Haida Religious Traditions

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HAIDA RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . The Xaada Gwaay or Haida Gwaii, the island of the Haida people, is a land of intense natural beauty, a misty archipelago composed of two large islands, Graham and Moresby, and some 150 small islands on the borderlands between southern Alaska and northern British Columbia. The intensity and subtlety of the territory is apparent in its dense rain forests, miles of pristine sandy shores, craggy mountain cliffs, and unpredictable weather patterns.

The elaborate Haida culture is as rich in mythological heritage as it is in natural beauty and resources. This complex mythological landscape parallels and represents the complexity of traditional Haida religious practice and its influences in contemporary Haida society. It is the land and the spirits of the land that inspired Haida stories and myths.

Though their islands were inhabited by many villages in traditional times, there are three remaining Haida villages in the contemporary landscape: Old Massett Village and Skidegate, both on the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, and Hydaberg, on the southeastern tip of Alaska.

Just as the land provides the source of inspiration for myth, traditional mythological elements of the Haida culture are inextricably linked in ancient and modern society to the social, political, and economic lives of the Haida people. Myths provide the foundation for ancient religious practices and influence many aspects of the contemporary life of the Haida people.

The Supernatural

In his Contributions to the Ethnology of the Haida (1905) and Haida Tests, Masset Dialect (1908), John R. Swanton provides the earliest comprehensive texts documenting Haida myths and stories. His interpretations describe the ever-changing nature of what he calls "Haida spirit theory." There is such a close relationship between all of the forces of the natural world that they are easily interchangeable. The world of the Haida is characterized by allusion and pun and the nature and character of the land and Haida mythological powers can be described as intelligent, unpredictable, creative, ambiguous, dangerous, friendly, and transformative. Supernatural beings have a great deal of power and can easily disguise themselves to become Salmon People, Herring People, Forest People, Bear People, Ocean People, Mouse People, or any number of other "supernatural" beings.

To the Haida, the world is one seamless existence. Natural and supernatural are categories in which nature rules. Phenomena change rapidly depending on the time and space of perception, the weather, the occasion. In ritual space, natural and supernatural beings and creators come very close and are perceived in elaborate masks, dances, musical expressions, and poetic oratory. Supernatural beings can play with humans, harm them, marry them, and appear and disappear at a moment's notice, depending on their moods.

Haida Myths and Stories

The Haida creation story plays a prominent role in their mythological belief system. Raven created the world by teasing the humans into existence while they cowered on the beach under a clam shell. Raven is a sacred trickster and transformer who sings, plays, teases, and even lies to inspire deep transformation. There are numerous versions of Raven stories and new ones are being created every day. One of the most famous is Bill Reid's well-known interpretation Raven Steals the Light (1984). This retelling of the Raven myth is widely read and has been translated into several languages.

Killer Whale is another important mythological character. Because the Haida relied heavily on the abundance of the sea for their sustenance, they have many stories about Killer Whale's power and ability to rule the sea creatures. Many Killer Whale stories describe the loss of lives at sea and the transformation of humans into sea creatures who will later support or harm fishermen.

The Social Organization of Haida Society

The matrilineal social structure of the Haida reflects mythological characters in the form of clans. A clan system assigns associative categories between animals and human beings, who can obtain powers through these associations. The two primary clans are Raven and Eagle. Each clan is further organized around family crests that are also associated with animals prevalent in Haida territory.

Traditionally, Haida were not allowed to marry within their own clan. This system of intermarriage used moieties to govern marital alliances, economic structures of reciprocity and ownership of property. This system of organization also included the supernatural beings associated with human clan systems. "This dual classification imposes order on the universe not only in the sense of categorizing nature in analogy to human society, but also in the sense of perceiving things as belonging, in the double sense of being owned and being part of" (Boelscher, p. 29).

In the past, these clans played a dominant role in the management of tribal affairs. In contemporary society, they function as influential family affiliations in an electoral governance system established during the period of colonization. The political life of the Haida is also complex. In this hybrid governance system, elements of the secular and the sacred interact. Elected chiefs and hereditary chiefs share the responsibilities of leadership in Haida communities and serve as models for ethical lives based on generosity, strength of character, and strong family ties. Haida ethics are based in reciprocity that is expressed on a daily basis through generous gift giving, especially during the potlatches. Gift giving also functions to maintain a fair distribution of wealth in the community.

The Potlatch

Haida have many elaborate ceremonies and rituals. These events are generally categorized as potlatches, ceremonial events in which generosity is expressed by the giving of gifts, feasting, and traditional Haida dancing and singing. Though potlatch was forbidden during the period of colonization, the revitalization of traditional Haida customs that began in the 1970s reinstated the practice, and potlatches are frequently organized in all three Haida villages. They are occasions in which to express and reinforce the communal values and beliefs of the people, to socialize as a community, to grieve loss or celebrate birth, to commemorate great leaders, and other occasions.

