Haida

Approximate territory of the Haida in the early to mid 19th-century. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of Handbook of North American Indians. View Haida in a larger map

Territory:

Traditionally, Haida territory encompassed Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) in British Columbia and a portion of the Alexander Archipelago in southeastern Alaska.

Haida Gwaii is comprised of two large islands and nearly 150 smaller ones. From the most northern island (Langara Island), some Haida migrated across Dixon Entrance to settle on Long, Sukkwan, Dall, and Prince of Wales islands, probably in the eighteenth century.

Language:

The Haida are a unique coastal people in that they speak a language that has no known genetic relationship with any other. There are two Haida dialects, which are distinct from one another. So much so that the two would only be partially intelligible to one another if the speakers had no prior knowledge of each other’s language. Northern Haida was traditionally spoken on northern Graham Island, where it survived into the twentieth century at Massett, and also in Alaska, where it survived as a distinct Alaskan variety at Hydaburg. Southern Haida was spoken at Skidegate Inlet and to the south; the most divergent of this dialect was the Kunghit (or Ninstints) dialect, which was spoken at the southernmost villages. This southern dialect survived at Skidegate, but the Kunghit dialect is now extinct.

© G. Miller.

Architecture:

Haida houses were constructed from red cedar timbers and planks. Houses were also named and one house might have had more than one name. These names were derived from a number of sources such as crests of the owner, the charity or economic abundance of the house owner, events related to the actual construction of the house or physical features of the house itself. House names were regarded as personal property and were often transferred to a new village when the house owner moved.

The Haida built two types of houses, which differed mainly in the approach to construction, rather than in the character of the unfinished house. Type 1 is a simple support structure of two parallel round beams set on pairs of uprights. To this basic structure is added a framework of light rafters, sills, corner posts, and gables, which is then covered with planks. There is little integration between massive frame and light covering.

House type 2 integrates all of the structural members and distributes the stress by employing more elaborate joinery, including mortice-and-tenon joints and interlocking features. The sheeting is further integrated into the frame by joinery. The extensive use of joinery in this type of house, with supports integrated into the walls, adds structural strength and provides more interior space.

Dr. Kude's House, Masset. Photo by R. Maynard, 1884.

Art:

The Haida are perhaps best known for their monumental sculpture. The majority of these poles (housefront pole, memorial pole, mortuary pole) were flat designs wrapped around a semi-cylindrical surface.

Wood was the major medium for art work, and decorated items including canoes, house fronts, house posts, housepit retaining walls, screens, settees, weaponry, tools, spoons, dishes, trays, storage boxes, masks, rattles and frontlets.

The principal colours used in Haida art were black, red, and blue-green. The most common represented forms in Haida art were the zoomorphic crest figures of the matrilineages. Events and beings from Haida myth were also commonly represented.

Visit the Haida Heritage Centre at Kaay Llnagaay, an award-winning Aboriginal cultural tourism attraction.

Textual information for this page: Blackman, 1990; MacDonald, 1983.