views updated May 21 2018



Haida (pronounced HIGH-duh). Although Haida has been the most commonly used spelling since the late 1800s, the tribe’s name has been spelled many different ways over the years: Haidah, Hai-dai, Hydah, and Hyder. In the early 1700s some Haida migrated to Alaska, where they called themselves Kaigini. A few early writers indicated that the Haida called themselves Hidery, meaning “people.”


For centuries the Haida lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands (referred to by the tribe as Haida Gwaii, meaning “homeland” or “islands of the people”) west of the Canadian province of British Columbia. Most present-day Canadian Haida live in two villages there called Old Masset and Skidegate. Old Masset is on the north end of Graham Island, and Skidegate is located on the southeast corner. Alaskan Haida live on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska, just north of the Queen Charlotte Islands, mainly in the village of Hydaburg.


In 1787, 10,000 Haida lived on Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada; in 1896 the number had dwindled to 1,600. In the 1700s, 8,000 Haida lived on Prince of Wales Island; by 1890 that number was down to 1,200. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 1,936 Americans identified themselves as Haida. According to the 2000 census, 1,357 Haida resided in the United States, and 4,333 people had some Haida ancestors. A total of 4,040 Haida lived in or around the Canadian villages of Old Masset and Skidegate in 2007.

Language family

Athabaskan or Haida. Some linguists (people who study languages) classify the Haida language as part of the Athabaskan (Na-Dene) group. Others say it is a distinct language and stands alone.

Origins and group affiliations

The Haida may have come to the American Northwest thousands of years ago from Asia, crossing a land bridge between Alaska and Russia. They reached British Columbia around 800, making their way to the Queen Charlotte Islands a few centuries later. The Haida traded frequently with the Tsimshian, Tlingit (pronounced KLINK-it), and Kwakiutl (pronounced kwak-ee-YEW-tul) tribes, but they sometimes warred with them and with the Bella Bella.

For thousands of years the Haida have lived on islands along the coast of the Canadian province of British Columbia and in the nearby American state of Alaska. Because the area is a relatively warm, rainy region abundant with plant and animal life, the people did not have to spend all their time looking for food, so they were able to pursue artistic and cultural interests. Considered superior among the Northwest Indian groups in terms of arts and warfare, the Haida were known for their ornately carved totem poles and powerful oceangoing canoes. They spoke a language all their own, said to sound like the cries of birds and the crashing of waves on the shore.


Ancient floods

When the Haida people first settled in their lands on the Pacific Coast about ten thousand years ago, melting glaciers flooded the shoreline. People were forced to move farther inland as the waters rose and covered their homes. Haida oral history recalls these events in stories of destruction and rebirth that resemble the biblical story of Noah and the Ark.

For centuries the Charlotte Haida lived a comfortable life in their villages by the sea. Endowed with a bountiful supply of food, they settled in permanent villages and developed a rich culture. From time to time the Haida set off in huge cedar canoes for the West Coast of British Columbia or south to the areas of present-day Washington and Oregon to raid or trade. Legends also tell of voyages to the southern tip of South America and of encounters with Polynesians and Maori (New Zealand Natives) in the Pacific Ocean. The Haida sometimes captured slaves or acquired them through trade.

Important Dates

1774: First European contact between Spanish captain Juan Pérez and the Haida.

1797: Trading begins between the Haida and the British.

1912: The Hydaburg Indian Reservation is established in Alaska.

1936: Hydaburg, Alaska, adopts a constitution and petition the U.S. government for a 905,000-acre reservation.

1968: The Haida and Tlingit tribes are awarded $7.5 million compensation by the U.S. Court of Claims for their land.

1980: The Council of the Haida Nation unites the Canadian bands under one government.

1985: Seventy-two Haida and their supporters are arrested for preventing logging on Queen Charlotte Islands.

1987: Canadian leaders establish a national park and marine reserve on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Trade with Europeans

The first European ship to reach the Queen Charlotte Islands was most likely the Santiago, piloted by Spanish captain Juan Pérez (died 1774). He passed by the islands in 1774 on his way to investigate the activities of the Russians in Alaska. The French and the British also sailed through the region about the same time. In 1787 a British sea captain arrived on the islands and named them after his ship, the Queen Charlotte, which was in turn had been nameed in honor of the wife of King George III. Soon trading began between the Haida and Europeans. The British were interested in furs, especially the skins of sea otters, which brought large profits from Chinese buyers.

Move to Alaska

Driven off their Native lands by warfare with neighboring tribes, one group of Haida left the Queen Charlotte Islands in the mid-1700s and established villages in southern Alaska. For the rest of the century, nearly eight thousand Haida resided in five villages at the southern end of Prince of Wales Island, just north of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Before 1867 the Haida of Alaska lived in an area claimed by Russia. Although the Russian Orthodox church converted some Haida to Christianity, Russian culture had little real impact on the Haida there. Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million.

With the discovery of gold in Alaskan territory in 1889, settlers swarmed to the area, and the Haida lost much of their land as well as access to many of their hunting and fishing areas. They were then forced to participate in the area’s growing economy as fishers and loggers for American companies.

The U.S. Bureau of Education and the Presbyterian church determined to “educate and civilize” the Haida. In 1911 a mission called Hydaburg was established in Alaska. Without support from the U.S. government, three nearby Haida villages had to be abandoned, and the people from those villages reluctantly moved to Hydaburg.

