Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska
The Haida, a North American native culture, settled in the Canadian Queen Charlotte Islands and Alaska area over 8,000 years ago. The rugged terrain, abundant wildlife, cedar forests and proximity to the sea were elements that enabled the Haida to survive for centuries.
Their continued survival depended on good stewardship of the land and the Haida culture is one of respect for the earth and its inhabitants.
At least 14,000 native people have lived in the 126 known villages in the area. The numbers dropped dramatically upon the arrival of European settlers until in 1911 only 589 native people lived in Old Masset and Skidegate.
In spite of the effects of residential schools, Haida culture survived. Today, the Haida population has rebounded to 4000.
After the smallpox epidemics, the remaining Haida centralized in two villages on the islands, Skidegate and Old Masset. Today these two villages are growing rapidly.
The Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian share a common and similar Northwest Coast Culture with important differences in language and clan system.
Anthropologists use the term “Northwest Coast Culture” to define the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, as well as that of other peoples indigenous to the Pacific coast, extending as far as northern Oregon.
The original homeland of the Haida people is the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, Canada. Prior to contact with Europeans, a group migrated north to the Prince of Wales Island area within Alaska.
This group is known as the “Kaigani” or Alaska Haidas. Today, the Kaigani Haida live mainly in two villages, Kasaan and the consolidated village of Hydaburg.
Haida Moities and Clans
The original Haida family structure divided the members into two moieties, the Raven and the Eagle. These groups were further divided into many clans.
The members of each group proudly displayed symbols and crests representing their membership. Both symbols are well represented through Haida history.
Their moieties, Raven and the Eagle, equated with the Tlingit Raven and Eagle/Wolf and with the Ahtna Crow and Sea Gull moieties. The names and stories of the clans in these moieties show relationships with the Tlingit and Ahtna.
The respect the Haida culture expresses for its surroundings have been represented throughout their history in their expression of art and literature.
Symbolism plays an important part in these displays.
Of all peoples of the North West coast the Haida were the best carvers, painters, and canoe and house builders, and they still earn considerable money by selling carved objects of wood and slate to traders and tourists.
Perhaps the most visible of the Haida art form is the totem pole. Carved from giant cedar trees, the totem poles often depicted the animal life around them.
Haida Subsistence and Economy
The water supplied their main food. One of the most important fish was salmon. There are five species: King (chinook), silver (coho), red (sockeye), chum (dog salmon), pink (humpback or humpy).
Steelhead, herring, herring eggs, and ooligans (eulachon) were also caught and eaten.
Southeast waters produce an abundance of foods including a variety of sea mammals and deepwater fish. Some sea plants include seaweed (black, red), beach asparagus, and goose tongue.
Some food resources are from plants (berries and shoots), and others come from land mammals (moose, mountain goat, and deer).
Traditionally, clans owned the salmon streams, halibut banks, berry patches, land for hunting, intertidal regions, and egg harvesting areas. As long as the area was used by the clan, they owned the area.
The food was seasonal and therefore had to be preserved for the winter months and for early spring. The food was preserved by smoking in smokehouses or was dried, either by wind or sun.
Contemporary subsistence activities and traditional ceremonies are still essential and important to the Haida people’s cultural identity.
Although the economy of the islands has been based in the forest industry and commercial fisheries since the 1930s, declining fish stocks and forest resources are precipitating new approaches to making a living on Haida Gwaii.
Tourism, secondary wood manufacturing, and arts and crafts are some examples of growing economic trends on the islands.
Standing in the tribe depended more on the possession of property so that interchange of goods took place and the people became sharp traders.
Haida society is based in a matrilineal system of descent. Property, titles, names, crests, masks, performances, the right to use specific clan crests as designs on totem poles, houses, clothing, and ceremonial regalia, and even songs are among the Haidas’ hereditary privileges.
These are passed from one generation to the next, through the mother’s side. All families are also divided into one of two groups, Eagle and Raven. Every Haida is either Eagle or Raven, following from the mother. If one is born Raven, he or she must marry an Eagle, and vice versa.
In this culture, no central government existed. Each village and each clan house resolved its differences through traditional customs and practices; no organized gatherings for discussions of national policy making took place.
Decisions were made at the clan, village or house level, affecting clan members of an individual village or house.
The people had a highly stratified culture, consisting of high-ranking individuals/families, commoners and slaves. Unlike present day marriages, unions were arranged by family members. Slaves were usually captives from war raids on other villages.
The Haida people speak an isolate (unrelated to other) language, Haida, with three dialects: Skidegate and Masset in British Columbia, Canada and the Kaigani dialect of Alaska.
