History of the Haida Tribe
The Haida, a North American native culture, settled in the Canadian Queen Charlotte Islands and Alaska area over 8,000 years ago. The rugged terrain, abundant wildlife, cedar forests and proximity to the sea were elements that enabled the Haida to survive for centuries. Their continued survival depended on good stewardship of the land and the Haida culture is one of respect for the earth and its inhabitants. At least 14,000 native people have lived in the 126 known villages in the area. The numbers dropped dramatically upon the arrival of European settlers until in 1911 only 589 native people lived in Old Masset and Skidegate.
Of all peoples of the North West coast the Haida were the best carvers, painters, and canoe and house builders, and they still earn considerable money by selling carved objects of wood and slate to traders and tourists. Standing in the tribe depended more on the possession of property so that interchange of goods took place and the people became sharp traders.5
The respect the Haida culture expresses for its surroundings have been represented throughout their history in their expression of art and literature. Symbolism plays an important part in these displays. The original Haida family structure divided the members into two groups, the Raven and the Eagle. These groups were further divided into many clans. The members of each group proudly displayed symbols and crests representing their membership. Both symbols are well represented through Haida history. Perhaps the most visible of the Haida art form is the totem pole. Carved from giant cedar trees, the totem poles often depicted the animal life around them.
In spite of the effects of residential schools, Haida culture survived. Today, the Haida population has rebounded to 4000. After the smallpox epidemics, the remaining Haida centralized in two villages on the islands, Skidegate and Old Masset. Today these two villages are growing rapidly. Although the economy of the islands has been based in the forest industry and commercial fisheries since the 1930s, declining fish stocks and forest resources are precipitating new approaches to making a living on Haida Gwaii. Tourism, secondary wood manufacturing, and arts and crafts are some examples of growing economic trends on the islands.
Haida society is based in a matrilineal system of descent. Property, titles, names, crests, masks, performances, and even songs are among the Haidas’ hereditary privileges. These are passed from one generation to the next, through the mother’s side. All families are also divided into one of two groups, Eagle and Raven. Every Haida is either Eagle or Raven, following from the mother. If one is born Raven, he or she must marry Eagle
Canoes were to the people of this coast what the horse became to the Plains Indians. They were hollowed out of single logs of cedar, and were sometimes very large. Houses were built of huge cedar beams and planks which were worked out with adzes and wedges made anciently of stone, and put together at great feasts called by the whites by the jargon word “potlatch”. Each house ordinarily had a single carved pole in the middle of the gable enc: presented to the beach. Often the end posts in front were also carved and the whole house front painted.