In addition to Hydaburg, some Haida also make their homes in Craig and Kasaan, Alaska, and in Seattle, Washington. By the 1990s many Haida had left Hydaburg to find employment in large cities.

Masset and Skidegate settlements

In 1854 the Charlotte Haida—fearing they would lose all their land to the ever-growing number of Canadian settlers—signed a treaty giving up most of their land, including their hunting territories, to the Canadian government. In return, they kept their villages and farm areas and retained the right to hunt and fish in all their former territories.

A trading post opened in the town of Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1869. There, and at forts in the area, the Haida traded meat, dried fish, and potatoes with merchants and sailors in exchange for European products. In 1871 British Columbia became part of Canada, and the government established two Haida reserves (the term Canadians use for reservations, or parcels of land set aside for the Native Americans) near the town of Masset and in the town of Skidegate. (See “Government.”)

Impact of whites

Contact with Europeans had both a positive and negative effect on the Haida who lived on the Queen Charlotte Islands: it changed the Native way of life. The Haida traded furs with the whites for copper and iron tools, kettles, knives, and needles. The tools allowed them to make larger and more elaborate totem poles, canoes, and houses. In the early 1800s, Haida artists started to sell carved wooden boxes, bowls, and utensils to foreign settlers, traders, and sailors. By the mid-nineteenth century they were trading ceremonial robes—elaborate garments decorated with copper and silver buttons—to the Europeans. In return they purchased European firearms, cloth, and blankets.

Although the Haida profited from the fur trade, the environmental repercussions were disastrous. By 1830 the sea otter was nearly extinct from overtrapping. In addition, the salmon population was declining. Europeans then traded for other furs such as deer, mink, and beaver.

Contact with white settlers also brought new diseases to the people. An epidemic (uncontrolled outbreak of disease; in this case, probably smallpox) in 1862 and 1863 led to the deaths of whole families and entire villages on the Queen Charlotte Islands. By the beginning of the twentieth century the Haida population there had fallen to nine hundred.

Canadian officials, teachers, and Christian church leaders also pressured the Haida to assimilate (adopt the white way of life). Soon large extended families no longer lived together in one big house as they had traditionally. By 1884 the Canadian government had banned potlatches (pronounced POT-latch-ez; gift-giving ceremonies; see “Customs”) and Haida dances. Christian missionaries tried to convince the people that carving and erecting totem poles was evil.

By the late 1800s many Haida families had their own gardens and kept farm animals such as horses and cows. As trade in food products and animal furs declined over the next few decades, men and women took jobs in fish-canning factories, mines, and sawmills. Some fished on boats owned by Canadian firms; others had their own boats and sold their catch to Canadian companies.

Modern times

About 15 percent of the land on the Queen Charlotte Islands—an area known as South Moresby—is home to one of the world’s only remaining coastal rain forests. In the 1970s the Charlotte Haida began a lengthy battle with the logging industry over the use of sacred tribal lands on the islands. In one incident in 1985 Haida leaders and supporters were arrested, imprisoned, and charged with showing disrespect for the law after they blockaded a logging road. Their 13-year-long battle was resolved in 1987 when Canadian and Haida officials signed an agreement establishing a national park and marine reserve at the site. (See “Current tribal issues.”) Some hailed the decision to create Canada’s Gwaii Hanaas National Park a victory for the Haida. Many tribe members disagree, however, saying all traditional tribal lands should be returned to their control.

Lavina White: Fighting for Tradition

Native American activist Lavina White is working to change social conditions and government policies for Native Americans. Her main goal is to reverse the damage done by whites to the Haida tribal homeland. A strong critic of the Canadian government’s move to create Gwaii Hanaas National Park, White claims that the benefit of the $38 million park was reaped solely by the white community. She also alleges that: (1) other Haida lands beyond South Moresby are being clear cut (all the trees are being sawed down) by the logging industry and (2) the Canadian government is to blame for the depletion of fish stocks in Haida waters. White believes that the Haida people—indeed all Native nations—can only heal themselves by reasserting their rights to their traditional lands and resources and reestablishing their Native ways.

When asked how things would be different if the land reverted to Haida control, White said priorities would change. She explained: “We’ve been here from the beginning of time and we had direction from our creator. We understood our environment completely. Now I see the fish is almost all gone, the trees are almost all gone. [Life] would change, it would be better. As long as money is the driving force the destruction will continue.”


According to traditional Haida beliefs, the universe had three separate parts: the Earth, made up of their islands and the mainland; the area above the Earth, supported by a pillar extending upward from the land below; and the seawater beneath the Earth. Animals were said to have souls and to be more intelligent than humans.

The Haida believed in Ne-kilst-lass, their Supreme Being who took the form of a raven. He created the world and brought light and order. He also instructed the Haida in their major ceremonies and taught them to establish good relations within the tribe and with other tribes. But Ne-kilst-lass had a dark side as well: he was the troublemaker responsible for all things disruptive and evil.


The Native Americans of the Northwest Coast spoke at least 45 languages. Although is it sometimes classified as an Athabaskan (Na-Dene) language, the Haida language is not related to any of the others. Two dialects (varieties) of the Haida language have survived at Skidegate and Old Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Haida who moved to Alaska in the eighteenth century also spoke the Masset dialect. At the dawn of the twenty-first century even Haida children who no longer spoke the tribe’s language were learning traditional Haida songs.