Canoes were to the people of this coast what the horse became to the Plains Indians. They were hollowed out of single logs of cedar, and were sometimes very large.
The main means of travel was by canoes. The people traveled regularly for seasonal activities such as subsistence and trading. The Haida canoes, made from a single cedar log up to 60 feet in length, were the most highly prized commodity.
Before and during early contact with the non-aboriginal population, the Haida people built their homes from red cedar, spruce, and hemlock timber and planks. Each house ordinarily had a single carved pole in the middle of the gable.
These were worked out with adzes and wedges made anciently of stone, and put together at great feasts called by the whites by the jargon word “potlatch.”
The houses, roofed with heavy cedar bark or spruce shingles, ranged in size from 35’-40’ x 50’-100’, with some Haida houses being 100’ x 75’.
All houses had a central fire pit with a centrally located smoke hole. A plank shield frames the smoke hole in the roof. Generally, each house could hold 20-50 individuals with a village size between 300-500 people, usually of one main clan.
The people had winter villages along the banks of streams or along saltwater beaches for easy access to fish-producing streams.
The location of winter villages gave protection from storms and enemies, drinking water and a place to land canoes. Each local group of Haida had at least one permanent winter village with various seasonal camps close to food resources.
Houses always faced the water with the backs to the mountains or muskeg/swamps. Most villages had a single row of houses with the front of the house facing the water, but some had two or more rows of houses.
Often the end posts in front were also carved and the whole house front painted.
The Haida used animal fur, mountain goat wool, tanned skins and cedar bark for clothing. Hats made of spruce roots and cedar bark kept the rain off the head. After western trading, wool and cotton materials were common.
Haida Tools and Technology
Southeast Alaska’s environment is a temperate rain forest. This environment produces many tall and massive trees. Wood was the most important commodity for the people.
Houses, totem poles, daily utensils, storage and cooking boxes, transportation, ceremonial objects, labrets (worn by high status women), and clothes all were made of wood and wood products.
The tools to make the wood into usable items were adzes, mauls, wedges, digging sticks and after contact, iron. To cut the wood, people used chipped rocks, bones, beaver teeth and shells.
For light, dried ooligan (a special type of smelt) were used as candles. Also, hollowed sandstone with cotton grass were fashioned into wicks.
Various means were used to harvest the seasonal salmon runs. Fish weirs (fences) and traps were placed in streams. Holding ponds were built in the inter-tidal region.
Dip nets, hooks, harpoons and spears were also used to harvest salmon during the season. A specialized hook, shaped in a ‘V’ or ‘U’ form allowed the people to catch specific sized halibut.
Various baskets were used for cooking, storage, and for holding clams, berries, seaweed and water. Basket weaving techniques were also used for mats, aprons, and hats.
Mats woven of cedar bark were used as room dividers and floor mats, as well as to wrap the dead prior to burial or cremation. The inner cedar bark was pounded to make baby cradle padding, as well as clothing such as capes, skirts, shorts and blankets (shawls).
The Nass River Tsimshian are credited with originating the Chilkat weaving technique, which spread throughout the region.
Traditions and Ceremonies
The Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian are known for a ceremony called the “potlatch” and feasts. Potlatches are formal ceremonies.
High-ranking clans and/or individuals were expected to give potlatches. However, a potlatch could be given by a commoner who could raise the status of his children’s position by doing so.
Potlatches were held for the following occasions: a funeral or memorial potlatch, whereby the dead are honored; the witness and validation of the payment of a debt, or naming an individual; the completion of a new house; the completion and naming of clan regalia; a wedding; the naming of a child; the erection of a totem pole; or to rid the host of a shame.
Potlatches might last days and would include feasting, speeches, singing and dancing. Guests witnessed and validated the events and were paid with gifts during the ceremony.
In potlatches, there would be a feast, however, a feast does not constitute a potlatch.
Feasts, less formal but a similar tradition, are more common with the Haida, in which debt is paid to the opposite clan.
Regalia worn at potlatches were the Chilkat and Raven’s Tail woven robes, painted tanned leather clothing, tunics, leggings, moccasins, ground squirrel robes, red cedar ropes, masks, rattles, and frontlets.
Other items used at potlatches include drums, rattles, whistles, paddles, and staffs. Only clan regalia named and validated at a potlatch could be used for formal gatherings.
The Chilkat robes were made of mountain goat wool and cedar wraps. The Chilkat weaving style is the only weaving that can create perfect circles.
The Raven’s tail robe is made of mountain goat wool. Some of the headpieces had frontlets that would also have sea lion whiskers and ermine.
After contact, robes were made of blankets, usually those obtained from the Hudson Bay trading company, adorned with glass beads and mother-of-pearl shells, along with dentalium and abalone shells.