AskDefine | Define Haida

Dictionary Definition



1 a member of a seafaring group of North American Indians who lived on the Pacific coast of British Columbia and southwestern Alaska
2 the Na-Dene language of the Haida people

Extensive Definition

The Haida are an Indigenous nation of the west coast of North America. The Haida territories comprise the Queen Charlotte Islands archipelago, which Haida prefer calling Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia, and part of Prince of Wales Island in the southernmost Alaska Panhandle. The term "Haida Nation" can and does refer to both the people and their government, the Council of the Haida Nation. Their ancestral language is the Haida language, which has never been adequately classified by linguists because of its uniqueness. In addition to those Haida residing on Haida Gwaii and in Alaska, there are also many Haidas in various urban areas in the western United States and Canada.


The Haida people differed from many other native tribes. Haida oral narratives record journeys as far north as the Bering Sea, and one account implies that even Asia was visited by Haidas before Europeans entered the Pacific. The Haida's ability to travel was dependent upon a supply of ancient Western Red cedar trees that were carved and shaped into their famous Pacific Northwest Canoes. Carved from a single red cedar tree, a vessel could sleep 15 adults head to toe, and was propelled by up to 60 paddlers (who often included women). In the event of a battle at sea, paddlers were armed with heavy stone rings (18 to 23 kg) attached to woven tree root or bark ropes. These devices, are thrown at enemy canoes, inflicting substantial damage. Haida warriors entered battle with red cedar armor, wooden shields, stone maces and atlatls. War helmets were carved. These techniques are unknown to anyone other than the Haida people as they have kept it secret for many years. It is still unknown how the Haida would carve their war helmets and how they looked.
The Haida were feared along the coast because of their practice of making lightning raids against which their enemies had little defence. Their great skills of seamanship, their superior craft and their relative protection from retaliation in their island fortress added to the aggressive posture of the Haida towards neighbouring tribes. Diamond Jenness, an early anthropologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, caught their essence in his description of the Haida as the "Indian Vikings of the North West Coast":
''Those were stirring times, about a century ago, when the big Haida war canoes, each hollowed out of a single cedar tree and manned by fifty or sixty warriors, traded and raided up and down the coast from Sitka in the north to the delta of the Fraser River in the south. Each usually carried a shaman or medicine man to catch and destroy the souls of enemies before an impending battle; and the women who sometimes accompanied the warriors fought as savagely as their husbands.''
The Haida went to war to acquire objects of wealth, such as coppers and Chilkat blankets, that were in short supply on the islands, but primarily for slaves, who enhanced their productivity or were traded to other tribes. High-ranking captives were also the source of other property received in ransom such as crest designs, dances and songs.
Even prehistorically, the Haida engaged in sea battles. They tied cedar bark ropes to heavy stone rings that were hurled to smash enemy canoes and that could quickly be retrieved for subsequent throws. A stone weighing 18 to 23 kg (40 to 50 pounds) could shatter the side of a dugout canoe and cause it to founder. Most tribes avoided sea battles with the Haida and tried to lure them ashore for a more equitable fight. The Tsimshian developed a signal-fire system to alert their villages on the Skeena River as soon as Haida invaders reached the mainland.
The incidence of warfare was undoubtedly accelerated in the half century from 1780 to 1830, when the Haida had no effective enemies except the many European and American traders on their shores who would rather trade than fight. During this period, the Haida successfully captured more than half a dozen ships. One was the ship Eleanora, taken by chiefs of the village of Skungwai (or Ninstints) in retaliation for the maltreatment Chief Koyah had received from its captain. An even more spectacular event was the capture of the ship Susan Sturgis by Chief Weah (Matthews) of Masset and the rescue of its crew by Albert Edward Edenshaw.
In such conflicts, the Haida quickly learned the newcomers' fighting tactics, which they used to good effect in subsequent battles, as Jacob Brink notes:
''As early as 1795, a British trading ship fired its cannons at a village in the central part of the archipelago because some of the crew had been killed by the inhabitants, and the survivors had to put hastily to sea when the Indians fired back at them. They found out later that the Indians had used a cannon and ammunition pilfered from an American Schooner a few years earlier.''
Swivel guns were added to many Haida war canoes, although initially the recoil on discharge caused the hulls of many craft to split.
Fortified sites were part of the defensive strategy of all Northwest Coast groups for at least 2,000 years. Captain James Cook was so impressed with one Haida fort off the west coast of Graham Island that he called it Hippah Island after the Maori forts he had seen in New Zealand. Military defences at Haida forts included stout palisades, rolling top-log defences, heavy trapdoors and fighting platforms supplied with stores of large boulders to hurl at invaders.

