Haida, Native North Americans living primarily on the Queen Charlotte Islands, off British Columbia, and on the southern end of the Prince of Wales Island, off Alaska. They speak the Haida language, which forms a branch of the family of Nadene languages (see Native American languages). In physical and cultural characteristics they are closely related to the Tlingit and the Tsimshian; the three tribes belong to the Northwest Coast cultural area (see under Natives, North American). Before the advent (early 19th cent.) of white fur traders, the Haida lived in large cedar-plank houses, fished for salmon, and hunted sea mammals; they were noted for their large and well-made dugout canoes. Their society was divided into the Raven and Eagle clans; marriage was always with someone of the opposite clan, and clan membership derived matrilineally. Their customs featured the conspicuous display of wealth (see potlatch). They then numbered some 8,000, but by 1880 disease, particularly smallpox and venereal infections, had reduced their population to some 2,000. Today most Haida are employed in fishing, canning, and logging; many have left their island homes for mainland life. The artwork of the Haida is widely acclaimed. In 1990 there were close to 2,000 Haida living in the United States and another 2,000 in Canada.

See C. Harrison, Ancient Warriors of the North Pacific (1925); P. Miller, Lost Heritage of Alaska (1967).

The Haida (19th C.-early 20th C.) Indigenous nation of the west coast of North America. The Haida territories comprise the archipelago of the Queen Charlotte Islands, Shoeakawooo("land of the Haida"), and including part of Prince of Wales Island in the southernmost Alaska Panhandle, which is the home of a subgroup called the Kaigani Haida. The term "Haida Nation" can and does refer to both the people and their government, the Council of the Haida Nation. Their ancestral language is the Haida language, which has never been adequately classified by linguists because of its uniqueness. In addition to those Haida residing in the Queen Charlottes and Alaska, there are also many Haidas in various urban areas in the western United States and Canada.

Haida society continues to be much engaged in the production of a robust and highly stylized art form. While frequently expressed in large wooden carvings totem poles or ornate jewelery it is also moving quickly into the work of populist expression such as Haida manga.


Haidas were traditionally known as ruthless warriors and slave traders, raiding as far as California. Haida oral narratives record journeys as far north as the Bering Sea, and one account implies that even Asia was visited by Haidas before Europeans entered the Pacific. The Haida's ability to travel was dependent upon a supply of ancient Western Red cedar trees that were carved and shaped into their famous Pacific Northwest Canoes. Carved from a single red cedar tree, a vessel could sleep 15 adults head to toe, and was propelled by up to 60 paddlers (who often included women). In the event of a battle at sea, paddlers were armed with heavy stone rings (18 to 23 kg) attached to woven tree root or bark ropes. These devices, are thrown at enemy canoes, inflicting substantial damage. Haida warriors entered battle with red cedar armor, wooden shields, stone maces and atlatls. War helmets were carved. These techniques are unknown to anyone other than the Haida people as they have kept it secret for many years. It is still unknown how the Haida would carve their war helmets and how they looked.

The Haida were feared along the coast because of their practice of making lightning raids against which their enemies had little defense, a similar tactic used by Imperial Japan during World War 2 & also by Genghis Khan , during the rise of the Mongol Empire. Their great skills of seamanship, their superior craft and their relative protection from retaliation in their island fortress added to the aggressive posture of the Haida towards neighboring tribes. Diamond Jenness, an early anthropologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, caught their essence in his description of the Haida as the "Indian Vikings of the North West Coast".

Those were stirring times, about a century ago, when the big Haida war canoes, each hollowed out of a single cedar tree and manned by fifty or sixty warriors, traded and raided up and down the coast from Sitka in the north to the delta of the Fraser River in the south. Each usually carried a shaman or medicine man to catch and destroy the souls of enemies before an impending battle; and the women who sometimes accompanied the warriors fought as savagely as their husbands.

