Haida Tribe

Picture of a Chinook Northwest Native Indian

The Haida Tribe
Summary and Definition: The Haida were a seafaring people, skilled fishers and hunters who were located in the archipelago of Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) in northern British Columbia. The Haida tribe lived off the produce from the Pacific Ocean and constructed their plankhouses and dugout canoes from the abundant Cedar trees.

The Haida people were one of only six tribes of Northwest Indians who erected Totem Poles. The Totem Poles symbolized guardian spirits who watched over the family, clan, or tribe.

Facts about the Haida Native Indian Tribe
The Haida people were organized into settlements and communities, rather than tribes. Haida society had three grades consisting of aristocrats, commoners, and slaves. Children born to slaves were also considered as slaves. One of the most common traditions of the Haida Tribe were the Potlatch Ceremonies which enabled the host to acquire or maintain prestige within their community. The villages of these tribes were almost always on the seashore and their houses were generally in one long line, all facing the sea. The beach in front of the Haida village would be covered with canoes dragged up on the sand. Many of the people decorated their face and bodies with tattoos. Another fashion among the women of the Haida was the piercing of the lower lip for the wearing of a plug as an ornament.

Where did the Haida tribe live?
The Haida are people of the Northwest Coast cultural group. The main territory of the Haida tribe is the archipelago of Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) in northern British Columbia. Haida Gwaii means "Islands of the People". The geography of the region in which they lived dictated the lifestyle and culture of the Haida tribe.

  • Land: Tall dense forests, oceans, mountains and rivers.
  • Climate: The climate was very warm summers and cold, rain drenched winters
  • Animals: The  animals included Mountain goats and sheep, deer, moose, fox, mink, beaver, bear and elk
  • Fish: Salmon, halibut, eulachon (candlefish), herring and shellfish. Sea animals included seals, sea otters and whales
  • Natural Resources: Red cedar trees, bulbs, wapato (Indian Potato) greens, seeds and berries, forests, mountains, rivers and the bounty of the Pacific Ocean

What did the Haida live in?
The Haida tribe lived in plankhouses built from the red cedar trees that were so abundant in their location.  The plankhouses were built over a pit and were almost square, measuring perhaps 40 or 50 feet on a side. There were no windows in the Haida plankhouses but there were roof slots that let fresh air in, and smoke from cooking fires out. Many of the plankhouses were adorned with totem poles and paintings that illustrated the dwellers clan, history or mythology.

What language did the Haida tribe speak?
The people of the tribe spoke the Haida Language, called "X̲aayda Kil."

Haida Art
The Haida were expert wood carvers and various items were decorated with Haida art. These included fabulous masks, totem poles, welcome poles and house frontal poles with entrance through a gaping mouth.

Haida Totem Poles
The Haida were one of only 6 tribes of Northwest Coast Indians (Tlingit, Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian and Nootka) who erected Totem Poles made by carving and painting vertical logs. Totem Poles symbolized guardian spirits who watched over the family, clan, or tribe. The mythical thunderbird is usually featured at the top of top of totem poles. Legend tells that this mighty bird captured Whale in its talons in exchange for a prestigious position on totem poles. For additional facts and information refer to Totem Poles.

What transportation did the Haida use?
The Haida tribe used canoes made of birch bark, a strong and water-resistant bark that can be easily cut, bent and sewn. Although called a birch bark canoe the bark from cedar trees was also used in the same way. The Haida canoes were “dugouts” of single tree trunks. The logs were cut in summer time and fire was used to char the wood to be cut away. After it had been partly cut out inside it was stretched or shaped by steaming with water and hot stones, and then putting in stretchers. Sometimes single-log canoes were large enough to carry from 30 to 60 people. The Haida canoes were often carved and painted at the ends. The paddles used in driving these canoes were slender and long-bladed, often painted with designs. The lightweight canoe was perfect for travel along fast streams and shallow waters and were sturdy enough for the rough waters of the bays and the Pacific Ocean.

What food did the Haida tribe eat?
The food that the Haida tribe ate included their staple diet of fish supplemented by wapato (Indian Potato) greens, seeds and berries. The women also pressed the rich oil from the eulachon (candlefish) and used large amounts of this oil as a dip for their food.

What weapons did the Haida tribe use?
The weapons used by the Haida included bows and arrows, clubs, blowguns and spears. The also used shields made from the hide of the moose and wore wood armor used as a form of defensive clothing called a clamon which was like a breastplate made from hardened moose hide and cedar bark and was designed to protect the wearer from arrow fire.

What clothes did the Haida tribe wear?
The clothes worn by the Haida were very similar to those worn by the Chinook Tribe - please refer to this article for comprehensive information about clothing.

What was the religion and beliefs of the Haida tribe?
The Haida believed in Tricksters such as Nankil'slas, a raven spirit. The Haida believed that the Earth World was flat and has a circular out-line, and above it is a solid sky like a great bowl and the Sky Country. The sky rises and falls regularly, and so the clouds strike against the mountains and make a noise. In the Sky Country, the greatest power is held by Power-of-the-Shining-Heavens who gives power to all things. The clouds are his blankets. Thunderclouds are the "dressing up" of the Thunderbird which produces a very loud noise by rustling his feathers.

The Thunderbird
The legend of the Thunderbird features in many legends and myths of Native Indian Tribes. The Haida tribe brought these mythical creatures to life depicting them on their totem poles and in their paintings. The thunderbird is the symbol of thunder, lightening and storms which are created when the thunderbird flies. The thunderbird is depicted as a large raptor-like bird usually with curling horns, a long beak and a featherless head. Sheet lightning is believed to flash from its eyes when it blinks, and lightning bolts are made by the glowing snakes or serpents that follow it. The thunderbird is depicted in masks as many-colored, with two curling horns and teeth within its beak.

Haida story about the Thunderbird: Why lightning strikes the trees
Thunderbird was angry with people and tried to drown the whole world, but he could not make the water rise high enough, so some of the people escaped. Then Thunderbird shot arrows at them. He really did hurt many, but all the people ran away and hid in a cave. Then Turtle came out. He shouted out to Thunderbird, "You cannot kill people. Your arrows fly wild. Shoot at the trees and rocks; perhaps you can hit them." Turtle mocked Thunderbird. Thunderbird said, "Oh, yes, I do strike people. I have killed many of them!" Turtle said at once, "Well, then, prove it by killing me." So he drew his shell down tight and moved about very carelessly, not hiding at all, while Thunder shot many arrows at him. They only glanced off his thick shell. Then Thunderbird believed that he really could not hit people, so now he shoots his arrows at trees and rocks. But if people stand under a tree in a storm, it is likely that Thunderbird will hit them.

Haida History
The Haida were believed to have settled in the region for thousands of years. The first recorded contact by Europeans with the Haida people is generally believed to have been in 1774 with the Spanish explorer Juan Perez but some scholars have suggested that Russian explorers may have contacted the Haida as early as 1741. In 1787, the British Captain George Dixon initiated trade with the Haida for sea-otter pelts, and the Haida remained at the centre of the lucrative sea-otter trade until the mid-1800s.

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