Geograpfic region: Northwest coast (Queen Chrlotte Islands)
Languages group: Haidan
The name Haida comes from their name for people, "Ha-de" or "Xa'ida".
The Haida lived on fishing, treading and war-trails. The tribe
concisted of several smaller tribes. They had the biggest ocean
going canoes on the Pacific North Coast. Today the Haida people
still have a strong culture.
village could contain up to 30 or more rectangular wooden houses.
The village was placed in a bay far enough from the sea shore
to avoid flooding.
The Haidas lived in longhouses build
of planked ceder wood. In the front of the house they often placed
a totem pole, the pole would protect the house from evil spirits.
The pole also told a story about the people living in each house.
The houses had always the door facing the sea. The houses could
be up to 600 feet long and 60 feet wide and contained of one big
room, sometimes two. The floor was made of packed earth. In some
houses where people of high status lived, the floor was planked.
Along the walls were raised platforms to sleep and sit on. The
space under the platforms served as storage place.
One family lived in each house. To the family belonged uncles,
aunts, cousins and other kinfolk, some families were as big as
100 persons. In each house there was one central fire and one
cooking fire for each group within the family. The people living
in the houses often gave their home a name. Fore example "Clouds-Sound-Against-It-As-They-PassOver."
As most of the natives, the Haidas believed in the Great Mystery.
That means that everything has a spirit. The spirits are everywhere
among the people and in the nature and not sitting "above" locking
down at the people.
Each person in the tribe had a specific
role. Each tribe had it's leader and respected members such as
the master canoe-builder or maker of Whale-killing-harpoons.
The Haida tribe was split into several
clans. People within the same clan could not marry each other.
they had to find someone in another clan. The clan system kept
the people from worrying about wedding close kin.
A common tradition among the native Americans were story telling
and so also among the Haidas. The stories had a deeper meaning
than only to entertain. Through story telling, knowledge was passed
on from one generation to the next. It was the Elders how told
most stories, they told stories about creation, the animals in
the nature, fables, folktales, and about the spirits. Through
story telling, knowledge was passed on from one generation to
In each tribe there was at least one
shaman. The shaman was one of the most important people in the
tribe. The shamans were the peoples gate to the spirit world.
the shamans could protect the village from angry spirit. They
could, among many other things, heal the sick through intricated
rituals of dance, chanting and sleight of hand. Both men and women
could become shamans. The Haidas had rituals for everything, for
birth, death, the sun, the earth, hunting, first flower and so
on. One of the most important spirits was the Raven. Sometimes
the Raven was the good one and some time he was the evil one.
The Raven is the animal with the most stories told about.
Building a canoe
The totem pole
To have a sea going canoe was one of the most important things
in a Haida tribe. Each tribe had a lot of different canoes, some
for traveling, some for warfare, ceremonies and some for hunting.
A canoe could be over 30 feet long and carry at least 8 crewmen.
The man how could built his large, graceful wooden canoe would
be honored in his tribe. The canoes were build in red cedar. The
trees were cut down with stone-bladed adzes. The canoe-builder
roughly cut out the shape of the canoe, then he used an adzes
to carve out the hull of the canoe. By filling the canoe with
boiling water it helped soften and shape the wood. When the basic
shape was finished the canoe-builder added a separate prow and
stern to give it added stability on the open ocean. When the canoe
was completed the builder would sand it with scouring rushes and
polish it with the rough skin of a dogfish so that it would glide
smoothly trough the waves. Finally the builder often decorated
the canoe with paintings or carvings.
The totem pole is only used by the indians on the north west
coast. The pole is the most famous indian wooden object, familiar
to almost everyone. Each pole has it's own history, made for a special
event. There are different kinds of poles, they could be raised
before a ceremony to honour the dead. They could also stand in front
of a village to celebrate the history of the village and to protect
it from evil spirits. A pole in front of a house reminds everyone
of the owners' ancestry. The pole is often very heavy and tall.
It's often made of cedar tree. A pole usually stands for fifty years,
there are some totem poles that have been standing on the same spot
for over 200 years.