The Haida went to war to acquire objects of wealth, such as coppers and Chilkat blankets, that were in short supply on the islands, but primarily for slaves, who enhanced their productivity or were traded to other tribes. High-ranking captives were also the source of other property received in ransom such as crest designs, dances and songs.

Even prehistorically, the Haida engaged in sea battles. They tied cedar bark ropes to heavy stone rings that were hurled to smash enemy canoes and that could quickly be retrieved for subsequent throws. A stone weighing 18 to 23 kg (40 to 50 pounds) could shatter the side of a dugout canoe and cause it to founder. Most tribes avoided sea battles with the Haida and tried to lure them ashore for a more equitable fight. The Tsimshian developed a signal-fire system to alert their villages on the Skeena River as soon as Haida invaders reached the mainland.

The incidence of warfare was undoubtedly accelerated in the half century from 1780 to 1830, when the Haida had no effective enemies except the many European and American traders on their shores who would rather trade than fight. During this period, the Haida successfully captured more than half a dozen ships. One was the ship Eleanora, taken by chiefs of the village of Skungwai (or Ninstints) in retaliation for the maltreatment Chief Koyah had received from its captain. An even more spectacular event was the capture of the ship Susan Sturgis by Chief Weah (Matthews) of Masset and the rescue of its crew by Albert Edward Edenshaw.

In such conflicts, the Haida quickly learned the newcomers' fighting tactics, which they used to good effect in subsequent battles, as Jacob Brink notes:

As early as 1795, a British trading ship fired its cannons at a village in the central part of the archipelago because some of the crew had been killed by the inhabitants, and the survivors had to put hastily to sea when the Indians fired back at them. They found out later that the Indians had used a cannon and ammunition pilfered from an American Schooner a few years earlier.

Swivel guns were added to many Haida war canoes, although initially the recoil on discharge caused the hulls of many craft to split.

Fortified sites were part of the defensive strategy of all Northwest Coast groups for at least 2,000 years. Captain James Cook was so impressed with one Haida fort off the west coast of Graham Island that he called it Hippah Island after the Maori forts he had seen in New Zealand. Military defences at Haida forts included stout palisades, rolling top-log defences, heavy trapdoors and fighting platforms supplied with stores of large boulders to hurl at invaders.

1774 and after

The archipelago was visited in 1776 by Juan Pérez (at Langara Island) and in 1778 by Captain James Cook. In 1787 the islands were surveyed by Captain George Dixon. The islands were named by Captain Dixon after one of his ships, the Queen Charlotte, which was named after the wife of King George. The first fur trader ships arrived in 1774. The hunting of sea otter in Haida Gwaay serviced an international trading circuit: ships leaving the islands brought the pelts to China where they were traded for oriental goods; the ships then returned to the west, selling their cargo for substantial profit. Within a century, sea otter were in danger of extinction.

European diseases

European-introduced diseases consisted of smallpox, measles, venereal disease, influenza and others. At the time of colonial contact, Haida Gwaay's population was roughly 10,000-12,000 people residing in several dozen towns (many of them slaves from other tribes). During the 1800s, smallpox reduced the population by ninety percent; other diseases arrived as well, including typhoid, measles, and syphilis, affecting more. The worst single smallpox outbreak occurred in the BC-wide smallpox epidemic of 1862, when the population fell by more than half. E.O.S. Scholefield and F.W. Howay in their 1914 book British Columbia: From the Earliest Times to the Present, give a population figure of 2,000 in 1879 in comparison to an 1840 census figure of 8,328. In 1900, 700 people remained. In keeping with an inclination to maintain multiple or seasonal communities, a number of wintering towns were consolidated into two primary settlements, Skidegate and Masset. Some 4000 people live on the islands today. Indigenous people (Haida) live throughout the islands, and maintain two exclusive communities in Skidegate and Old Masset, each with a population of around 1000 people.Haida probably account for close to 50% of the current island population.


Historical Haida villages were:


The Haida's calendar is different from many calendars.

