The word Haida is a derivative from the words Ou Haadas, meaning “inlet people,” the name replied when asked by the first Europeans what tribe or people they were. Their homeland is called Haida Gwaii and is situated along the archipelagos of the Queen Charlotte Islands of Canada and the southern extremities of Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. There are two main moieties (two equal subdivisions of the tribe) within the Haida people: Raven and Eagle. Under these are various sub-clans (e.g., Sculpin, Frog, and Double-Finned Killer Whale). The two moieties make up the political group within their society. One of the important rules in Haida antiquity was that people could not marry within their own clan; even if they came from another village, they were considered family, and so Raven clan members could marry only Eagle clan members and vice versa. Through the life of the Haida, the opposite clan plays an important role, especially through the potlatch, and at the death of a family member. It is at the potlatch that the opposite clan will witness the important events in the Haida life. It is the opposite clan that will attend to the funeral details during the time of grief. Whatever competitive potlatch may be happening, or feuds, there was always the knowledge of the interdependence upon the opposite clan.
The Haida were fierce warriors, feared by the surrounding tribes as well as those to the north and south. Accounts of their conquests were noted in the address of Dkhw’Duw’Absh Chief Seattle (Si’ahl), where he mentioned that of the few benefits he could find of the takeover of his homeland by Euro-Americans was that their presence and military would protect them from invasions of the Haidas and Tsimshians. In the Haida society, however, it is not the conquests that make one great, as it is with the European cultures, but rather the person’s ability to hold a potlatch. These ceremonial parties took place in the later part of the fall and winter months and required the host to be proficient in amassing and distributing wealth and property, which was proclaimed within their oratory tradition at these festive occasions. The wars were acts to procure the slaves and wealth of other tribes, which, in turn, were utilized in the potlatch preparation (for example, commissioning carvings and trading) and carrying out of the rituals within the potlatch.
The following factors led to the decline of the strength of the Haida people: the advent of European colonization of Canada and Alaska, which brought devastating diseases that spread and nearly decimated the Haida People, causing their forced relocation to the two main villages of Masset and Skidegate to escape the diseases; the ban of the potlatch in 1885, which lasted over 60 years; and the exodus to the new cities for work, which brought about the demise of the potlatching economy of the Haida people and their indigenous neighbors, making it difficult for them to live in the manner of their ancestors, and making way for the mercantilism of the industrial economy upon Haida Gwaii land.
The Haida, like their surrounding northwest neighbors, lived in a communal lifestyle, with several families sharing a “big house,” or more popularly known, a “long house.” Within their society were three statuses of people, the high caste, the commoners, and the slaves. The high-caste villagers were the families of chiefs; clothed in rich sea otter and martin pelt robes, they were the main citizens who gave pot-latches. The commoners were the clan members who usually supported the chief in his potlatches, as well as their own, if they were able to acquire the material wealth to give one. The slaves were either born from slaves or were obtained through trade or war and made slaves; there were also debt slaves who worked for the person until his debt was paid. Within a village was a main “high chief” or “town chief,” and within each house was a chief or “house chief.” Usually, the successor of the chieftainship was acquired upon the death of a chief, and it was within a potlatch that the new chieftain became official. A chief could also hand the responsibility over to the next in line (in a matriarchal society, it would be one of his brothers or nephews). Chief Albert Edward Edenshaw is an example of a well-known leader, who gave many potlatches during his life, initiated war expeditions, and carried on a slave trade. In later years, he changed direction toward Christianity, no longer wanted to participate in the rituals that were not approved by the church, and conferred his chieftainship on his nephew.
The original house posts from Old Kasaan, transported to New Kasaan. This was one of the last of the “Big Houses” to be lived in.Haida/Thlingit Pamela Rae Huteson is seated in the “Chief ’s” area of the house.
The training of children is important to cultures that survive with the knowledge of living in harmony with the natural and the supernatural. Leslie Drew Douglas Wilson was told during his research for Argillite (1980) that the “philosophical” knowledge was given from the Naanas (grandmothers) and Chinnaas (grandfathers) and that the uncles and aunts are given the role to teach the day-to-day lessons of survival and clan etiquette. There were strict rituals in training of the children as they approached puberty. As with other matriarchal societies among the Northwest tribes, when a boy was near the age of 10, he was sent to his maternal uncle to be instructed in fishing and hunting and the rights and property he would be inheriting from his uncle. The uncle would also train him in the ways of combat. For a girl, there were special provisions for her puberty training, which required isolating her from the rest of the community. During this time, upon entering this special location, she would be taught the etiquette of her people, as well as how to weave baskets and also to devote her time to learning other skills that would prepare her to become a matriarch of her clan and her people.