Haida Words

  • Sánuu dáng gíidang? … “How are you?”
  • Díi ’láagang. … “I’m fine.”
  • Sánuu dáng kya’áang? … “What is your name?”
  • Káts hláa. … “Come in.”
  • Gunalchéesh. … “Thank you.”
  • Háakwsdaa … “Let’s go.”
  • chíin … “fish”
  • k’íit … “tree”
  • sáng … “day”
  • táa … “eat”
  • tlaahláa … “make”
  • xitgáay … “flying”
  • yáahl … “Raven”


Haida people who were related through the same female ancestor made up groups called lineages. A chief who had inherited his position led each lineage. Chiefs resolved conflicts among the people, made major decisions about the group’s welfare, and had the power to declare war.

In the 1870s the Canadian government gave its Native peoples partial control over their own land. Native American-run councils could govern the people in Native communities, as long as they followed Canadian law. Two Haida reserves were set up. The Old Masset Village Council Reserve is located about 7 miles (11 kilometers) west of the village of Masset, and the Skidegate Reserve is located 120 air miles (193 kilometers) from Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Even in the early twenty-first century chiefs hold considerable power in Canadian Haida communities.

In 1980 the Haida in Canada formed the Council of the Haida Nation to unite all their people under one government. Since then the council had been involved in many treaty negotiations. None of the treaties between Canada and the Haida were ever signed, so the council has been working “to protect and assert Aboriginal Title and the collective rights of the Haida people.” Representatives on the council are elected from the villages of Skidegate and Old Masset as well as from the urban areas of Prince Rupert and Vancouver.

Hydaburg, Alaska, home of most Haida in the United States, was the first village to form a council following the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) amendment in 1936 that included Alaska natives. This council was still in operation in 2007, headed by a president. The 1958 agreement that established Hydaburg as a reservation was declared null and void in 1952 by the U.S. District Court. In the mid-2000s Hydaburg is an incorporated city with its own elected government. The city is run by a mayor and a city council, as are Craig and Kasaan.


For centuries the Haida enjoyed abundant natural resources and much leisure time. They could gather their entire food supply for the year in only three months, and needed to do very little farming. This allowed them an opportunity to develop their artistic talents. The Haida held craftspeople in high regard, and the reputation of their canoe makers and carvers soon spread throughout the region.

The Haida exchanged their canoes for mountain goat wool and candlefish, a fish so oily it could be dried, then later set on fire and burned like a candle. With the coming of Europeans, the Haida traded furs, food, and artwork for many European items.

With the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, the Haida in Alaska faced changes to their traditional lifeways. Although one goal in establishing these non-profit corporations was to provide the Natives with a more secure economic future, the government did not take into account the difficulties it posed for tribes who did not believe in owning land. It also meant some Haida had to give up traditional subsistence occupations to learn business management. Along with the Tlingit (see entry), the Haida are now part of the Sealaska Corporation.

In the early 2000s many Alaskan and Charlotte Haida earned their living from logging, a business that has faced opposition for causing damage to Native lands. Others worked in canning or fishing, which has also had its share of trouble. (See “Current tribal issues.”) The Queen Charlotte Islands have become a center of ecotourism (a type of tourism that features animals and vegetation in their natural habitat), and the Haida provide a variety of services for visitors. With the revival of traditional crafts, Haida carvers and painters create valuable artworks that are praised by art critics and sold throughout the world.

Haida Canoes

One of the treasures of the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., is a 63-foot-long (19-meters-long) canoe built by Haida people on the Charlotte Islands in 1878. The canoe exhibit, created in 1910, depicts a group of Native Americans arriving at an important ceremonial feast. The two men with long poles at the front of the canoe and the three sets of paddlers on both sides of the canoe are captured slaves.

Haida carved canoes from the trunks of large cedar trees. Craftspeople hollowed out the trunk with hand tools, then towed the 40- to 60-foot (12- to 18-meter) log to the village. Next they softened it with boiling water until they had widened it to more than 8 feet (2.4 meters). To do this, they partially filled the canoe with water and dropped in red hot rocks to create steam. Then they offered prayers for guidance before they pulled the pliable wood sides into shape. If the steam was too hot, the sides would fall open; if it was too cool, the sides could not be moved. After the canoe dried and hardened into its proper shape, an artist carved and painted the bow and stern pieces.

The front of the canoe in the Natural History exhibit is decorated with the carving of a wolf and a painted killer whale. It may have been created for a chief of the nearby Bella Bella tribe. Although the identity of the creator of this particular canoe is unknown, the vessel serves as a fine example of the artistry that made the Haida renowned canoe builders.

Daily life


Traditional Haida society consisted of many villages of related families. For centuries Haida children were considered part of an extended family made up of a mother, her sons and daughters, her daughter’s children, her granddaughter’s children, and so on. (Societies that trace descent through the maternal line—or the mother’s side of the family—are called matrilineal.)

Haida families—identified as either Eagles or Ravens—owned their own property, were assigned special areas for gathering food, and, depending on their affiliation (either Eagle or Raven), lived at one of two separate ends of the village. The Eagle and Raven groupings were divided even further into a complicated system of subgroups, each with its own land, history, and customs. By the end of the nineteenth century, though, the elaborately structured Haida social system had changed a great deal: most of the Haida lived in nuclear families—groups made up of a father, a mother, and their children. In modern times members of the same group (Ravens, for example) could to marry one another; such unions had been forbidden earlier in Haida history.