April/May- Gansgee 7laa kongaas

May/Early June- Wa.aay gwaalgee

June/July- Kong koaas

July/August- Sgaana gyaas

August/September- K'ijaas

September/October- K'alayaa Kongaas

October/November- K'eed adii

November/December- Jid Kongaas

December/January- Kong gyaangaas

January/February- Hlgiduum kongaas

February/March- Taan kongaas

March- Xiid gayaas

April- Wiid gyaas

Culture and society

The Haida theory of social structure, although much impacted by the Colonial experience remains based on moiety lineages. That is, the society is divided into two groupings, one called Raven and the other Eagle. There are a variety of subgroups that fall into either of the moieties. The moieties and their subgroups of Clans, or matrilineal lineages, own unique combinations of crests and other intellectual properties such as songs and names. People cannot marry a member of their own moiety.

Potlatches, ceremonies to show wealth or to earn status in a community, were closely linked to a man's moiety. Potlatches would have been a huge celebration, hosted by a wealthy member of the community. A host would have invited hundreds of guests. Guests would have come in best dress and in best canoes, ready for up to 10 days of feasting. Afterwards, all the host's possessions were distributed to guests. However, this would not have bankrupted a host, as the banking system allowed for full recovery plus additional tangible and more highly coveted intellectual property all provided through "gifts" from other lineage potlatch, if theirs was up to standard.

Although Haida societal structure is a living process, its roots are in the ancient potlatch system and remain recognizable in contemporary political, economic and legal functions. On that portion of Haida territory claimed by Canada, the two communities of Massett and Skidegate have Band Councils that experience varying degrees of influence and control by Canada's federal government. The persistence of Haida government can be seen in that the influence of the Band Councils, insofar as they may be seen as agents of Canadian government authority, are regulated by a community governance system of Matriarchs and Lineage authorities.

The Haida are hunters and gatherers in one of the laregst remaining temperate rain forests on earth. Because they lived so near the sea, fishing was crucial to them. Although Haida are active deep water fisheries for black cod and halibut salmon is also a main source of protein and is filleted & smoked and otherwise processed to keep through the winter. The skeleton of the first salmon caught in a season is frequently placed back where it was caught. This was an offering, so the Salmon would return the following season.

Haidas are well known as skilled artisans of wood, metal and design. They have also shown much perseverance and resolve in the area of forest conservation. These vast forests of cedar and spruce where the Haida make their home are on pre-glacial land which is believed to be almost 14,000 years old. Haida communities located in Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, and the Queen Charlotte Islands also share a common border with other indigenous peoples such as the Tlingit and the Cape Fox tribes of the Tsimshian. The Tlingit called the Haida Deikeenaa, "far out to sea people", from the distance separating Haida Gwaay from the mainland and the Alexander Archipelago.

Like all Indigenous peoples of the northwest coast of North America, the Haida make extensive use of red cedar bark, which is still used both as a textile for clothing, ropes and sails, and in its raw form, as a building material or even armor. Most goods were fashioned from the wood of the Western Red cedar, Nootka Cypress, Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce. Highly prized plant bark and root weavers still create an array of clothing including hats and containers. The ancient Naahinn form of weaving also called Chilkat continues, although commercially produced wool is used instead of mountain goat. The famous Haida totem poles were also carved on the trunks of Red Cedar trees.


The Haida society is broken into two clans: the raven and the eagle. Among the clans (which also has a name, like a Family name) which hold a lot of crests such as killer-whale, frog, moon, hummingbird, bear, and so forth. In this "moiety" society, one cannot marry someone from the same clan, and must marry outside of their own clan. When a child is born they automatically join the clan that their Mother was a member of. There were generally arranged marriages held among the families holding Chieftanship to keep it among the same family.