With the wealth and bounty the ocean provided, the Haida were supplied with an abundance of salmon, Old Kasaan, transported to New Kasaan. This was one of the last of Haida/Thlingit Pamela Rae Huteson is seated in the “Chief’s” area of halibut, red snapper, and other fish. They also had access to various sea mammals, seal, sea lion, and otters, for example. This abundance included many other types of sea creatures, such as crab, chitons, and scallops. They also gathered sea cucumbers, seaweed, and shoreline vegetation to supplement their diet. The various salmon runs that returned to spawn would arrive from July to November. The fish were hung to dry in the sun; they were also smoked on beams suspended over a low fire, within a smokehouse, as is done to this day. These were then stored in bentwood boxes to be used for feasting and sustenance during the winter months. They also hunted deer and bear and gathered seagull and murrelet eggs. Some of the plants gathered were wild rhubarb, various berries, fern, and Hudson Bay teas.
Artistic Expression in Daily Life
From their grand totems to the everyday utility objects of baskets, hats, bowls, and spoons, these were decorated with uniform and complex designs called “formlines,” as identified by Professor Bill Holms in Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. The Haida and other Northwest tribal art was so prevalent that Johan Adrian Jacobsen proclaimed them to be “nations of artists.”
With cedar in abundance and in close proximity of the Haida people, this provided the material for not only the memorial and “totem” poles but also houses and canoes. Fishing and hunting gear was fashioned out of the wood, roots, and withes into ropes, nets, bows, and arrows. There were bentwood boxes carved and steamed for storage and cooking. Mats were woven for eating, wearing, and sleeping. Woven and shredded bark skirts were also made. Among the indigenous tribes, the Haida have developed fine spruce root basketry, with designs woven in false embroidery. Sometimes formline designs were painted over the surfaces of their baskets and intricately twined spruce root hats by renowned artists, such as Charles Edenshaw. Each design woven or painted had a name, some of which are related to a specific clan lineage story.
The Haida artistic expression was also worn: tattoos; woven Chilkat robes; painted designs on skins that were crafted into tunics; Shaman’s aprons and leg coverings; hats and headdresses; and jewelry. Their jewelry had been made from bones, walrus tusks, and antlers, as well as shells of abalone and dentalium, argillite stone they called “black stone,” and copper. In the beginning, the argillite was used to create blades and other utility items. Its high luster made a prized regal material. As the fur trade began to wane and the collecting of “native curios” expanded, argillite carvings became highly sought after. This craft quickly developed into a “fine art,” with artists like Charles Edenshaw and Tom Price among the early masters of argillite carving. The introduction of wool blankets and ready-made buttons to the tribes of the Northwest revolutionized clan expression of blankets worn by those of high caste. One maritime fur trader noticed jewelry fashioned from iron, and he instructed his men to begin crafting jewelry out of their available iron and soon had to expand on his new trade item, as his Haida customers preferred unique jewelry. With the influx of silver and gold coins, these were fashioned into priceless bracelets, pendants, and earrings.
As with the other surrounding Northwest tribes, the potlatch was not a religious ceremony. There was no systematic religion that was followed by rote; spirituality was reflected as more of a personal relationship with the universe as a whole, as they prayed to the “Power-of-the-Shining-Heavens.” It is not the humans that are superior, reveals Dr. W. F. Morrison JD, “There is nothing to be believed, everything just ‘is.’ Throughout our history are stories of animals, rocks, birds, fish, trees and other Beings carrying on conversations with human Beings.”
When death is near, it is believed that the family members who have passed on are near the person and upon death, the soul goes to a place of potlatch. The soul also has the choice to go back and be reborn within its family. This belief was brought into warfare tactics. When George Dixon, in 1787, had asked Chief Cumshewa of the tribes on the mainland, he was told that they were the Haida enemies and that the chief had not only “killed many of them” but also had their heads. Morrison explains that this action would prevent the soul from being able to find its way back and be reborn within its people. This would thereby eliminate these enemy warriors’ opportunities to return as potential warriors to fight the Haidas in future battles.
When it was apparent that a death was near:
- There would always be some of the family singing the clan’s war chants, until the death occurred.
- An announcement that the time was near would usually be made by the family of the mate (widow).
