Published on November 10, 2012 by Amy
The Haida are an indigenous nation of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Their main territory is the archipelago of Haida Gwaii in northern British Columbia, but many live across the water in Southeast Alaska.
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The term “Haida Nation” refers both to the people as a whole and also to their government on Canadian territory, the Council of the Haida Nation; the government for those in the United States is the Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The Haida language has erroneously been classified as one of the Na-Dene group, but today is considered to be an isolate.
Haida society continues to be very engaged in the production of a robust and highly stylized art form, a leading component of Northwest Coast art . While frequently expressed in large wooden carvings (totem poles), Chilkat weaving, or ornate jewelry, it is also moving quickly into works of popular expression such as Haida manga.
Haida territories lie in both Canada and the United States, as do those of the Tlingit and Tsimshian peoples. Their heartland is the two large and many smaller islands known as Haida Gwaii, which means “land of the people” in Haida. This archipelago was surveyed in 1787 by Captain George Dixon of the British Navy. They were named the Queen Charlotte Islands by Captain Dixon after one of his ships, the Queen Charlotte, which was named after Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III of the United Kingdom.
Haida also live in Southeast Alaska (such as the southern half of Prince of Wales Island), and also in cities of British Columbia and the western United States.
The Haida were known for their seamanship, their martial inclination and their practice of slavery. Canadian Museum of Civilization anthropologist Diamond Jenness has compared the tribe to Vikings. The Haida also “created notions of wealth”, and credits the Haida with the introduction of the totem pole and the bentwood box.
Like other groups on the Northwest Coast, the Haida defended themselves with fortifications, including palisades, trapdoors and platforms. They took to water in large ocean-going canoes, large enough to accommodate as many as 60 paddlers, each created from a single Western Red cedar tree. The aggressive tribe were particularly feared in sea battles, although they did respect rules of engagement in their conflicts. The Haida developed effective weapons for boat-based battle, including a special system of stone rings weighing 18 to 23 kilograms (40 to 51 lb) which could destroy an enemy’s dugout canoe and be reused after the Haida pulled it back with the attached cedar bark rope. The Haida took captives from defeated enemies. Between 1780 and 1830, the Haida turned their aggression towards European and American traders. Among the half-dozen ships the tribe captured were the Eleanor and the Susan Sturgis. The tribe made use of the weapons they so acquired, utilizing cannons and canoe-mounted swivel guns.
In 1856, an expedition in search of a route across Vancouver Island was at the mouth of the Qualicum River when they observed a large fleet of Haida canoes approaching and hid in the forest. They observed these attackers holding human heads. When they came to the mouth of the river, they came upon the charred remains of the village of the Qualicum people and the mutilated bodies of its inhabitants, with only one survivor, an elderly woman, hiding terrified inside a tree stump. Also in 1856, the USS Massachusetts was sent from Seattle to nearby Port Gamble, where indigenous raiding parties made up of Haida (from territory claimed by the British) and Tongass (from territory claimed by the Russians) had been attacking and enslaving the Coast Salish people there. When the Haida and Tongass (sea lion tribe Tlingit) warriors refused to acknowledge American jurisdiction and to hand over those among them who had attacked the Puget Sound communities, a battle ensued in which 26 Native Americans and one government soldier were killed. In the aftermath of this, Colonel Isaac Ebey, a US military officer and the first settler on Whidbey Island, was shot and beheaded on 11 August 1857 by a small Haida fleet, in retaliation for the killing of a respected Haida citizen during similar raids the year before. British authorities demurred to pursue or confront any northern indigenous nations as they passed northward through waters over which the British nevertheless claimed sovereignty and Ebey’s killers were never caught.