The Haida lived in large homes called longhouses that ranged from 30 to 60 feet (9 to 18 meters) or more in length and were thirty to 50 feet (9 to 15 meters) in width. The longhouses were made of cedar logs that had been notched and fitted together so expertly that no pegs were needed to join them. The Haida built roofs of cedar bark slabs and walls of planks split from standing trees. Carved log pillars supported the roof beams. At first, these pillars served merely to make the entryway more elegant; later, the carved pillars, some as tall as 50 feet (15 meters), evolved into one of several kinds of totem poles. (See “Customs.”)

The longhouses were permanent dwellings built on seaside sites that offered protection from the weather and enemies. Several families shared the area around a central fireplace within each longhouse, but each group prepared its own meals. Family members retired at night to private sleeping quarters.

On the Queen Charlotte Islands, the longhouses were built on a narrow strip of land facing the ocean. Backed by forests of cedar trees and with large totem poles in front, they made an impressive sight when traders passed by in canoes and ships.

When the salmon returned in spring, the Haida moved to locations along the rivers. They sometimes removed planks from their permanent homes to build temporary shelters, then carried the wood back in the fall. They often tied the planks across two canoes to serve as a platform for carrying belongings.

They built other buildings to house girls who were about to come of age and women about to give birth. Some buildings held the remains of the dead. Celebrations were held in large community buildings.

Clothing and adornment

The early Haida wore little clothing and generally went barefoot. Women wore bark aprons that extended from the waist to the knees. They made clothing from red and yellow cedar bark by peeling long strips from the trees and shredding the softer inner layer. They processed this into soft felt-like fabric strips that they braided or sewed to make cloth.

The Haida were excellent weavers. They made their everyday clothing from spruce tree roots and reeds woven into fabric and then sewed it into hats, capes, and robes. Women sometimes wore skirts and capes of cedar bark, while men wore long capes of bark with mountain goat wool decorations. Chief’s capes often had trophy head decorations and otter fur collars. Later people used clan symbols for their cape designs. After the Europeans arrived, the Haida traded for blankets, which they wore wrapped around their bodies in the daytime and covered themselves with at night. Slaves wore blankets their owners no longer wanted.

For ceremonial wear the Haida sewed garments of dog fur and mountain goat wool with thread made of bark. They also created masks representing different creatures such as the eagle and the salmon and donned headdresses decorated with fur, carvings, and sea lion whiskers.


The Haida enjoyed a bountiful supply of fish and meat. Men did the fishing and hunting and, along with women, gathered clams, crabs, and scallops inshore and offshore. Women also gathered berries, clover, roots, seaweed, and crab apples. Seal, sea otter, sea lion, oysters, mussels, halibut, cod, herring, trout, and abalone (a type of shellfish) were taken from the sea.

The 500-pound (227-kilogram) halibut and 20-foot (6-meter) sturgeon the Haida caught were so large they had to be stunned with clubs before they could be pulled on board the canoes. Nearby rivers teemed with salmon so plentiful they could be caught by hand. The Haida did not hunt whales, but did make use of any stranded whales that washed ashore.

On land they hunted black bear, caribou, deer, land otter, and bird eggs. Meat, such as deer or seal, was roasted or boiled, cut into strips, and preserved by drying or smoking it. The Charlotte Islands were home to a number of species of plants and animals that are unique, such as the alpine lily, the Steller’s jay, and the hairy woodpecker. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons also thrived there. An equally bountiful supply of plant and animal food was available to the Haida in Alaska.


Haida children played a lot; they also learned songs and dances from older tribal members. By observing their elders, they learned about hunting, fishing, food gathering, and food preparation. Boys sometimes went to live with one of their mother’s brothers to learn stories and ceremonies important to the tribe. They fasted and swam in cold waters to “toughen up” and develop survival skills.

In the late 1880s Methodist missionaries took over the education of Haida children on the Charlotte Islands. The missionaries set up boarding schools that reinforced white ways. Children who attended them learned to speak English rather than their Native language. These schools contributed to the loss of traditional culture because children no longer received their instruction from tribal elders as they had in the past.

Later Old Masset and Skidegate opened their own public schools. With the help of elder Native people, these school systems now offer studies in Haida culture, language, and dancing. The New Skills Centre in Old Masset blends traditional values with business management training courses. The public school in Hydaburg, Alaska, has a Haida language program and teaches classes in traditional drawing and carving.

Healing practices

Because they wore their hair long and tied it on top of their heads, Haida medicine men and women were called skaggies, a shortened form of the Haida words for “long-haired ones.” Skaggies organized into secret societies and received their power from Ocean Beings.

Earlier in Haida history skaggies served as both priests and doctors. They were believed to have the power to heal the sick, foresee the future, and bring success to hunting and fishing expeditions. When called upon for their gift of healing, skaggies usually announced their arrival on the scene by shaking a loud rattle. This same rattle—used in conjunction with a series of sharp, pointed bones they poked into the sick person’s body—served as one means of eliminating the cause of illness. The carved bone tubes they used were called “soul catchers,” because they were intended to return the sick person’s soul to his or her body. The return of the soul was believed to promote healing.


