The Haida People of the Canadian Northwest Coast


The Haida people had an extremely complex social organization. They were highly respected by their peers and those they traded with and were feared by those who were at war with them. Through research not only online and print but also through visiting artifacts housed in museums I gathered a pretty thorough overview of the Haida people. I found that the Haida were surprising like those people of Ontario, with a matrilineal society and many like values.
In the end I found myself thoroughly engrossed within their society and way of life. Their art continues to flourish today and many traditions have survived into today’s world.
The Natives of the Northwest Coast have been a group of Natives with the worlds attention, while some may stay to look at museum exhibits concerning the Woodland Native for a few minutes, almost every will devote a lot more time to the Northwest Coast. They style of life and art have survived an extremely long time without too much deviation from the original plans.
Within in the structure of the Northwest coast peoples various subclasses have been established according to the different peoples whereabouts, such people include, the Bella Bella, the Heilsuk and the Haida. For the purposes of my sanity and your eyes, I will limit my research to mostly the Haida as this group of people are of particular interest to me.

The Location of the Haida People
The Haida of British Columbia live primarily on a set of Islands off the northern shore of British Columbia called the Queen Charlotte Islands also known as “Haida Gwaii” The Islands themselves are at the northern end of British Columbia close to the provinces boarder with Alaska.
The Islands themselves differ in terrain from north to south. The southern islands are mainly mountainous, with Moresby Island being the largest. The largest northern Island, Graham is mountainous on the western side and flat with isolated outcrops of rock on the east side, is where the Haida of today currently reside. Many different types of plants and vegetation grow on these Islands but the typical trees one will find are the Douglas fir, Sitica Spruce and yellow cedar The average rainfall within this region is between 100 and 200 centimetres per year, which classifies this area as a rainforest. Land mammals include such creatures as deer and bear as well as a host of smaller mammals and sea creatures include mammals such as whale, seal, Orca and porpoise as well as many types of fish including salmon, herring, cod and halibut.


The earliest tools used by the Haida people included roughly flaked stone tools and an ocean going canoe. As time went on and the trade with other people to the north of them expanded smaller finer micro blades (ideally made from obsidian) began to be used. As time wore on the tools that the Haida were able to fashion and use broadened, as they not only came into contact with other peoples but also their own self-knowledge expanded.
Tools used by the Haida varied in size, function and form. Those used for house building can include items such as sledgehammers, adzes, hand mauls and wedges for splitting the wood. Usually Haida house building tools were not decorated however there have been some examples found such as a carved basalt maul (carved into the form of a face of a bear with the naturalistic head of a hunter above it) and a sledgehammer (carved into the head of a Thunderbird holding a small whale)
Boxes, which came in many forms and made from many materials held the Haidas everyday things. These boxes could be made from simply sowing cedar bark together at the corners and the base to create storage for trade items or could be a more durable box such as the bentwood boxes. These bentwood boxes could be as large as 225 litres or as small as only a few litres. Boxes were used to store almost everything the Haida owned or traded, foodstuffs, ritual paraphernalia (such as rattles, whistles and hats), clothing, regalia even grease traded by the Tsimshian would be stored in these boxes. Generally boxes that contained food were left undecorated, but if the box were to contain important or expensive objects the box would be decorated with the form of a guardian spirit of some sort.
The Haida canoe is one of the more well known sea faring vessels that have been made by a native group. The extremely long and wide vessels not only carried out day-to-day functions such as the collection of shellfish and fishing but also allowed the Haida to travel to the mainland of British Columbia or the Alaskan Haida islands. (The Kaigani peoples of the Prince of Wales islands) for gathering and trade. It also allowed them to carry out lightening raids on their enemies. The canoes were usually made from the large red cedars (but occasionally Sitka spruce or cottonwood could be used) that grow on the islands. There are two ways the Haida could make the canoes. Either by chopping notches into the canoe across the width and then removing what was left in between the dugouts or by setting small controlled fires in piece of wood, extinguishing them and cutting out the charred material with an adze. The canoes have a sharp protruding prow with thin very thin walls rounded out through widening and are extremely seaworthy. Sometimes the canoes were widened through soaking its bottom with boiling water (the water was kept hot by adding hot rocks) and lightly hammering sticks into place which spread the sides apart.