- The opposite clan would see to the funeral procession, relieving the family during its sorrow.
- A shaman would prepare the person, painting the face and singing.
- The person was dressed in clean/new clothes for the spiritual journey.
- The family’s sacred ceremonial artifacts were placed all around the person.
- The grave box was placed near the person while he or she was still alive.
- After death, the body would be taken out of an opening in the wall of the house, not through the door.
Haida Trading and Influence
The currency within the bartering of the Northwest tribes consisted of some shells but for the most part of furs, especially the rich sea otter pelts. Trade items came from the surrounding neighbors, such as the Tsimshians for soapberries and eulachon oil in trade for furs. The regal Chilkat blankets were also secured from the Tsimshians. These were so costly only those of high caste could afford the price of furs for this prestigious item. The Haidas also traded with the Chinook, as they offered a rich assortment of goods from their trade with other tribes. The cedar in the Queen Charlotte’s was of a height and girth not found common in the forests of the Haida neighbors; this enabled the Haida to craft their coveted large canoes for trade items. Slaves were the labor behind the potlatch and daily life. It was not uncommon for each member of a high-caste family to have a slave to dress and prepare food for them. Their children especially would have a slave to watch over them and make sure that they were safe; sometimes the child’s slave would be near the age of that child. Slaves were distributed as property during the potlatch. They could also be killed when a chief died, so that the slave would assist him in the spirit life. This dependence on slaves required much trading for them and acquisitioning through war expeditions.
The Haida were canoe voyagers. Their voyages provided the opportunity to observe many peoples and their traditions along the Pacific Coast, down as far as south as South America and Hawaii, and north to the Aleutians, for either trade or war. This is evident within their culture, through songs of other tribes (for example, Tsimshian and Chinook). The Haida language stands by itself and contains only “borrowed” words, perhaps through trade. The Haida Gwaii land was in the early stages of cultivation when the Europeans arrived. One of the plants resembled the tobacco plant, which could have been obtained from the Californian tribes. Potato gardens were also found and thought to have been given by early explorers, yet there have been no journals to support that theory; Morrison tells how potatoes were acquired through the Haida’s expeditions to Peru, as well as Hawaii. Oceanic travel was earlier refuted by Frederica de Laguna, yet it is noted that the Haida also have many traditions akin to the Pacific Islanders. Anne Cameron in Daughters of Copper Woman describes songs of the Nootka tribe in Canada, which start upon their journey and end when they land (e.g., in Japan or China). Alfred L. Kroeber noted the Northwest coast tribes have some characteristics that are similar to other oceanic indigenous people (for example, Maori and Hawaii), with their festivities employing wealth distributions and an elaborate and detailed carving style to represent their clan and heraldic lineage. The Haida and Tlingit culture have been influenced by the ancient Asian battle gear, seen in the close resemblance of their slate wooden armor to that of the Asian warriors. The Haida also share the Raven culture, which is found in other indigenous cultures, ranging from Siberia to Washington State.
Within the Northwest coastal societies, the Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and Tsimshian were very adept and had the ability to acquire large stores of food during the spring to fall months. These provisions enabled them to use the winter months in creativity and socializing, as well as allowing their carvers and weavers the luxury of tending to their craft to create clan and commissioned pieces, while the remaining clan members devoted their time to obtaining and storing food and creating daily utility objects. The potlatch was not just a feast or festival; it was the purpose of living. During the potlatch, the goals of wealth and status were realized for the clan through their participation in these important cultural events. The original intent of trade and war expeditions was to accumulate property in preparation for their potlatches. If the parents were commoners, they may spend their life in the pursuit of raising the status of their children.
The word potlatch is a generic term from the Chinook trade jargon meaning “to give.” The Haida words for this occasion are:
- Wdiigal: When the property of land was distributed, the tattooing of crests and labrets were given to the children. Only the high-caste could have tattoos and be gifted at a potlatch. It was a time when adoptions were made and the highly coveted and honored names were bestowed. The families of chiefs carried the oldest and highest names; the Waugal was also a time that described a clan house-raising event.
- Si iki: This was a memorial potlatch given when a grave post (memorial totem) was raised. It is the opposite clan that takes the responsibility of attending to the funeral procession, and it is within the Siik! that the opposite clan is honored for the gratefulness of the services rendered during the time of sorrow.
