The Haida—A Unique People of the “Misty Isles”
By Awake! correspondent in Canada
SOME two hundred years ago, European explorers and traders were both delighted and surprised at their first encounters with the Haida people, the unique inhabitants of a newly discovered group of islands off the western coast of Canada.
These initial contacts were both dignified and friendly. Sleek, hand-hewed cedar canoes full of men and women, sometimes dressed in the finest sealskin robes, swarmed out to greet each trading ship. On one occasion, the occupants of a canoe began to sing, and in a friendly gesture, a man stood up to scatter feathers on the water. (Eagle down was symbolic of friendship and welcome.) On another occasion, a chieftain approached and sang solo a song of welcome, as two hundred voices on the shore joined in the choruses.
Haida Gwaii, or the homeland of the Haida, consists of a dagger-shaped archipelago of 150 islands, lying about 60 miles [100 km] west of Canada’s British Columbia coast. This group of misty islands is now named the Queen Charlotte Islands, often called the Queen Charlottes. The warm ocean current from Japan, the Japan Current, moderates the climate of the islands. However, despite the mild temperatures, the islands can be buffeted by strong winds and squalls.
Who Are the Haida?
Little is known about the origin of the Haida or about their arrival on the Queen Charlottes, as no written record of their history or culture has ever been kept. Like the mist-laden isles themselves, their past is shrouded in the mists of time. Some think that the Haida arrived from Asia by way of the Bering Strait, while others argue that they came by canoe on the Japan Current. However, all we have is a collection of oral traditions that intertwine fact and fiction. According to one tale, Haida people emerged from a large clamshell, opened by a raven, at Rose Point on the northeastern tip of Graham Island—the largest of the Queen Charlottes.
These numerous myths and legends throw little or no light on the origin of the Haida, but, interestingly, various stories do tell of a great flood that covered the highest peaks, and only by building a big log raft and loading it with supplies did anyone survive. One Haida elder from Skidegate testified: “Many of our people know this story of the Flood, for it is the truth. It really happened, a great many years ago.”
The Haida, confident, resourceful, and highly creative, had established a rich and complex social structure long before 1774, when the Europeans arrived. The nation was divided into two basic parts, the Eagle clan and the Raven clan, determined at birth through the mother’s line. In this matrilineal society, the children were always of the mother’s clan. Marriage mates were to be chosen only from the opposite clan, and the engagement was often arranged by the mother when her son or daughter was still very young.
Totem Poles—Their Meaning
Family or clan crests, using natural or mythical creatures as symbols, were proud possessions for personal identification. The Eagle clan’s crests included stylistically carved or painted eagles, cormorants, beavers, and dogfish, whereas the Raven clan’s crests included mountain goats, killer whales, grizzly bears, and rainbows. These crests were not merely decorative but depicted the family’s lineage, wealth, and status, as well as the privileges, songs, and stories of the clan.
While the carved poles were not idolized, some of the crest figures had mythical or spiritual significance, depicting supernatural ancestors with magical powers to transform themselves into animals and back again. For a period of less than a hundred years, from about 1840, carving and erecting of poles gained great popularity. Now these large cedar poles, bleached and buffed by the weather to a silver-gray, are slowly decaying and falling. Some of the poles were 60 feet [18 m] high and 5 feet [1.5 m] wide.
From springtime to autumn, Haida life was occupied with the gathering and storing of food. From the sea came an abundance of fish, clams, herring roe, and seaweed. They caught seals for the fat content, trading it for grease from the eulachon fish not found in their island waters. Eulachon grease is valued to this day, as it adds flavor to all sorts of dishes. Bird’s eggs, wild berries, ground roots, and wild meat added variety to the diet.
The Haida were not known as farmers, although when potatoes were introduced from the mainland, they successfully harvested them and traded them back to the mainland nations. During the winter months, there were potlatches, happy gatherings, when families often dressed in ceremonial costumes made of beautiful sealskins. Their potlatches were occasions for sharing and gift giving, a means of distributing wealth or attaining stature in the community. These were days of feasting, dancing, singing, and storytelling.
The remnants of Haida villages, dotted throughout the islands, attest to a considerable population that once lived on the Queen Charlottes. In the early 1800’s, there were some 7,000 inhabitants on the islands. But with the coming of the white man, there came his diseases and his alcohol, which led to widespread alcohol abuse. Villages were abandoned as the Haida tried to flee before a decimating smallpox scourge. By 1885 they had dwindled to a mere 800 persons.