Family Patterns

The Haida people divided themselves into two moieties the raven and the Eagle. These 2 social groups were then sub-divided into lineages. The Raven split into 22 lineages and the Eagle into 23. Lineages provided various privileges that were passed through generations. Such things as fishing spots, house sites, hunting/gathering areas as well as rights to myths, legends, face painting, tattoo designs, dances, songs as well as crests were all passed through lineage. Another interesting lineage property was names. A name was a highly prized and coveted example of lineage. Names were given to not only people and life stages but to important belongings such as canoes and houses.
The ways in which a “commoner” and a chief or a person of high rank were differentiated are simple. A “commoner” would not have potlatches held for him, nor would he own any property of substance or houses. The difference in being a chief or a person of high rank and being a “commoner” was where you sat during potlatches and feasts.
The Haida were a matrilineal people. Though the chiefs of the Haida were all male, this title was passed through the female line. The male chiefs of the lineage or family were passed through the eldest sisters son. So that when a chief passed on, his oldest sisters eldest son would be named chief.
Each household had a chief who acted as the head of the household and each lineage recognized a chief who in times of divergence would act as that lineages war chief.
Slaves also made up part of the Haida family. These slaves would be war captives often captured from neighbouring tribes on the British Columbia mainland or from Vancouver Island. These could be either adults or the offspring of captured peoples. They were owned by the richer families and would be housed along with the owners family inside the house.

Clothing, Textiles and Personal Adornment

Most clothing worn by the Haida in pre-contact times consisted mostly of textiles made from yellow or red cedar bark. The bark was taken off the trees in long strips and the hard outer layer of the bark was taken away from the flexible inner layer. That layer was then shredded and processed which resulted in felted strips of bark that was both soft, plaitable and could be sewn or woven into fabrics. The fabrics produced from this process surprisingly enough could be either dense and very watertight or soft and comfortable.


Generally men and women wore long capes made from the above-mentioned cedar bark fabric, into which some had mountain goats wool woven into it to create decoration. They also favoured large elkskin capes with painted panels and fringes on the sides of the cape. These skins had to be brought to Haida Gwaii from the mainland where elk were in abundance. These capes generally were painted with the figure the raven (usually in human form) within the figure of the Killer Whale. Other articles of clothing include dance aprons (which is simply a wrap around skirt), leggings made of leather or cloth, tunics and moccasins on the feet. In later years after contact with Europeans the Button Blanket emerged. A Button Blanket consists made of “blue duffle” with designs applied with red stroud. Pieces of abalone shell were then sewn to the joints and eyes of the design so that as the wearer danced around the fire the pieces of shell would pick up and then reflect light from the fire. When pearl buttons came to the new world with European fur traders they were incorporated into the design of the blanket.


Tattoos were placed on the Haida peoples in the forms of specific crests and designs. The placement of the tattoos were just as important and were limited to the following positions shoulders, forearms, chest, thighs, back of the hands as well as the sections of fingers.

The Chiefs Adornment

As in most societies there were classes and these classes were separated obviously through what a person wore, the Haida society was no different. Along with the responsibilities of Chiefdom came some perks of dressing up. Special decorations, Headdresses, rattles and other interesting regalia were available primarily to chiefs. The raven rattle was one such item that cheifs held in high regard. These beautifully crafted items held special powers for the user. Chilkat blankets were also an item of clothing reserved for the chiefs. This blanket not only served as an outer shell of clothing but also was used during the night to keep warm.


Headdresses worn by the Haida Chiefs include painted hats and carved frontlets. Special attention was held for the frontlets as within Haida culture it held the most esteem and recognition. A frontlet is a wooden plaque usually made of yellow cedar, birch or maple carved in bas-relief and attached to a cap that was edged in stiff sea lion whiskers and had a train of densely packed ermine skin. It was worn on the forehead.


