Haida Architecture

Cumshewa ca. 1875. Painting © Gordon Miller, 1985. Based on 1878 G.M. Dawson Photographs.

Historically, the alignment of houses in the village was based upon social rank, ideally with the houses of the most prestigious house chiefs arrayed on either side of the house of the village chief, which occupied a central location in the house row. Although the distribution of houses in most of the villages show this tendency, migration of lineages from or to other villages and changes in family fortunes over the decades, caused disruptions to this ideal alignment.

Like the Tsimshian and the Tlingit, the Haida originally built gable-roofed, two-beam, rectangular houses and sheathed them with wide, hand-split planks. The basic post and beam structure was augmented with a framework of light rafters, sills, corner posts, and gables to which the plank sheathing was applied. There was little integration between the massive framing and the light wall covering. These homes had plank floors, a central excavated fire pit lined with retaining planks, and a few even had an underground cellar used in extremely cold weather. They also had a round doorway which was built into the design of the central, frontal totem pole which decorated the house. The gable roof of wealthy houses was sheathed in wide planks, while those of commoners were covered in cedar bark. All house had a centrally located square hole framed by a plank shield, for the emission of smoke from the household fire. The material of choice for the house was invariably Western Red Cedar and, with two notable exceptions, the house facades were left unpainted. However, the interior houseposts and screens were often carved. This type of two-beam structure was found throughout the Haida territory, including in Alaska to which the Kaigani Haida had migrated in the 18th Century. Although rarely found, a variant on this type of construction also developed in the late 19th Century  among the Northern Haida in Yan, Howkan and Kasaan. It is distinguished by a long horizontal beam which runs the full width of the front and back facades of the house at the level of the eaves. In this case, the exterior wall planks ran both vertically above those beams, and horizontally below them.

Six beam houses at the village of Cumshewa. Photo by G.M. Dawson, 1878. Library and Archives Canada.

Sometime toward the end of the 18th Century, the people of Haida Gwaii developed a second type of house construction which more effectively married the post and beam structure to the exterior walls and roof. This six-beam house integrates all of the structural members and distributes the loads by employing more elaborate joinery, including mortis and tenon joints and interlocking features. The sheathing is further integrated into the post and beam frame by joinery. The extensive use of joinery in this type of house, with structural supports integrated into the exterior walls, adds structural strength as well as providing for column-free interior space. Because the six-beam house was built most commonly in the southerly Haida Gwaii settlements, the Anthony Island region has been identified as its birthplace. Perhaps this anomalous architectural contribution was stimulated by trading with European seamen, when new wealth enhanced artistic inventiveness among the Haida and they had obtained both metal tools and exposure to European and maritime joinery.

The unique six-beam house found only on Haida Gwaii intrigued the early photographer George Dawson when he visited there in the late 1800s. In these buildings, he observed, the roofs were not supported on central posts as in the more widespread two-beam construction system. They rested on the angled gable plates, the slotted corner posts, and six stout beams flattened on the lower side, which protruded beyond the plate beams on either side of the gable. Dawson’s photographs show how the vertical wall planks fit neatly into slots in both these gable plates and the base plates that ran along the ground. Sometimes the wall planks were bent by steaming and forced to overlap to produce a weather-tight wall. The six-beam system opened up the interior of the house, making its use more flexible, because interior free-standing house posts were no longer necessary. 

Six beam houses at the village of Cumshewa. Photo by G.M. Dawson, 1878. Library and Archives Canada.
House pit of Dug out House of Chief Gitkun at Tanu. Photo © Adelaide de Menil, 1968.

The traditional Haida longhouse was also distinguished by its unpainted facade. Instead, the occupying family’s crests and myths were portrayed on prominent doorway poles, on screens, and on fire pit retaining planks inside, or on the free-standing poles that rose before the buildings like proud genealogies. Dating the phases of Haida monumental art has prompted considerable speculation. Northwest Coast art forms were firmly established before the influx of traders, metal tools, and European paints in the early 1800s, but the fur trade certainly increased their quantity and probably their quality. Carved interior screens and house entry poles were sketched by early European artists in the 1790s, but there is only one brief reference in 1794 to a free-standing totem pole. Only a century later, however, these ceremonial and mortuary poles were dominating Haida village-scapes. 

Inside the house, the house pit or da, had a primarily ceremonial function and is perhaps an archaic feature retained from the period when the Haida, like other North Coast groups, lived in pit houses.  Although common among the Haida and Tlingit the house pit occurs only occasionally among the Tsimshian, and was absebt from houses on the Central and Southern Coast.  Houses of the highest ranking Haida had deeply excavated house pits which descended in stages.  Usually there was only one house with this feature in a village, that of the village chief.

House pit of Dug out House of Chief Gitkun at Tanu. Photo © Adelaide de Menil, 1968.

Haida houses were named and a house might bear more than one name. Names derived from a number of sources: the crest of the house owner, the largess of the house owner or the abundance of his economic resources, events related to the actual construction of the house, or physical features of the house. House names were considered personal property and were often transferred to a new house in a new village when the homeowner moved, or a replacement of the original house was built at the succession of a new chief.

Textual Information for this page: MacDonald, 1989; Swanton, 1909; and Vastokas, 1966.