The Haida are an indigenous people of the west coast of North America. The Haida Nation claimed territories comprise an archipelago called the Queen Charlotte Islands or Haida Gwaii as the Haida refer to the islands – and parts of southeast Alaska. The Haida are commonly referred to in Canada as being a First Nations “band” or a “tribe” in the parlance of the United States. Their ancestral language is the Haida language, which is now extremely endangered.
The Haida in Canada created the Council of the Haida nation gaining back autonomy from the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs in the 1980s. The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska represents 27,000 members as a sovereign nation. Their battle for human rights in the twentieth century became the grounds for the unity between the two tribal groups.
The Haida are renowned craftsmen in wood and copper. Totem poles depicting respected mythical creatures are common symbols associated with their heritage. Their clan totems fall under the Raven or Eagle. The Haida have strong values and beliefs in their position as “original guardians” of their homeland that was given to them by the “Creator” as a blessing to be cared for and not wasted. Many of their ancient myths, stories, song, and dance tell the story of the relationship of the Haida people with their Creator and to the wildlife around them. They believe that their responsibility is to fish, hunt, trade, and care for their environment. As well as their belief in the preservation of the natural world, they also have a strong belief in the role of the family.
Although much reduced by commercial activities, the natural abundance of forest and sea in the Haida archipelagos remains an essential aspect of contemporary Haida culture. The Council of the Haida Nation continues to pursue a policy of rescuing natural lands and waters. It is also co-managing, with the government of Canada, the wild and diverse islands of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, which is reserved for National Park status within the Canadian National Park system.
The Haida comprise an international tribe whose principal residences are in Masset and Skidegate, British Columbia; and in Hydaburg, Alaska. There are also many Haida in various urban areas in the western United States and Canada. Before contact with Europeans in the late eighteenth century, the Haida lived on what are now the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Alexander Archipelago off the northwest coast of North America. The locally reliable supplies of halibut and salmon, which formed the basis of their diet, supported the Haida well. They lived in large cedar-plank houses and built fifty-foot-high totem poles at the fronts of the buildings. The Haida system of potlatch reinforced a social hierarchy based on rankings of both hereditary status and wealth. The northern and southern dialects of the Haida language are unrelated to any other known tongue.
The Haida of Alaska traditionally lived in three villages on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island and in one village on the island’s east coast. In 1911, with the encouragement and support of the U.S. government and the Presbyterian Church, the three Haida villages of Cordova Bay consolidated at Hydaburg. On June 19, 1912, President William Howard Taft signed Executive Order no. 1555, establishing the Hydaburg Reservation for the protection and civilization of the Haida. Hydaburg was modeled on what would be known as the Metlakatla Plan, whereby the natives would be the developers and proprietors of the community and its enterprises, and would be treated as citizens of the United States while at home.
The Haida have been involved in three distinct processes of adjudicating their aboriginal claims. In 1935 the Tlingit and Haida brought suit against the United States in a court of claims case that awarded the Tlingit and Haida of Alaska $7.2 million for the taking of aboriginal lands by the United States when it established the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve (now known as the Tongass National Forest) in 1902. The Tlingit and Haida Central Council was designated as the administrator of funds and programs derived from the court of claims case.
In April 1938, the Hydaburg Cooperative Association became the first economic enterprise organized under the terms of the Alaska Reorganization Act. Shortly thereafter the association filed a petition with the Department of the Interior for a reservation and submitted to an adjudicative process for its creation. The reservation was subsequently established, but in 1952 the agreement that led to its creation was declared null and void by the U.S. District Court.
In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed into law, authorizing the creation of for-profit corporations for each of the native villages in Alaska. Village corporations with significant Haida shareholders include Haida Corporation in Hydaburg, Kavilco in Kasaan, and Shaan-Seet in Craig. These village corporations incorporated under the laws of Alaska and received a total of 23,040 acres of land, much of it forest lands. The corporations are looking at ways to enter into various business opportunities on Prince of Wales Island such as forest-products, hospitality, charter-fishing, oil-products, and rock-crushing operations.
In contrast to the Haida in Alaska, Haida in the towns of Masset and Skidegate in the Canadian reserves were administered by the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs. In the twentieth century, Haida in Masset continued to make their livings from fishing. Men worked as fishers and boat builders, while employed women worked in a cannery in nearby New Masset. Residents of Skidegate found work in the logging camps on their reserves. During the 1960s, when the Canadian authorities encouraged greater Indian participation in self-governance, the Masset and Skidegate Haida renewed their traditional arts, including the erection of totem poles, the revival of dance, and the building of canoes. Back in the 1980s, the two villages formed the Council of the Haida Nation to support their political interests.
The Haida people 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 where the Haida make their homes are pre-glacial and are 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 Gwaii from the mainland and the Alexander Archipelago.
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 Musset 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, is regulated by a community governance system of Matriarchs and Lineage authorities.
Haida were traditionally known as fierce 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 Haida before Europeans entered the Pacific. The Haida ability to travel was dependent upon a supply of ancient Western Red cedar trees that they carved 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, when thrown at enemy canoes, inflicted substantial damage. Haida warriors entered battle with red cedar armor, wooden shields, and stone maces. War helmets were elaborately carved, and armor was made or reinforced with metal, stone, bone, or copper.