Weaving and woodworking

Most Haida art stood as a lasting symbol of an artist’s ancestors, status, and wealth. Traditionally, men made sculptures, carvings, and paintings, and women crafted various types of cedar and spruce baskets and woven items. Many Haida objects have great artistic value. The tribe remains well known for designing and weaving spectacular button blankets, named for the pearl buttons that outline the blankets’ designs. The Haida were also very skilled in the construction of large canoes—some up to 75 feet (23 meters) in length and able to carry as many as forty people and two tons of freight.

In artistic terms, the Haida people are probably best known as master wood-carvers who covered virtually any flat surface with engraving or painting. Their carvings were inspired by both realistic figures and mythical creatures, and they adorned totem poles, house posts, grave markers, painted house fronts, interior screens, large dishes, and canoes. Popular smaller carved objects included rattles, cooking and serving implements, and decorative boxes. In the early 1800s the Haida gained recognition for their intricate carvings in a black stone called argillite (pronounced AR-juh-lite). They were the only Native group known to carve from this particular stone, and they controlled the only source where it could be obtained.

Totem poles

The Haida were famous for their totem poles, which they decorated with symbols of the Eagle or the Raven. Red cedar totem poles, covered entirely with carvings, often commemorated important events in the life of the head of a family. Some poles even had little drawers that held the remains of the home’s deceased owners. After the Haida acquired iron tools from the Europeans, they were able to produce much larger poles—some as tall as 50 feet (15 kilometers). Only the upper classes could afford totem poles; commoners painted images on their houses. In the late 1800s Christian missionaries to the Queen Charlotte Islands destroyed many totem poles. Soon after, the pole-carving tradition came to an end. It was not until the 1970s that totem poles were once again being made on the Queen Charlotte Islands, thanks to the efforts of Haida artist Bill Reid (1920–1998).

How the Haida Got Fire

The Haida believed that the Supreme Being Ne-kilst-lass, in the form of a raven, brought forth the first Haida people from a clamshell. He supplied them with fire to battle the cold and darkness on Earth. This excerpt from a Haida tale describes how Raven brought fire to the people.

Ne-kilst-lass heard that a great chief who lived on an island in the Pacific had all the fire in the world. So donning his coat of feathers he flew over to this island. Reaching the chief’s island, he soon found his house. After a long conversation with him about the merits of his fire, Choo-e-ah seized a brand and with it flew over again to the mainland, letting fall, as he passed along, a few sparks amongst certain sorts of wood and stones. This sort of wood and these stones absorbed all the fire and gave it out again, when struck with a hard substance. The wood also gave it out when two pieces were quickly rubbed together. The Hidery say [that] when Choo-e-ah reached the land, part of his beak was burnt off.

“Of How They First Got Fire.” Tales from the Totems of the Hidery. Volume 2. Chicago: Archives of the International Folk-Lore Association, 1899.


Social classes

The Haida people were divided into two main social classes: commoners and the wealthy upper class. Any Haida commoner who worked hard enough could one day rise to the upper class. Slaves captured in battle made up the lowest class in Haida society. They lived in their owners’ houses and were usually treated well.

Tattoos represented a person’s rank in society and often included the likeness of a family’s crest (a symbol of that family). Young men were tattooed on the chest. A woman’s rank was reflected in the types of tattoos found on her arms and legs and in the size of her labret (pronounced LAY-bret), a wooden ornament that was inserted into a piercing in the lower lip—the larger the labret, the higher a woman’s rank.


Most Haida ceremonies were held in the winter, the rainy season. In fact, the Haida usually held an event of some kind every night from November until March.


Potlatches—elaborate gift-giving ceremonies common among American Indians of the Northwest Coast—were held when a tribal chief wished to celebrate an event of importance, such as the death of the chief who came before him, a marriage, a child’s coming of age, or the unveiling of a new totem pole. A major potlatch required years of planning and lasted for several days. The guest list included members of the host’s tribe, as well as people from neighboring villages. The host was judged by his generosity: possessions such as baskets, cloaks, shell ornaments, blankets, and canoes were given to the guests. Guests were judged by their ability to consume huge bowls of delicacies such as seal and bear meat or berries preserved in fish oil. In fact, eating became a kind of competition at the feast. A host was usually reduced to poverty by the time the potlatch ended, but he could expect to be repaid in double on a future occasion.

The Canadian government banned potlatches in 1884. Only recently have they again become legal. Despite the longtime ban, the Haida on the Charlotte Islands continued for many years to hold a modified form of potlatch.

Puberty and the spirit dance

When a Haida girl began to menstruate, she was taken to a special part of the family house and separated from the rest of the household by a screen. For a month or longer her father’s sisters visited her and taught her about the traditional duties of a woman in the tribe, especially the gathering and cooking of food and the raising of children. To toughen herself, she slept on a stone pillow and ate and drank sparingly. At the end of the month the young woman took a ritual bath, and a celebration was held in her honor.

Boys had no special ceremony, but their uncles (mother’s brothers) taught them proper behavior and family history. They swam in the cold ocean to strengthen themselves. To become a rapid swimmer, a boy would eat dragonfly wings. Eating duck tongues increased his ability to hold his breath underwater, and bluejay tongues helped him climb well.