It could take years to prepare and accumulate the wealth for a potlatch. These festivities were given for the children. In Haida culture, people could be high caste only if their parents had given potlatches. If their parents were commoners, they themselves could not rise in status; they could only make a better future for their children. The more tattoos the person wore (i.e., on the arms, legs, back, or chest), the more visible was his or her status, as each series of tattoos displayed represented a particular pot-latch, or potlatches, held by their parents.
In an oratorical society, it is crucial to have witnesses present when the wealth is displayed and to orally and visually record the prestige transferred via property (for example, of names, tattoos given, land, trade routes, crests, stories, and so on). Without the witnesses, there is no proof the action took place, and the credibility and evidence is lacking for the prestige claimed. The witnesses are then paid, first, by providing them lodging and meals during their stay and, second, with a wealth of gifts at the end of the festivities. Great care was given to the gifts/payments and to make sure that the gift matched the caste and position of the guest/witness. The guests were also gifted with food to see them through their journey home.
Along with the ancestral reenactments within the dances of the potlatch, there were also dances done by the shaman and high chief, as they trained their apprentices and “put the power” into those “inspired,” as told to John R. Swanton, and also that the spirits, such as the dog-eating spirit, “came through” the dancer. There were spirits that would come through both men and women and those, like the grizzly bear spirit, that came only through women. In Ullie Stelzer’s Haida Potlatch, some of the songs were sung with no dancing, as reported by a Haida Elder, due to either the “sadness” of the song or the “seriousness” and solemnity of the occasion. This was done by the singers at Klawock Alaska in 1994, when two teenage boys of both Tlingit and Haida ancestry were dealt within a traditional manner by the Tlingit banishment court. Since the boy’s were also of Haida descent, a Haida “judge” was appointed a commission to preside with the Tlingit “judges” to administer these unique alternative and traditional tribal justice proceedings, and was consulted throughout the duration of the banishment.
It is surmised that Spain was the first to encounter the Haida. The journal of Frays Juan Crespi and Thomas de La Penn, who accompanied Juan Perez, in 1774, and the Haida story of the first contact with Europeans contain many of the same elements. For example, there was a canoe that went out to meet the ship, wherein an elder stood within the canoe and danced, and the eagle down of peace was spread upon the water. The acculturation of the Haidas began with the maritime European fur traders and explorers. Due to their extensive travels and witnessing other cultures to the north and south of them, these contacts were viewed as a positive enrichment of their culture, and as a result, Chief Edenshaw exchanged names with Captain Douglas upon the second contact.
Little was known of the customs and traditions of tribal people, in the early years of maritime trade. Although there were protocols of international law and fair dealing among the nations, the indigenous people were seldom apprised of these accords by the dominant society. Etiquette was still in its infancy concerning the interactions with tribal people in the “new worlds.” The rash treatment of some Americans created a distrust of “Bostons” among the Haidas. One well-documented incident happened at the southern extremity of the Queen Charlotte Islands, at Houston Stewart Channel, in 1791. Chief Coya’s people were not interested in weaponry or iron; they, however, observed the prestige associated with the new apparel that the maritime traders modeled. As a result, what clothes couldn’t be bought through trade were taken while the newly washed clothes enticingly hung to dry on deck. For this “crime,” two chiefs, one being High Chief Coya, were assaulted by having their hair cut (only slaves had their hair cut), whipped (another slave treatment), and their legs forced into canon barrels, to name a few of the indignities forced upon these chiefs. Their people were not only made to return the articles, but their remaining furs, for which Kendrick claimed that he gave them a “fair” deal when he’d paid for the them. In these actions levied against Coya, he and his people were belittled, insulted, and unreasonably penalized, out of proportion to the nature of the purported criminal offense. An attempt to regain his position was made the following year with the attack on the Lady Washington, which not only went bad, but also inspired a shaming song called “Bold Northwestman” thereafter sung by the sailors. Coya was reduced to the lowest of the commoners.
During the time of colonization of Canada and Alaska, totems and other artifacts were collected for exhibits, world fairs, and museums of natural history. Haida Chief Saanaheit of Kaasan, on Prince of Wales Island, in Alaska, donated his house posts, Fog Woman pole, and canoe to collector John G. Brady, with the understanding that these treasures would be returned to Alaska to become “memorials” of his people. These memorials now stand in the Sitka National Historic Park in Alaska. When the exodus to major villages started happening in Alaska, there was a yearning by the Tlingit and Haida tribes alike to have totems there with their people. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created to make new jobs. In Southeast Alaska, this took the form of a joint partnership with the forest service, which employed village carvers to transport totems to make parks; the totems that could not be restored were recarved. This not only satisfied the Alaskan Tlingit and Haida tribes by having their totems in their new villages but also rekindled the art of carving.