In traditional Haida societies, there were many ceremonies to acknowledge the passing of community members into the spirit world. Mortuary poles were commissioned and potlatches were attended by relatives and friends who traveled great distances to participate. In contemporary Haida society, the ritual of the memorial feast, which is held one year after the death of a family member, includes the moving of the headstone onto the grave, blessings, a potlatch, and speeches honoring the Haida who has passed into the spirit world. At these memorial feasts, participants are instructed by religious leaders and elders to "put aside the grief" because it is the end of the official one-year mourning period (Kenny, p. 1218).

Haida also believe in the constant presence of the ancestors. Rituals are powerful ceremonies, even in contemporary times, reminding the Haida of their ancient roots, their elaborate belief systems, and the importance of strong relationships among the people.

The Renaissance of Haida Culture

The creation of art is an important functional aspect of Haida identity and serves as the primary mechanism for the expression of an important set of beliefs about the world. Many Haida artists will say the "art is who we are" (Kenny, p. 1219). There is no word for art in the Haida language because the arts are embedded in the daily lives of the Haida people. The Haida and their vision of the world were rejected during the period of colonization. Haida leader Ernie Collison explains:

Over the years, since the time of colonization, the visual arts suffered because of the potlatch laws and with the introduction of Christianity. There was a banishment of visual icons of Haida. Those influences manipulated the view of the Haidas about their traditional civilization, with the "art," the Haida passion for identifying and decorating everything with drawings and paintings and carving, and it went underground. Objects and ceremonies were kept out of sight of the missionaries and government agents. (Kenny, p. 1219)

Historically, the bounty of the land and sea was reflected in the lavishness of Haida ceremonies, which have grown over the years in spite of many efforts to eliminate their presence in the community. In contemporary society, the Haida mystical vision of the world and its powers, as represented in their arts, has reemerged. "Their passion for carving, sculpting, painting, and weaving and for decoration generally overflowed onto the most utilitarian of objects"(Dickason, p. 212).

Totem poles were used to protect homes and longhouses or community gathering structures. Fragments of the ancient totem poles can still be viewed along the coastal beaches and in the forests of the Haida territory. Archaeologists also excavated many Haida poles and relocated them to museums around the world. The Haida are attempting to repatriate many of these poles, often with the help of modern archaeologists who work in conjunction with them to create museums on Haida territory that are managed by the Haida themselves.

In an ongoing revitalization process that began in the 1970s, Haida arts play prominently in recovering the health and well-being of the people through an open expression of their identities and mystical beliefs. Northwest coast arts, and particularly Haida arts, are probably the most heavily represented of any of the tribal arts in the world and can be viewed in museums around the world. Haida sculptures in argillite, carved jewelry in silver and gold, and contemporary Haida masks draw thousands of dollars in the world market. The marketing of these products brings an aspect of economic sustainability to Haida artists. Haida artists such as Bill Reid and Robert Davidson have been central in bringing Haida art into the most sophisticated art circles around the world.

The revitalization process is recovering many totem poles and other precious cultural objects from museums, universities, and private collections for repatriation to the Haida nations. There is also a successful process of repatriation for ancestral remains. Representatives of the Haida nations travel around the world to gather the remains of their ancestors and bring them home. Many ceremonies surround the repatriation of ancestral remains, including welcoming the ancestors into the arms of the people upon receipt of the remains and reburial in traditional territory. Repatriation ceremonies have brought back many traditional religious practices, but in a modern context. Many of these ceremonies remain private.

In contemporary society, Haida religious practices often combine elements of the old ways with practices in the Anglican, Catholic, or United churches. By the end of the twentieth century there were very few remaining Haida elders who remembered things as they were at the beginning of the twentieth century. Because of the remoteness of the Haida Gwaii, the Haida people were protected from early contact with European settlers and were able to maintain their religious and cultural practices for much longer than many indigenous peoples in the Americas. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the remaining Haida elders are involved in the renewal of the old ways. Many are dedicated to saving the Haida linguistic, religious, and cultural traditions.

Yet, many did attend residential schools that forbade them to exercise their rights to a distinct and unique culture. In residential schools children were often punished severely for speaking their native language or making any reference to religious beliefs associated with their native culture. In modern society, these elders and their children, grand-children, great-grand-children, and great-great-grand-chil-dren, along with a few academics, are rebuilding the Haida culture, bringing it from its underground existence into the fullness of expression in a modern world.

Haida often join with other Northwest coast native peoples in the rebuilding of their cultures. They have also joined the International Indigenous Peoples movement and travel to conferences and gatherings for cultural exchange. The Haida are on the internet and are in constant communication with indigenous peoples around the world. This initiative serves to showcase the identity and strength of the Haida people in the modern world.


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Carolyn Bereznak Kenny (2005)

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Haida Religious Traditions

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