Both boys and girls embarked on vision quests, searching for revelation and awareness. Each youth wandered alone for days through deep forests, hoping for contact with the special spirit who would serve as a guide through life. The greatest spirit power a young man (and occasionally a young woman) could receive was that of the Eagle or the Raven. Often the spirit made its presence known by singing a song. The song was then incorporated into the quester’s spirit dance, a dramatization of the lesson taught by the spirit visitor. Wearing masks, face paints, and elaborate costumes, spirit dancers reenacted their experiences.

Courtship and marriage

Haida marriages were arranged, and young people accepted their elders’ choice of a partner. The bride’s family hosted the marriage feast, the two families exchanged gifts. If a man treated his wife poorly, her family could reclaim her and her children. If he ran away and married another woman, he had to make a financial settlement with his first wife. Failure to do so could result in death. A man who abandoned his wife but did not remarry suffered no negative consequences. Historically, Haida marriages lasted a short time.


The Haida believed the spirits of the dead came back to life as newborn babies. Girls were especially prized. At birth children were given undesirable names so they would work hard on their personal growth. Once they acquired property or wealth, a chief would reward them with a “good and honorable” name. A person could also achieve a good name by hosting a potlatch.


Funerals were the most important of the Haida rituals. Women washed and dressed the body of the deceased and painted his or her face. Mourners sobbed loudly and shared their sorrow. They burned the bodies, and placed the ashes inside the family totem pole or in boxes inside special buildings set aside for the purpose. After the cremation a funeral potlatch was held, and the dead person’s possessions were distributed among the mourners. Sometimes the Haida placed the dead in carved grave houses overlooking the ocean; only shaman could visit these open coffins.

Current tribal issues

Commercial fishing, an important part of the economy of Haida villages in British Columbia since the 1800s, took a downturn in 1994. Canada’s federal fisheries department lowered catch limits (the amount of fish that could legally be kept) that year. Two years later they banned all Chinook salmon fishing and further restricted other fishing. The Chinook salmon, known in Alaska as the king salmon, has fallen victim to decades of overfishing.

The decline of salmon fishing has greatly affected the Canadian village of Old Masset. While Old Masset’s two fish processing plants once employed ninety full-time workers, by 1996 the number of employees had fallen to twenty-two, more than half of them part-timers. That same year the catch intended for Old Masset’s fish processing plants declined to 50,000 pounds (22,680 kilograms) of fish from about 250,000 pounds (113,398 kilograms) the previous year.

In recent times a totem pole restoration project began in Sgan Gwaii (also known as Anthony Island), a Canadian national park. Teams of professional archaeologists (scientists who study the culture and artifacts of ancient peoples) and Haida trainees are studying the area. Their discoveries indicate that humans have lived in the area for more than nine thousand years.

The Sgan Gwaii archaeological venture represents a turning point in the way Canada handles Native archaeological projects. In the past objects excavated from abandoned Native villages were removed from the scene and examined in museums. Current policy gives the Haida people control over Native human remains and stipulates that all artifacts be returned to the Queen Charlotte Islands Museum within six months of their release for study.

Notable people

The greatness of Haida chief Eda’nsa (c. 1810–1994; whose name means “Melting Ice from a Glacier”; also called Captain Douglas), who became a Haida Eagle chief in 1841, is the subject of much debate because he was a slave trader. (These slaves had been acquired from other tribes by barter or raid.) He was known for guiding the whites through the difficult waters of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Eda’nsa became a Christian in 1884 and sought new trading opportunities in the islands until his death in 1894. His title passed to his nephew Charles Edenshaw (1839–1924), a skilled wood-carver and silversmith who achieved great wealth and fame and was chosen chief of the Haida village of Yatza.

Bill Reid (1920–1998), Edenshaw’s nephew, may be the most famous Haida artist of the twentieth century. Credited with ushering in a rebirth of Haida art in the 1950s, he has many sculptures on public display throughout North America. Reid is also an accomplished author.

Augaitis, Daina, Nika Collison, Marianne Jones, and Peter Macnair. Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art. Vancouver, BC: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2006.

Beck, Mary L. Heroes and Heroines: Tlingit-Haida Legend. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 2003.

Bial, Raymond. The Haida. New York: Benchmark Books, 2001.

Bringhurst, Robert, ed. Being in Being: The Collected Works of a Master Haida Mythteller (Skaay of the Qquuna). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Eastman, Carol M., and Elizabeth A. Edwards. Gyaehlingaay: Traditions, Tales and Images of the Kaigani Haida. Seattle: Burke Museum Publications, distributed by University of Washington Press, 1991.

Farnsworth, Clyde H. “Where Salmon Ruled, End of the Line.” New York Times, August 11, 1996: 8Y.

Gill, Ian. Haida Gwaii: Journeys Through the Queen Charlotte Islands. Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2004.

Horwood, Dennis, and Tom Parkin. Haida Gwaii: The Queen Charlotte Islands. Surrey, BC: Heritage House, 2006.

Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

Murdock, George Peter. Rank and Potlatch among the Haida. New Haven, CT: Yale University Publications, Human Relations Area Files Press, 1970.

Turner, Nancy J. Plants of Haida Gwaii. Victoria, BC: Sono Nis Press, 2004.

Johnston, Moira. “Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands: Homeland of the Haida.” National Geographic. (July 1987): 102–27.

Kowinski, William Severini. “Giving New Life to Haida Art and the Culture It Expresses.” Smithsonian. (January 1995): 38.

“Central Council: Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska.” Central Council: Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. (accessed on September 3, 2007).