The Potlatch ceremony was a ritual based event which involved feasting and the exchange of gifts between chiefs and surrounding clans. The celebration was a time of plenty and was a way of re-iterating bonds between groups. The potlatch ceremony was based on the concepts of reciprocity and indebtedness. Many would be held and the larger and more grandiose the occasion the more respect was given. The social bonds and coherence was also a substantial part of the potlatch ceremony, something which the western world failed to take into consideration when they tried to ban it in the late 19th century as it was seen to rival Christmas. Nobles, from the towns, get everyone together and have a party. The purpose for these potlatch ceremonies, is to show off their wealth. The nobles would give, everything they own, away. They would also have huge feasts and dance around a fire.

Canada once banned and attempted to stop these ceremonies. This would be consistent with other Canadian efforts such as residential schools to undermine the legal, political and social structures of these Indigenous Peoples.


Haida art consists of two dimensional painting and three-dimensional sculptural works. Painting was accomplished through the use of brushes made from porcupine quills. Before contact with European traders, the Haida derived pigments from natural sources. Lignite or charcoal produced black, ochre a brownish-red and copper minerals provided greenish tones. In the early nineteenth century vermilion was introduced through trade with ships returning to the Northwest Coast from China. Pigments were mixed with a medium derived from salmon eggs.

Painting and two dimensional art usually makes use of formlines that outline basic shapes, often ovoid, in heavy dark outline. Images can be built up from the positioning of formline defined shapes embellished with mouths, beaks, claws, horns or other attributes of the person or animal being depicted. Painting and sculpture both focused greatly on natural fauna. Charles Edenshaw was an important artist active in the late nineteenth century.

The substitution of carved surfaces for painting represents a step toward sculpture. Incised lines define the basic formline structures. A particularly fine example is a carved Haida bent bowl from about 1860 (Royal British Columbia Museum Catalogue No. 4114) that likely would have held food for honoured guests at potlatches.

In sculpture Haida masks are similar with those of other Northwest Coast First Nations such as Tlingit or Tsimshian. Haida carving on totem poles is more readily distinguishable. The last early Haida totem poles were carved in the villages of Tanu and Skedans in the late 1870s. Stress on the culture resulted in a near abandonment of traditional forms of art in the early 20th century. Bill Reid, a sculptor born in 1920, began exploring Haida art in the 1950s, influenced by old jewelry worn by members of his mothers family, who were Haidapoo.

In ancient times, valuable items were also fashioned from copper. Haida culture places high value on a sophisticated and abstract iconic art form. Although most impressively expressed in large monumental totem poles, this highly disciplined design is applied to a wide range of materials, including the human body through tattooing. The diversity of Haida design today can be seen, among other things, in its expression through Haida Manga.

Notable Haidas

Anthropologists and scholars

Below if a brief list of anthropologists and scholars who have worked over the Haida.

See also

Further reading

  • Blackman, Margaret B. (1982; rev. ed., 1992) 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.
  • Bringhurst, Robert (2000) A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Douglas & McIntyre.
  • Geduhn, Thomas (1993) "Eigene und fremde Verhaltensmuster in der Territorialgeschichte der Haida." (Mundus Reihe Ethnologie, Band 71.) Bonn: Holos Verlag.
  • Harris, Christie (1966) Raven's Cry. New York: Atheneum.
  • Huteson, Pamela (2007) "Transformation Masks" Surrey, B.C. Canada: Hancock House Publishers LTD. ISBN- 13 978-0-88839-635-8 and ISBN- 10 0-88839-635-X
  • Snyder, Gary (1979) He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press.
  • Stearns, Mary Lee (1981) Haida Culture in Custody: The Masset Band. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • The Hydah mission, Queen Charlotte's Islands : an account of the mission and people, with a descriptive letter, Rev. Charles Harrison, publ. Church Missionary Society/Seeley, Jackson & Halliday, London, England, 1884.
  • Yahgulanaas, Michael Nicoll (2008) "Flight of the Hummingbird" Vancouver; Greystone Books.



  • Macnair, Peter L.; Hoover, Alan L.; Neary, Kevin (1981) The Legacy – Continuing Traditions of Canadian Northwest Coast Indian Art

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