Haida

Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson

Haida are the indigenous people of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, and Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, USA. Traditionally they lived by fishing, hunting, raiding and trade.

Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, consists of two main islands and 150 smaller ones. Biologists call it the ‘Galapagos of the North’. The temperate rainforest that covers the islands includes trees over 100 meters tall and moss seven inches thick. Unique species include the Sitka spruce and Haida Gwaii black bear. Migrating birds from around the world nest, and seals and whales beach in Haida Gwaii. Salmon fill its rivers. Today, the archipelago falls under Haida heritage areas and National Parks.

Haida were hunter-gatherers. In lands so abundant in fish and wildlife, however, they could settle in one place and sustainably forage rather than move from place to place – a rare luxury in hunter-gatherer societies. Haida gathered edible plants, hunted deer, birds and bear, and caught salmon and seafood. From hollowed red cedars, they carved canoes that took them as far as California, where Haida not only traded but plundered and enslaved.

There were once 100 self-governing villages in Haida Gwaii. Their people identified with one of two clans – the raven and the eagle. One could only marry a member of the other. Within each clan were 20 lineages, each of which had economic rights to particular groves, rivers and fishing grounds.

Haida art exemplifies the distinct Pacific Northwest style, with stylised depictions of animals such as ravens, eagles, orcas and bears carved and painted onto wood. Symbolising lineage, these images traditionally decorate Haida canoes, houses and, most famously, totem poles. Haida manga began publication in 2001.

Stanley Park Haida Totem Poles | The rich cultural ...

The potlatch ritualises social and economic ties between lineages and commemorate births, weddings and deaths. In these public ceremonies, attendants exchange gifts, perform dances and music and settle disputes. They are essential to Haida culture.

Haida worldview was essentially animistic, with a supreme being at the top. Today most mix Christianity with traditional beliefs. As in Pacific Northwest and Koryak traditions, the trickster Raven is central to Haida myth. His schemes inadvertently create the fabric of our world.

The Haida’s ancestors migrated to the islands at the end of the Ice Age 13,000 years ago, when the rainforests emerged. Their customs and folklore bear striking similarities to the Koryak people of eastern Siberia, meaning the two are likely related.

File:Haida canoe.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

When Europeans made contact in 1723, there were around 50,000 Haida. An 1863 smallpox outbreak emptied their villages. By the time Canada annexed Haida Gwaii in 1900, there were only 500 left, a number sustained to this day. Like other First Nations, Haida children were victims of the Canadian Indian residential school system in the 20th century. Today there are 501 Haida, 445 of whom speak the language. The name ‘Haida Gwaii’ (meaning Islands of the People), was restored in 2009.

Sources: American Anthropologist, Canadian Encyclopedia, Coast Funds

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