“Haida.” The Kids’ Site of Canadian Settlement, Library and Archives Canada. (accessed on September 3, 2007).

“The Haida: Children of Eagle and Raven.” Canadian Musem of Civilization/Canadian War Museum. (accessed on September 3, 2007).

“Haida Heritage Center at Qay’llnagaay.” Haida Heritage Centre. (accessed on September 3, 2007).

“Haida Language Program.” Sealaska Heritage Institute. (accessed on September 3, 2007).

“Haida Spirits of the Sea.” Virtual Museum of Canada. (accessed on September 3, 2007).

“Home of the Haida—Islands of ‘The People.’” Council of the Haida Nation (CHN). (accessed on September 3, 2007).

“Tales from the Totems of the Hidery.” Early Canadiana Online. (accessed on September 3, 2007).

Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California

Laurie Edwards

Daniel Boxberger, Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University

Laurie Edwards


views updated May 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: Haidah, Hydah, Hyder


Identification. The Haida are an American Indian group whose traditional territory covered the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia and a section of the Alexander Archipelago in southeastern Alaska. The name "Haida" is an Anglicized version of the Northern Haida's name for themselves, meaning "to be human, to be a Haida."

Location. The Queen Charlotte Islands, which includes 2 large and about 150 small islands, lie from thirty to eighty miles off the north coast of British Columbia, between 52° and 54° 15 N. Haida territory in southeastern Alaska extended to about 55° 30 N. This is an ecologically diverse territory, with considerable variation from one locale to another in rainfall, flora, fauna, topography, and soil. At the time of first contact with Europeans in the late 1700s, the Haida were settled in a number of towns that formed six regionallinguistic subdivisions: the Kaigani people, the people of the north coast of Graham Island, the Skidegate Inlet people, the people of the west coast of Moresby Island, the people of the east coast of Moresby Island, and the southern (Kunghit) people. In the 1970s, four divisions were still recognized.

Demography. A census conducted from 1836 to 1841 suggested a total Haida population of about 8,000. By 1901 the population had declined to about 900 and then to 588 in 1915. Since that time, it has gradually increased, and today there are about 2,000 Haida in Canada and 1,500 in Southeastern Alaska.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Haida language is apparently unrelated to any other known language, although at one time it was classified in the Na Dene language family. Before European settlement, there were Northern and Southern dialects and a number of subdialects spoken in specific towns or Regions. Today, there are few Haida speakers left.

History and Cultural Relations

The first known European contact was with the Spanish explorer Juan Pérez in 1774. For the next fifty years, the Haida traded sea otter pelts with European trading ships for iron, manufactured goods, and potatoes, which the Haida then began to cultivate themselves. In 1834 the Hudson's Bay Company established the Fort Simpson trading post in Tsimshian territory which became the center of Indian-White trade as well as trade among the various Indian groups for the next forty years. The trading trips disrupted the traditional economy, led to warfare with the Kwakiutl, and brought a smallpox epidemic to the Queen Charlotte Islands that led to a rapid population decline in the late nineteenth century. By 1879 the Haida were so reduced in number that they had all resettled in the communities of Skidegate and Masset. The first missionary to visit the Haida came in 1829, but the first to establish residence on the Queen Charlottes did not arrive until 1876 (in Marret); the first missionary to the Kaigani Haida arrived in 1880 (Howkan). The Skidegate mission was founded in 1883. From 1875 to 1910 the Haida underwent considerable culture change, largely in the direction of acculturation into the adjacent White society. The potlatch was outlawed, many features of the traditional religion disappeared, White-style housing replaced the cedar plank houses, and totem-pole raising was discontinued; wage labor increasingly replaced traditional economic pursuits. The Queen Charlotte Haida were granted a number of reserves that reflect their many subsistence places. The two largest reserves are the Skidegate and Haida (Masset) reserves, which were laid out initially in the 1880s and added to in 1913. The Kaigani Haida are not reservation Indians.


At the time of European contact, the Haida lived in a number of "towns," although it is not clear how large or permanent these towns really were. Winter villages, consisting of one or two rows of cedar plank dwellings facing the sea, were more permanent and substantial settlements. In a row in front of the dwelling houses were the totem housepoles. Today, Haida house styles are like those of their White neighbors.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional economy rested on a combination of fishing, shellfish gathering, hunting, and the gathering of plant foods. Because of seasonal variations in food availability, much effort was expended on extracting as much food as possible and preserving foodstuffs by drying, smoking, wrapping in grease, and so on for use in lean seasons. Halibut and salmon were the most important preserved foods (by drying, smoking), and sea mammals (which were also preserved) were more important than land mammals for food. Dozens of species of berries, plant stalks, tree fibers, seaweed, and roots were harvested and preserved. Current jobs and sources of income include the Commercial fishing industry (fishing and fish and shellfish processing), logging, and arts and crafts (wood carving, argillite carving, graphics, jewelry, weaving, and so on).

Trade. The Haida traded heavily with the Coast Tsimshian and Tlingit. With the former they traded canoes, slaves, and shells for copper, Chilkat blankets, and hides; with the latter they traded canoes, seaweed, and dried halibut for eulachons and soapberries. There was also some internal trade between Haida communities.

Industrial Arts. Wood was used for a wide variety of objects including canoes of several sizes for different purposes, totem poles, houses, boxes, dishes, and weapons. Spruce roots and the inner bark of the red cedar were used by women to twine baskets for various uses and to make spruce root hats.