1774 and after

The archipelago was visited in 1776 by Juan Pérez (at Langara Island) and in 1778 by Captain James Cook. In 1787 the islands were surveyed by Captain George Dixon. The islands were named by Captain Dixon after one of his ships, the Queen Charlotte, which was named after the wife of King George. The first furbuying ships arrived in 1774. The hunting of sea otter in Haida Gwaii serviced an international trading circuit: ships leaving the islands brought the pelts to China where they were traded for oriental goods; the ships then returned to the west, selling their cargo for substantial profit. Within a century, sea otter were in danger of extinction.

European diseases

At the time of colonial contact, Haida Gwaii's population was roughly 10000-12000 people residing in several dozen towns. During the 1800s, smallpox reduced the population by ninety percent; other diseases arrived as well, including typhoid, measles, and syphilis, affecting more. The worst single smallpox outbreak occurred in 1862, when the population fell by more than half. In 1900, 700 people remained. Towns were abandoned as people fled their homes for the mission towns of Skidegate and Masset, cannery towns on the mainland, or for Vancouver Island. Some 3500 people live on the islands today. Indigenous people (Haida) live throughout the islands, and maintain two exclusive communities in Skidegate and Old Masset, each with a population of around 300 people.



The Haida's calendar is different from many calendars.
April/May- Gansgee 7laa kongaas
May/Early June- Wa.aay gwaalgee
June/July- Kong koaas
July/August- Sgaana gyaas
August/September- K'ijaas
September/October- K'alayaa Kongaas
October/November- K'eed adii
November/December- Jid Kongaas
December/January- Kong gyaangaas
January/February- Hlgiduum kongaas
February/March- Taan kongaas
March- Xiid gayaas
April- Wiid gyaas

Culture and society

The Haida theory of social structure is based on moiety lineages. That is, the society is divided into two groupings, one called Raven and the other Eagle. There are a variety of subgroups that fall into either of the moieties. The moieties and their subgroups of Clans, or matrilineal lineages, own unique combinations of crests and other intellectual properties such as songs and names. People cannot marry a member of their own moiety.
Potlatches, ceremonies to show wealth or to earn status in a community, were closely linked to a man's moiety. Potlatches would have been a huge celebration, hosted by a wealthy member of the community. A host would have invited hundreds of guests. Guests would have come in best dress and in best canoes, ready for up to 10 days of feasting. Afterwards, all the host's possessions were distributed to guests. However, this would not have bankrupted a host, as they could always rely on getting gifts from a neighbours potlatch, if theirs was up to standard.
Although Haida societal structure is a living process, its roots are in the ancient potlatch system and remain recognizable in contemporary political, economic and legal functions. On that portion of Haida territory claimed by Canada, the two communities of Massett and Skidegate have Band Councils that experience varying degrees of influence and control by Canada's federal government. The persistence of Haida government can be seen in that the influence of the Band Councils, insofar as they may be seen as agents of Canadian government authority, are regulated by a community governance system of Matriarchs and Lineage authorities. The Haida were hunters and gatherers. Because they lived so near the sea, fishing was crucial to them. Salmon was a main source of food, which was filleted & smoked to keep through the winter. The skeleton of the first salmon caught in a season was always placed back where it was caught. This was an offering, so the Salmon would return the following season.
The Haida people are well known as skilled artisans of wood, metal and design. They have also shown much perseverance and resolve in the area of forest conservation. These vast forests of cedar and spruce where the Haida make their home are on pre-glacial land which is believed to be almost 14,000 years old. Haida communities located in Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, and the Queen Charlotte Islands also share a common border with other indigenous peoples such as the Tlingit and the Cape Fox tribes of the Tsimshian. The Tlingit called the Haida Deikeenaa, "far out to sea people", from the distance separating Haida Gwaii from the mainland and the Alexander Archipelago.
Like all Indigenous peoples of the northwest coast of North America, the Haida make extensive use of red cedar bark, which is still used both as a textile for clothing, ropes and sails, and in its raw form, as a building material or even armor. Most goods were fashioned from the wood of the Western Red cedar, Nootka Cypress, Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce. Highly prized plant bark and root weavers still create an array of clothing including hats and containers. The ancient Naahinn form of weaving – also called Chilkat – continues, although commercially produced wool is used instead of mountain goat. The famous Haida totem poles were also carved on the trunks of Red Cedar trees.