The house for the Haida was central in their social, political and economic life and therefore warrants special attention. The permanent Haida villages consisted of houses built in rows along a beach. Generally there were more then one row of houses (2 being the most common). The largest house within the village usually belonged to the chief; it also generally was placed in the middle of the village. The smaller houses of the village in average measured approximately 20’ x 30’ and housed between 30 and 40 closely related family members. Larger houses could measure up to 50’ x 60’ and could house between 60 and 80 people which included immediate family members and slaves. Generally a house would contain a single lineage and within the household there would be (in a small house with 30-40 people) approximately 10 nuclear families who were all closely related. House screens are another element of the Haida house. A house screen was simply a screen that stood between the rear house posts and was usually used during dances to conceal dancers from the audience during costume changes and preparations. The screen itself was elaborately decorated with various figures both carved and painted. Other features of the house that could be elaborately decorated would be things such as the rafters, retaining planks and the timbers that surrounded the smokehole above the fire pit as well as the actual support posts themselves. The fronts of the houses (though rare) could also be decorated richly with paints.
Housing within the Haida tradition is an incredibly elaborate deal. Houses were constructed using the wood available close to the villages. Large western red cedars were felled to begin construction. (A list of tools used for the construction of a house can be found under the subheading of “Tools”) A framework of corner posts would be erected to support immense beams of the house that frame would then be encased with wide planks to makeup the outer walls. The door of the house itself was usually simply a hole cut into one of the many planks that made up the outer walls. On the front of the house there would be a totem pole erected. The roofs of the more prominent and richer people of the town would be covered with overlapping planks of wood kept in place by large rocks. Less prominent and poorer people made do with cedar bark that had to be replaced more commonly. The house itself once built would have a large fire pit in the centre of the house with a smokehole directly over the hearth. The smokehole would have a plank flap that could be moved over it with ropes so that the occupants could control the draft for the fire. The large pit in the centre often was lined with a vertical box arrangement of enormous planks. There would be scaffolding type platforms built around the inside perimeter of the house, these platforms would be used as sleeping compartments and sometimes storage. There were 3 different types of houses built on Haida Gwaii by the different types. The first two types are linked traditionally with either southern of northern Haida peoples (meaning they lived at either the southern or the northern end of Haida Gwaii) The houses built on the southern end of the Islands generally were more elaborate then their northern counterparts. The house itself consisted of an external frame with the planks fitting more accurately between the parallel timbers. The houses generally also had more tenon joints and mortices. The houses of the northern regions of Haida Gwaii were less elaborate and had an internal framework that consisted of four or more colossal vertical posts bridged with just as substantial round beams (which could measure up to 50 feet in length), which was then covered in large planks of wood. However there was a third style of house used by the Kaigani Haida of Alaska. This style incorporated elements from both the northern and southern Haida houses into their own unique blend. These houses had both the interior frame which consisted of the four or more posts bridged by beams but it also incorporated the southern style by using four smaller exterior posts to create a system in which to support walls.
The interior of the houses themselves contained little furnishings in today sense. Stacked around the perimeter of the house there were storage boxes of various sizes containing a multitude of things. These boxes could also used as stools in times of need. There were sleeping compartments, which were kept relatively private by means of plank partitions, and screens that were often richly decorated.

Religion and Myth

Within Haida mythology Raven is the central character. He has been described by many sources as a “trickster”. For the Haida people he can be a magician, a transformer and a cultural hero. He is the one responsible for stealing the sun and making the stars and the moon from them for humans. He also released humans from their prison within a clamshell onto the beach and gave them fire and taught them how to live a good life. Raven has also been described as the greediest, most lecherous and mischievous creature known to the Haida, but he is so without really realizing he is all of these things. But at the same time Raven within myth always seems to be helping humans through his encounter with super natural beings. Raven acquired such things as fresh water, salmon and the house for humans.


Crests are a large part of Haida culture and there are specific rules that govern the use of the crests. Specific crests relate to specific moieties and lineages. Both Eagle and Raven clans use forms of the Killer Whale, while the dorsal fins of the Eagle moiety has a diagonal white strip across it, the Raven moiety colours theirs all black. Figures generally belonging to the Raven moiety include most land mammals, sea mammals, and the fishes skate and dogfish. While the Eagle moiety uses creature such as the frog and the beaver, most fish types as well as the Blackfish. Though some crests are seen on both sides of the family tree, most of the over 70 crests out there are limited to individual lineages.

The Potlatch

The Potlatch was a giant feast and festival that was generally held near end of the autumn season just after food had been gathered and preserved for the winter. Hundreds of guests would be invited to witness inheritance of names, privileges, witness the honouring of the dead, house buildings, totem pole erections and any other important family events. Sometimes the Potlatch would last several days with not only feasting, but also great displays of pageantry through dance, song and theatrical performances. Near the closing of the Potlatch the host would give away great amounts of materials good to his guests for having attended the ceremony as a witness. The gifts given relied on ones social status, it was also a way in which to confirm, move someone up or down within the social hierarchy. The potlatch also shared the wealth of the richer persons of the society with the rest of his community.


