The Haida are widely considered to have the most highly developed culture and art tradition of BC’s First Nations. Extending from Haida Gwaii to southern Alaska, their lands included major stands of red cedar, the raw material for their huge dugout canoes, their traditional intricate carvings and their homes. Haida trade links were built on the reputation of their skill; to own a Haida canoe was a major status symbol. The Haida were feared warriors, paddling into rival villages and returning with canoes laden with goods and slaves. Their skill on the open sea made them the “Vikings” of North America.
The Haida divided themselves into one of two main groups, or moiety, the Eagles and the Ravens, which were further divided into kin groups named after their original village location. Marriage within each moiety was considered incestuous, so Eagles would always seek Raven mates and vice versa. Descent was matrilineal, which meant a chief could not pass his property on to his sons because they would belong to a different group – so instead his inheritance passed to his sister’s sons.
Haida villages were an impressive sight, their vast cedar-plank houses dominated by fifteen-metre totem poles displaying the kin group’s unique animal crest or other mythical creatures, all carved in elegant, fluid lines. Entrance to each house was through the gaping mouth of a massive carved figure; inside, supporting posts were carved into the forms of the crest animals. Equal elaboration attended the many Haida ceremonies, one of the most important being the memorial potlatch, which served to mark the end of mourning for a dead chief and the validation of the heir’s right to succession. The dead individual was laid out at the top of a carved pole in front of his house, past which visiting chiefs would walk wearing robes of finely woven and patterned mountain-goat wool and immense headdresses fringed with long sea-lion whiskers and ermine skins.
After European contact the Haida population was devastated by smallpox and other epidemics. In 1787, there were approximately ten thousand Haida scattered across the archipelago; by 1915, the population totalled just 588. They were then forced to leave many of their traditional villages, where homes and totems fell into disrepair and artefacts were appropriated by collectors. SGang Gwaay, a remote village at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, remained relatively untouched.
Several Haida artists are highly regarded in the North American art world; Robert Davidson and the late Bill Reid and Freda Diesing are among the best-known figures, and scores of others produce a mass of carvings and jewellery for the tourist market. The Haida also play a powerful role in the islands’ social, political and cultural life, having been vocal in the formation of sites such as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Heritage Site and Duu Guusd Tribal Park.