The Haida are hunters and gatherers. Because they live so near the sea, fishing is crucial to them. Salmon is a main source of food, which was filleted and smoked to keep through the winter. The skeleton of the first salmon caught in a season has traditionally been placed back where it was caught. This is an offering, so the Salmon would return the following season.
Like all indigenous peoples of the northeast coast of the Pacific Ocean, 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 are 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.
In ancient times, valuable items were also fashioned from copper. Haida artists are also skilled in carving, using argillite, a sedimentary rock found in the Queen Charlotte Islands, to create the “black slate” pieces that express the mystic consciousness of this ancient culture. 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 Haida theory of social structure is 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 were a huge celebration, hosted by a wealthy member of the community. A host could invite hundreds of guests. Guests would have come in best dress and in best canoes, ready for up to 10 days of feasting. Afterward, all the host’s possessions were distributed to guests. However, this would not bankrupt the host, as they could always rely on receiving gifts from a neighbor’s potlatch.
Art and mythology
The artwork of the Haida is often associated with the traditional totem pole. The art is also reflected on family crests and pictorial panels. Two contrasting colors, such as red and black, are used to depict solid and empty space. Common figures are animals, birds, sea creatures, and mythic creatures that identify the moiety of Raven or Eagle. The Killer Whale is associated with the Raven lineages, for example, as are the Grizzly bear and Wolf. Amphibious creatures such as Frog and Beaver as well as a variety of fish are also associated with this lineage. The Raven group does not use its namesake as a symbol or most other birds in general. The Eagle group, however, does identify with birds.
Raven is the central character for tribes or bands found in central and northern coasts of Canada and Alaska. He is a “trickster” and stories based on his exploits include freeing humankind from a clam shell. He is a paradoxical figure as his mischievous, greedy, and cruel intentions almost always teach something valuable to the humans that he is working against.
The Spirit of Haida Gwaii
The “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” is a sculpture by British Columbian Haida artist Bill Reid (1920-1998). The sculpture was originally created in 1986 as a 1/6-scale clay model, enlarged in 1988, to full-size clay. In 1991, the model was cast in bronze. This first bronze casting was entitled “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, the Black Canoe” and is now displayed outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The second bronze casting, entitled “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, the Jade Canoe,” was first displayed at the Canadian Museum of Anthropology in 1994. Finally, in 1995, the “Jade Canoe” (as it is generally called) was moved to the International Terminal at Vancouver International Airport, where it remains today. The sculpture is 6 meters (20 feet) long, not quite 4 meters (13 feet) from the base to the top of the Shaman’s staff, and weighs nearly 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds). A plaster copy of the sculpture is on display in the main hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
The Spirit of Haida Gwaii is intended to represent the Aboriginal heritage of the Haida Gwaii region in Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands. In green-colored bronze on the Vancouver version and black-colored on the Washington, D.C. version, the sculpture shows a traditional Haida cedar dugout canoe which totals six meters in length. The canoe carries the following passengers: the Raven, the traditional trickster of Haida mythology, holding the steering oar; the Mouse Woman, crouched under Raven’s tail; the Grizzly Bear, sitting at the bow and staring toward Raven; the Bear Mother, Grizzly’s human wife; their cubs, Good Bear (ears pointed forward) and Bad Bear (ears pointed back); Beaver, Raven’s uncle; Dogfish Woman; the Eagle; the Frog; the Wolf, claws imbedded in Beaver’s back and teeth in Eagle’s wing; a small human paddler in Haida garb known as the Ancient Reluctant Conscript; and, at the sculpture’s focal point, the human Shaman (or Kilstlaai in Haida), who wears the Haida cloak and birch bark hat and holds a tall staff carved with the Seabear, Raven and Killer Whale.
Consistent with Haida tradition, the significance of the passengers is highly symbolic. The variety and interdependence of the canoe’s occupants represents the natural environment on which the ancient Haida relied for their very survival: the passengers are diverse, and not always in harmony, yet they must depend on one another to live. The fact that the cunning trickster, Raven, holds the steering oar is likely symbolic of nature’s unpredictability.
The issue most important to the modern Haida continues to be the establishment of a governing body that will have political and economic control of their ancestral homelands. Problems with defining the role of an officially recognized Haida tribe are complicated by the Indian Reorganization Act, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and the institutions created under those laws.
The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) is the current tribal governing body in the United States with over 27,000 members worldwide. The headquarters is in Juneau, Alaska. The tribes have joined together based on their shared struggle for human rights.
As for the Haida Nation in Canada, the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada in Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests),  3 S.C.R. 511 declared that the Crown had a legal duty to consult with the Haida Nation and accommodate their interests when issuing a timber license to a forestry company for harvesting wood on lands claimed by the Haida Nation. This decision is made in view of the Court’s famous 1997 decision of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia,  3 S.C.R. 1010 where the Court had established the legal precedent that a First Nations band in Canada can make claim to “Aboriginal title” to specific land, despite Crown sovereignty over all lands in Canada, if they had occupied such land prior to the Crown asserting its sovereignty over this land and if the specific land itself is integral to the First Nations band’s distinctive culture. The concept of “Aboriginal title” extends beyond the mere right to use (such as to hunt and fish) specific lands, but it is different from typical private land ownership in that “Aboriginal title” is a communal right linked to indigenous culture.