The position of Shaman was open to any member of the Haida society except slaves. Both male and female members of the Haida could be Shaman. The male Shaman might cure the sick, influence the weather, ensure a good supply of fish, game and vegetation and even positively effect the outcome of a trading or war expedition. The female Shaman generally would keep her duties limited to the safe delivery of children, curing of illness and sometimes power over animals and fish.
The choosing of a Shaman is an interesting concept. A spirit chooses a person to come through to the world of men. Specific details of the succession of the Shaman and the spirits who generally chose to speak through humans are best described by John R. Swanton
A shaman was one who had power from some supernatural being (sga'na) who "possessed" him, or who chose him as the medium through which to make his existence felt in the world of men. When the spirit was present, the shaman's own identity was practically abolished. For the time he was the supernatural being himself. So the shaman must dress as the spirit directed him, and, when the spirit was present, spoke in the latter's own language . . . The calling of a shaman was generally hereditary in his family, the order being usually from maternal uncle to nephew. Before he died he revealed his spirits to his successor, who might start with a comparatively feeble spirit and acquire stronger and stronger ones. The principal classes of supernatural beings who spoke through shamans were the Canoe-People, the Forest-People, and the Above-People.

Established Haida Villages at European Contact

There were many well-established Haida communities on the Queen Charlotte Islands when Europeans made their first contact. Towns dotted the northern coastline of both Graham and Moresby Islands. The northern villages on Graham Island named at contact include Kiusta, Kung, Yan, Kayung Masset and Hiellan. The southern villages on Moresby Island included Skidegate, Haina, Tanu, Kaisun, Cumshewa, Cha’atl, Skedans and Skungwai.


Masset was a town located at the northern end of Haida Gwaii. The Haida name for Masset was Uttewas that meant “White Slope Town”. The town gained its name from the mollusc shells that had been dumped on a nearby hill after many dinners. When Europeans first had contact with the Haida Masset was actually two separate towns which amalgamated in the middle of the eighteen hundreds. Europeans chose a site close to Masset to set up their first fur trading post. The post itself was originally founded around 1850 by a private individual but was taken over by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869.


Skidegate was a town on the southern end of Graham Island, in the middle eastern end of Haida Gwaii. The name Skidegate itself means “son of the chilton” The first contact this town saw with Europeans seems to be in 1787 when a Captain George Dixon whos ship anchored just off the entrance to Skidegate Inlet. Captain Dixon did not actually enter into the village but does give the first description of the town Chief Skidegate.


All in all the Haida peoples traditions, art and culture have survived quite well through the ages. Their rich cultural past hasn’t been too lost through the years and their ancestors still today inhabit the area in which the original people lived. Museums across Canada and the world exhibit with great pride not only the extraordinary items such as the carved Raven rattles and elaborate house screens of the Haida but also the average everyday items such as Canoes and clothing. These people continue to fascinate the world.

List of References

Notes - from “The North American Indian” Volume- 11 The Haida
Retrieved January 20th 2001 from WWW:

Dr. George F. MacDonald
1998 The Haida Children of the Eagle and Raven
Retrieved January 20th 2001 from the WWW:

Government of Canada
Haida – Spirit of the Sea
Retrieved January 20th 2001 from the WWW

Philip Drucker
Haida Indians
Retrieved January 22nd 2001 from the WWW:

Central Council - Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska
Retrieved January 22nd 2001 from the WWW:

Jonaitis, Aldona. 1993 The History of Haida Art in Robert Davidson: Eagle of the Dawn.
Seattle. University of Washington Press.

Louis A. Brennan
1974 No stone unturned – An almanac of North American Prehistory
McGraw – Hill Inc.

Káxláya Gvi'ílás:
"The Ones Who Uphold the Laws of Our Ancestors"
(An Exhibtion of Heiltsuk Art and Culture)
Royal Ontario Museum
Queens Park Drive, Toronto

Dennis Demmert
1998 ALASKA: A Nation Within A State
Retrieved February 19th 2001 from the WWW.

Philip Hogan
1994 The Royal British Columbia Museum. Chief Boston’s Memorial Pole
Retrieved February 19th 2001 from the WWW.

Government of British Columbia
2000 Historical References
Retrieved March 3rd 2001 from the WWW.