Division of Labor. Labor was divided on the basis of sex and, to a lesser extent, on the basis of social class distinctions. Women gathered plant foods and plant materials for manufactures, preserved food, prepared skins, made clothing, and twined baskets. Men hunted, fished, made canoes, built the houses, and carved and painted. Both sexes collected shellfish and hunted birds. Fishing, canoe making, and carving were viewed as prestigious occupations. Slaves did much of the heavy work, although people who did not work were looked down upon.

Land Tenure. The lineage was the basic property-owning unit. Lineages controlled rights to streams, lakes, plant patches, trees, sections of coastline, and winter house sites. Lineages also owned names (personal and object such as canoe names), dances, songs, stories, and crest figures.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Haida had a moiety Structure, with a Raven and an Eagle moiety, each composed of a number of lineages. There were no clans. The lineages traced their origins to supernatural women associated with the two moieties. The lineages were usually named after the site of the lineage origin, and a few were further divided into sublineages. Villages usually were inhabited by members of different lineages, and sometimes both moieties were represented as well. Each lineage was marked by its several crests, usually animals but sometimes other environmental features such as a rainbow or clouds. Crests were widely displayedon totem poles, the body, boxes, utensils, drums, and canoes.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms followed the Crow System. Affinal kin were distinguished from consanguines.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages were arranged, often by the parents when the betrothed were still children. Polygyny was permitted for chiefs but was rare. The preferred partner was someone in one's father's lineage, and there is some evidence of bilateral cross-cousin marriage.

Inheritance. A man's property went to his younger brothers and nephews. The widow was usually left with little more than her own property. A woman's property went to her daughter.

Socialization. Girls were evidently preferred as they guaranteed the perpetuation of the lineage. Much of child rearing involved formai instruction, with boys being taught male tasks and behaviors by their fathers and mother's brothers, and girls taught female tasks and behavior by their mothers. The puberty rites for girls involved seclusion, food restrictions, and various taboos. There was no comparable rite for boys.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although there was no ranking of lineages, there is some evidence that some lineages were considered to be wealthier or more powerful than others. At the individual level, there were three social categoriesnobles, commoners, and slaves. Nobles owned the houses, were generally wealthier, inherited chieftanships, used high-rank names, and hosted potlatches. Commoners did not have access to these signs of status. Slaves were war captives and their children.

Political Organization. There was no overarching political structure above the lineage level of organization. Each lineage was led by a chief who inherited the position through the matriline. That is, the title was passed on to next oldest brother, other younger brothers, or the oldest sister's oldest son. Chiefs made decisions regarding property use, internal Lineage business, and war. The owner of the dwelling was the house chief who managed the affairs of the domestic unit. In multilineage settlements, the "town master" or "town mother" was the highest ranking, wealthiest house chief.

Conflict. The Haida were feared warriors and fought with the Coast Tsimshian, Bellabella, and Southern Tlingit, among others, for plunder, revenge, or slaves. Internal warfare also existed.

Social Control. Social control was maintained at the Lineage, town, and household levels by the appropriate chiefs. The fairly rigid class system served to reinforce expectations about appropriate behavior.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Animals were classified as special types of people, more intelligent than humans and with the ability to transform themselves into human form. Animals were thought to live on land, in the sea, and in the sky in a social order that mirrored that of the Haida. Traditional beliefs have been largely displaced by Christianity, although many Haida still believe in reincarnation.

Ceremonies. The Haida prayed and gave offerings to the masters of the game animals and to the beings who gave wealth. Major ceremonial events were feasts, potlatches, and dance performances. High-ranking men were expected to host these events. Property was distributed through the Potlatch on a number of occasions including the building of a cedar house, naming and tattooing of children, and death. Potlatches also included feasts and dance performances, although a feast might be given apart from the potlatch.

Arts. As with other Northwest Coast groups, carving and painting were highly developed art forms. The Haida are Renowned for their totem poles in the form of house-front poles, memorial poles, and mortuary columns. Painting Usually involved the use of black, red, and blue-green to produce highly stylized representations of the zoomorphic matrilineal crest figures. The body of a high-ranking individual was often tattooed and faces were painted for ceremonial purposes.

Death and Afterlife. Treatment of the deceased reflected status differentials. For those of high rank, after lying in state for a few days in the house, the body was buried in the lineage gravehouse where it remained either permanently or until it was placed in a mortuary pole. When the pole was erected, a potlatch was held both to honor the deceased and to recognize his successor. Commoners were usually buried apart from the nobles, and carved poles were not erected. Slaves were tossed into the sea. The Haida believed strongly in reincarnation, and sometimes before death an individual might choose the parents to whom he or she was to be reborn. At death, the soul was transported by canoe to the Land of the Souls to await reincarnation.


Blackman, Margaret B. (1981). Window on the Past: The Photographic Ethnohistory of the Northern and Kaigani Haida. National Museum of Man, Canadian Ethnology Service, paper no. 74. Ottawa.

Blackman, Margaret B. (1982). 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.

MacDonald, George F. (1983). Haida Monumental Art: Villages of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Stearns, Mary Lee (1981). Haida Culture in Custody. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Swanton, John R. (1905). Contributions to the Ethnology of the Haida. American Museum of Natural History, Memoir no. 5, 1-300.