The haidas used the cedar tree fore everything. They build
their houses and canoes in cedar.They made baskets, hats and mats
of cedar bark. From the cedar fibers they made waterproof clothing.
To have a potlatch was and still is a very special ceremony.
It's a ritual that didn't only gain one person, but the whole
clan. The ceremony was to give the host new status or to confirm
It could take years for the host to prepare a good Potlatch. The
host should find a suitable gift for each invited guest, he should
find proper ceremonial songs and dances.
The Potlatch ceremony was a big party
with food, drink, dance and singing. A Potlatch could continue
for a couple of days. In the end the host should give away his
gifts. One to each person.
After this the host could claim his true status, granted to him
when his guests accepted the gifts. In return the host would be
invited to Potlatches among his friends.
The Haida people made their cloths of wooden fibers. They
used roots which they softened by washing and split into strips.
They also used the inner bark from the red and yellow cedar. Out
of these fibers a weaver could create a variety of water resistant
garments on her half-loom.
The most elegant clothing was crafted from mountain-goat wool.
Sometimes the Haidas also wore clothes made in fur from for example
the bear or cloths made of seautter skin
The white man
The Haidas made their first contact with the white people
in 1774, when the spanish explored the Queen Charlotte Islands.
In 1778 James Cook arrived to the Canadian north west coast, he
traded with the indians and then the chips sailed to China where
they sold the goods to a very high price.
The white peoples entry to the land of
the Haida brought many changes, they didn't only bring trading
goods, they also brought many new diseases to which the natives
had no resistance. Smallpox was one of the diseases that brought
many natives to death. One good thing that came with the trading
was the iron. With the iron the Haidas could make their weapons
and tools more effective.
The white people where not the least
interested by the culture or the living of the indians, they wanted
to "civilise" the Haida people and all other indian tribes. This
was one of the things that offen started a war. To civilise the
Haida people the whites, among other things, forbid them to continue
with their Potlach ceremony. But the Haidas found a way around
the Potlach ban. They maintained their Potlach customs in secret
by calling it a "party".
Haida nation today
Today there are still Haidas living on Queen Charlotte Islands,
but many of them are quite pore. There is a major drug problem
booth among adults and especially among the children. Many of
the children also have problems at home.
But not every one has problems. There are a lot of richer and
wealthy people too. Some people work very hard to keep the Haida
culture alive, preserve the language, the ceremonies, the dances,
the songs and other native customs.
It is easy to see the past in the art
of the Haida people (paintings, carvings). The art today is almost
the same as the art 100 years ago. Today you can still see the
art everywhere, in houses, on canoes, on cloths and off course
in all kind of stores. The main object on the paintings and carvings
is different kinds of animals which all has their own spiritual
Dorothy Grant is a Haida women living today, she is trying to
keep the Haida culture alive by among other things sculpturing
This is what she says about her people:
"We are witnessing a new change now. Where once the songs
and dances were pushed under the rug, we, the elders of the future,
are lifting that rug by once again instigating potlatches, songs,
and dances based upon our traditional roots, and by the inspiration
to keep tradition moving, creating new songs, dances, and rituals.
Where once the button blankets were sitting in closets, they are
now on the people at potlatches, feasts, weddings, graduations,
and totem pole raisings. In most Haida homes there is a button
blanket, and songs are becoming more familiar to the younger children.
Children in the village of Masset are proud to be part of Claude
Davidson's dance group. They show up every Monday night to practise
eagerly. Recently, I was in Skidegate for a big feast. Everyone
was making their way to the hall with their button blankets on.
Three little Haida girls were showing each other how they move
their feet when they dance. It really moved me to see this. I
am thankful to be a witness and a participant of this positive
change. The Haida have come full circle."
In 1835 there were over 6000 Haida indians, then the smallpox
came and the population fell to barely 800 in 1885.
In 1915 there was only 588 Haidas, but after that the populaton
started to rise again. In 1968 there were over 1500 Haidas
living on Queen Charlotte Islands.