Dr. Jean Comaroff. We touched base with Joseph to learn more about his research on the remote archipelago of Haida Gwaii and the tricky game of sovereignty that plays out amongst its inhabitants.
Could we begin by learning a bit about your fieldsite?
My project is focused on Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago just off the coast of Western Canada. Haida Gwaii (which means literally “Islands of the People”) is the traditional territory of the Haida nation, whose people have inhabited the islands since time immemorial. It’s also claimed by the Canadian government on behalf of the Crown and forms part of the province of British Columbia. The islands are pretty rural, with only one major paved highway connecting its communities together, mail that comes by ferry, and completely appalling grocery store prices. Logging roads veer off from the highway like veins, reflecting the islands’ recent history as a major logging center. But even with the bald patches left by a century of logging in the tree cover, the islands are one of the most beautiful places on Earth, something I think would still claim even if I wasn’t just a bit biased.
Haida Gwaii’s population lives in small towns dotting the islands, the largest of which has a population of about 1,200. There are two Haida reserve communities and about four other towns with by and large split populations. That said, segregation was far more pronounced in earlier colonial times, and there’s a still sense that some of the non-reserve towns are basically “settler” communities. My work’s located principally in Old Massett, the Haida community on the north end of the islands. Old Masset’s on reserve, but the neighboring formerly exclusively settler town of Masset isn’t, and you really get a sense of the colonial history of the place when you notice that all the grocery stores, the credit union, and amenities are located exclusively “uptown” in Masset. My day-to-day is spent mostly in Old Massett as a volunteer at the local Elementary school, but one is always moving between communities for public events, to see friends, or even just to get the mail or pick up groceries. It’s an interesting place to live and, of course, to conduct research.