Vikings of the Pacific Northwest
With their homeland surrounded by water, the Haida have always been at home on the sea, especially in their magnificent canoes. Why, some of these canoes were so big they were even longer than the sailing ships of the early European explorers! The canoes ranged in length from 75 feet [23 m], capable of carrying 40 people and two tons of freight, to the smaller 25-foot [8 m] canoe for everyday inshore use. In these larger canoes, the Haida raided and traded uncontested for centuries, from Alaska in the north to Puget Sound in the south. They instilled fear and awe among the mainland native nations, and they have been dubbed the Vikings of the Pacific northwest.
Though the Haida now have modern, well-equipped seagoing vessels, the original red cedar canoes have not been forgotten. A few are still built for special occasions, such as the Canadian World Exposition, Expo 86, held in Vancouver, British Columbia. The soft wood of the large red cedar trees was ideal for shaping canoes. The wood grain was straight, easy to work with, and decay resistant.
What Does the Future Hold?
The Haida are now reduced to two villages, Old Masset and Skidegate, and many wonder about the future of them and their culture as well as their beautiful “misty isles.” Alcohol abuse and disease have certainly left their tragic mark. The lure of city life has caused an exodus of the younger generation to the mainland cities of Prince Rupert and Vancouver. Industrial logging, although providing many island jobs, has aroused suspicion and concern among those who see their beloved islands endangered.
Christendom’s religions have been another negative influence on the Haida way of life. Church missionaries, in their zeal to convert and control, gave little thought to a very old, established culture. They “never tried to understand the Haida—his ways of expressing himself, his thought processes, his values,” claims one historical authority. One after another, potlatches, dancing, totem poles, and shamans (medicine men) were banned by the missionaries. At the time of baptism, name changes were enforced. Cherished names, full of meaning, were totally disregarded and replaced by Anglo-Saxon surnames like Smith, Jones, and Gladstone. The new names followed a patrilineal system rather than the matrilineal system used by the Haida. The missionaries took away their old values but did not replace them with Scriptural ones.
However, in more recent years, the Haida have been blessed by the arrival on their shores of a different type of missionary—Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their message has appealed to the good qualities of the Haida, and it gives them a real hope for the future. As these Christian missionaries continue to go from house to house throughout the islands, sometimes using fishing boats and bush planes to reach remote settlements from Cape St. James to Langara Island, they are overwhelmed by the relatively untouched beauty of the Queen Charlotte Islands and the warmth and kindness of the people.
Like the explorers of two hundred years ago, Jehovah’s Witnesses have found true companions among the Haida, as they have diligently taken the good news of God’s established Kingdom to every home on the islands. And many Haida families have responded, recognizing the ring of truth contained in God’s Word, the Bible. By studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, they have come to appreciate the true relationship between man and God, man and man, and man and animal.
They have come to know the name of the “supreme being,” not merely as the “Power of the Shining Heavens,” but as Jehovah God. They have come to appreciate the brotherhood of mankind, that all men are equal before Jehovah through Christ Jesus. (Acts 10:34, 35) And yes, animals, birds, and fish are all souls, just as man is a soul. They do not possess immortal souls or the supernatural powers attributed to them by the ancient Haida storytellers.—Leviticus 24:17, 18; Ecclesiastes 3:18-21; Ezekiel 18:4, 20.
Ten different types of whales feed in the plankton-rich waters. Steller’s sea lions abound on rocky promontories. Half a million seabirds inhabit the steep cliffs along with rare peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and ravens. Fish of all kinds swarm in the coastal waters, streams, and lakes. Black bears, unmatched for size anywhere in the world, roam the moss-carpeted forests that contain one-thousand-year-old trees, including giant Sitka spruce, red cedar, and hemlock.
Preservationists are concerned that this pristine beauty and rich environment of the Charlottes will go the way of other areas that have become desolate wastelands because of man’s mismanagement. Yet, the Haida who have embraced the promises of the Supreme One, Jehovah God, look forward to the future with confidence, as his promises never fail. (Joshua 23:14) From our Grand Creator comes the promise that the whole earth will become a paradise under the righteous administration of God’s Kingdom. Then the haunting beauty of the “misty isles” will never again be threatened.—2 Peter 3:13.
[Pictures on page 25]
Right: Scenic misty isles
Far right: Totem poles of Ninstints Village, Anthony Island
Below: Steller’s sea lions at Cape St. James
[Pictures on page 26]
Left: Kingdom Hall in Queen Charlotte City
Above: Broom bushes in bloom