The Haida society is broken into two clans: the raven and the eagle. Among the clans (which also has a name, like a Family name) which hold a lot of crests such as killer-whale, frog, moon, hummingbird, bear, and so forth. In this "moiety" society, one cannot marry someone from the same clan, and must marry outside of their own clan. When a child is born they automatically join the clan that their Mother was a member of. There were generally arranged marriages held among the families holding Chieftanship to keep it among the same family.


The Potlatch ceremony was a ritual based event which involved feasting and the exchange of gifts between chiefs and surrounding clans. The celebration was a time of plenty and was a way of re-iterating bonds between groups. The potlatch ceremony was based on the concepts of reciprocity and indebtedness. Many would be held and the larger and more grandiose the occasion the more respect was given. The social bonds and coherence was also a substantial part of the potlatch ceremony, something which the western world failed to take into consideration when they tried to ban it in the late 19th century as it was seen to rival Christmas. Nobles, from the towns, get everyone together and have a party. The purpose for these potlatch ceremonies, is to show off their wealth. The nobles would give, everything they own, away. They would also have huge feasts and dance around a fire.
European people once banned these ceremonies. They forbade the people to celebrate these rituals. If a person was to take part in a potlatch, they would be sentenced to jail. A person had a minimum of 2 months, and a maximum of 6 months in jail.


Haida art consists of two dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculptural works. Painting was accomplished through the use of brushes made from porcupine quills. Before contact with European traders, the Haida derived pigments from natural sources. Lignite or charcoal produced black, ochre a brownish-red and copper minerals provided greenish tones. In the early nineteenth century vermilion was introduced through trade with ships returning to the Northwest Coast from China. Pigments were mixed with a medium derived from salmon eggs.
Painting and two dimensional art usually makes use of formlines that outline basic shapes, often ovoid, in heavy dark outline. Images can be built up from the positioning of formline defined shapes embellished with mouths, beaks, claws, horns or other attributes of the person or animal being depicted. Painting and sculpture both focussed greatly on natural fauna. Charles Edenshaw was an important artist active in the late nineteenth century.
The substitution of carved surfaces for painting represents a step toward sculpture. Incised lines define the basic formline structures. A particularly fine example is a carved Haida bent bowl from about 1860 (Royal British Columbia Museum Catalogue No. 4114) that likely would have held food for honoured guests at potlatches.
In sculpture Haida masks are similar with those of other Northwest Coast First Nations such as Tlingit or Tsimshian. Haida carving on totem poles is more readily distinguishable. The last early Haida totem poles were carved in the villages of Tanu and Skedans in the late 1870s. Stress on the culture resulted in a near abandonment of traditional forms of art in the early 20th century. Bill Reid, a sculptor born in 1920, began exploring Haida art in the 1950s, influenced by old jewelry worn by members of his mothers family, who were Haidapoo.
In ancient times, valuable items were also fashioned from copper. Haida culture places high value on a sophisticated and abstract iconic art form. Although most impressively expressed in large monumental totem poles, this highly disciplined design is applied to a wide range of materials, including the human body through tattooing. The diversity of Haida design today can be seen, among other things, in its expression through Haida Manga.

Notable Haidas

Anthropologists and scholars

Below if a brief list of anthropologists and scholars who have worked with the Haida.

See also

Further reading

  • Blackman, Margaret B. (1982; rev. ed., 1992) During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, a Haida Woman. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Boelscher, Marianne (1988) The Curtain Within: Haida Social and Mythical Discourse. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
  • Bringhurst, Robert (2000) A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Douglas & McIntyre.
  • Geduhn, Thomas (1993) "Eigene und fremde Verhaltensmuster in der Territorialgeschichte der Haida." (Mundus Reihe Ethnologie, Band 71.) Bonn: Holos Verlag.
  • Harris, Christie (1966) Raven's Cry. New York: Atheneum.
  • Huteson, Pamela (2007) "Transformation Masks" Surrey, B.C. Canada: Hancock House Publishers LTD. ISBN- 13 978-0-88839-635-8 and ISBN- 10 0-88839-635-X
  • Snyder, Gary (1979) He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press.
  • Stearns, Mary Lee (1981) Haida Culture in Custody: The Masset Band. Seattle: University of Washington Press.



  • Macnair, Peter L.; Hoover, Alan L.; Neary, Kevin (1981) The Legacy – Continuing Traditions of Canadian Northwest Coast Indian Art
Haida in Catalan: Haida
Haida in German: Haida (Volk)
Haida in Spanish: Haida
Haida in Basque: Haida hizkuntza
Haida in French: Haïda
Haida in Croatian: Haida
Haida in Polish: Haidowie
Haida in Portuguese: Haida
Haida in Finnish: Haidat
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