For a time, the only carving that was done was for tourists and collectors; the masks and hats that were made by the carvers in the mid-20th century tended to be for artistic pieces only, as some were too heavy for actual use. As the revival of potlatches spread, new totems began appearing on Haida soil as a new generation of apprenticing carvers began studying their craft. The Haida Elders were sought for their wisdom and knowledge of the nearly extinct Haida tradition, which prompted Elders like Robert Cogo and his wife Nora to document the Haida legends, foods, and language for future generations. Today, the Haida language in its various dialects is being taught to the youth and adults alike, as the interest in the Haida culture increases. Songs and dances were revived for the reintroduction of the ceremonies. In some communities, there were no examples of male dancing, and either a dancer from another village had to come to teach the new male dancers or they had to go out and learn the movements of the animals they were representing and put them into their dance, as Haida carver Robert Davidson experienced when preparing for his pot-latch, which was recorded by Steltzer.
Today’s Haida are a modern people, living in a high-tech world, wearing the latest fashions, and dealing with the negative effects upon our environment. Beginning with the prized Chilkat dancing robes, there is a long history of people willing to pay high prices for fashionable and prestigious works of art. There are a growing number of artisans who are applying the beauty and complexity of formline art to clothing. Leading this trend within the international realm is Dorothy Grant, from the Queen Charlotte Islands. Her designs are not only in the height of fashion but also contain price tags ranging in the thousands. It is not uncommon to see Grant’s creations worn at potlatches and other prestigious occasions.
In the past, a costly war could mean lives lost on the battlefield of their fellow northwestern-coast neighbor’s homeland. Today’s wars with the Haidas are battled in the courtroom or in the media, as a small business called “HaidaBucks,” originating in Masset, experienced. When Starbucks filed a lawsuit against them, it was assumed the small business would back down and change their name. Not only did the Haida business not back down, but they obtained powerful backup legal support and launched a campaign for their right to use the word Bucks. The HaidaBucks Web site contains the story of how the mighty Starbucks company backed down.
As populations have migrated and intermixed, animals have also accompanied them. Islands in the “new worlds” have felt negative impacts from the introduction of some animals, such as the rabbit hordes in Australia. The environment and maintaining a balance on their islands is of concern to the Haida people. The murrelet eggs from the Auk family of diving sea birds have been in the Haida diet from time immemorial, and certain families owned the sought-after egg-gathering privileges of the islands and rookeries of the Queen Charlottes. However, due to the increased human activity of visitors from outside of the Queen Charlottes, Norway rats have invaded the satellite islands that have been the nesting grounds of the murrelet. This has caused a decrease in not only the numbers but also in the varieties of the nesting population, causing emergency measures to eradicate these predators.
The Haidas have became a very well-traveled people and have integrated many customs and technologies not only into their lives but into the lives of their neighbors as well, for example, the introduction of cultivation to the northwestern area. They have become a modern people, drawing stability from the roots of their culture, standing resolute, yet bending like the ancient cedar; and they are spreading their wings and soaring like the Eagle to great heights, into the new age and technology that surround them. The Raven culture, once denied them, is becoming reborn within the people and taking new dimensions and meanings. Truly, the Ancient Ones, the “Power-of-the-Shining-Heavens” are still watching over “Ou Haadas,” the “inlet people.”
- Holm, B. (1965). Northwest Coast Indian art: An analysis of form. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
- MacDonald, G. F. (1990). Ninstints: Haida World Heritage Site. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press in association with the U.B.C. Museum of Anthropology.
- Morrison, W. F. (1997). Haadas history. Unpublished manuscript.
- Patrick, A. (2002). The most striking of objects: The totem poles of Sitka National Historical Park. Anchorage, AK: U.S. Department of the Interior, Alaska Support Office, National Park Service and Sitka National Historical Park.
- Smith, R. E. (1982). Ethnohistoric study of Haida acculturation, Parts I, II, and III. Nortorf, Germany: Volkerkundliche Arbeitsgemeinchaft.
- Steltzer, U. (1984). A Haida potlatch. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
- Swanton, J. R. (1975). Contributions to the ethnology of the Haida (Vol. 5, Pt. 1). New York: AMS Press.
- Wilson, L. D. D. (1980). Argillite: Art of the Haida. North Vancouver, Canada: Hancock House.