The Haida Tribe

Learn about the Haida tribe, hardy inhabitants of the 150 islands that lie off Canada's British columbia coast.

Haida Gwaii is a dagger shaped archipelago of some one hundred and fifty islands that lie about 60 miles ( 100 kilometers) west of Canada's British Columbia Coast. This group of islands is known to Europeans as the Queen Charlotte Islands. The islands benefit from warm ocean currents from Japan which give the islands a moderate climate.

The islands are inhabited by the Haida people. They were first discovered by Europeans about two hundred years ago when explorers and traders came across them. They found the natives of these islands to be both peaceful and friendly. In their hand hewed cedar canoes they would row out to the strange ships of the Europeans singing songs of welcome and spreading eagle's feathers on the waters in a symbolic act of welcome.

The Haida kept no written records of their history prior to the coming of the white man and so very little is known about their arrival on the islands. Some experts believe that they arrived by way of the Bering Strait from Asia. Others assert that they came with the currents from Japan. Interestingly many of the people relate a story handed down from their ancestors of a great flood that covered the highest peaks. Only by building a large raft was anyone able to survive. This, of course, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Genesis account in the Bible.

The Haida had established a highly structured social system in their pre European years. The nation was divided into two parts - the Eagle clan and the Raven clan. The determination as to which clan a person would be in was made in accordance with the line of the mother. The children were always of the mother's clan. When getting married, partners were only to be of the other clan. The marriage was often arranged when the children were still young.

The history, lineage, wealth and status of a family within the clan was carefully depicted on totem poles. Some of the poles depicted mythical or spiritual creatures. These items, however, were not religiously worshipped. For about a hundred years, from 1840 to 1940, the carving and erecting of the totem poles was very popular. Over the last sixty years, however, the poles have become less popular and can be seen decaying and weather beaten around the islands.

The Haida people spent the period from spring to autumn busy gathering and storing food. They would draw much of their supplies from the seas - fish, clams, herring roe, even sea weed. Seals would be caught and slaughtered for their fat content. This fat would be traded for the grease of the eulachon fish which was not found in the waters surrounding their islands. Eulachon fish is valued by the Haida as a food flavoring. The Haida would also gather wild berries, bird's eggs and wild meat.

The Haida have become a people that are very adept on the water. They have produced magnificent canoes which can hold up to forty people and two tons of cargo. The people would set off in these 75 foot long vessels on raiding and trading excursions. They would travel as far as Alaska in the north and Puget Sound in the south. They became feared enemies of many of the native mainland nations.

Today the Haida, who once numbered some 7,000 people, have been reduced to just two villages. These villages are Old Masset and Skidegate. The lure of modern city living has been a magnet to many of the younger generation that has driven them away from their misty island home to the large cities of Prince Rupert and Vancouver. Combined with this are the white man's ravages of alcohol and disease. In addition to this, Church missionaries have spent the last two centuries undermining the culture of the Haida people. Rather than trying to explain the Haida they set about banning his native ways of doing things. Totem poles, medicine men and large communal feasts were all banned by the Christian missionaries. As with so many other native peoples the coming of the white man has not led to advancement and prosperity for the Haida people. On the contrary it has meant the virtual disappearance of their well established culture and a major threat to their continued existence on this planet.

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