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The Vikings of the Pacific - Part One
Origins and Culture of the Haida People
Nestled into the misty coastline of the northern Pacific, just off the edge of British Columbia, is a small archipelago of islands known as Xaadala Gwayee - ‘the islands at the boundary of the world’. Known previously as the Queen Charlotte Islands and now as Haida Gwaii, this small remote place is home to one of the most enigmatic cultures in Native American history - the Haida. The Haida are one of those people who, if you are of an anthropological persuasion, become something of an obsession. Like the Dogon or the Calusa, they have acquired a legendary status, in no small part due to their mysterious and fiercesome reputation among their friends and enemies. The wonderful retort mentioned on their Wikipedia page entry sets the tone for how the Haida conceive of themselves:
“The Haida are known for their craftsmanship, trading skills, and seamanship. They are thought to have been warlike and to practise slavery. Anthropologist Diamond Jenness has compared the Haida to Vikings while Haida have replied saying that Vikings are like Haida.”
That defiant response suggests something quite different in their national character, compared to what is typically offered about the supposedly peaceful and harmonious nature of tribal peoples. That they are happy and willing to be associated with aggressive sea raiding is refreshing and adds to their martial aura. I want here to be able to draw on the texts available for this culture, concerning their homeland, ancestry, way of life and history, to sketch a portrait but also to act as a set of resources and a narrative. Too often a student of world cultures will find themselves lost in the weeds of obscure scholarly citations, when all they want is a simple overview complete with more references. Why not Wikipedia I hear you ask? Sadly their page doesn’t do them justice, with only five lines dedicated to their history before European contact.
I hope then to present to the reader a window onto a unique and ancient people which the world has largely forgotten. Part One will cover the pre-history and culture of the Haida and a later Part Two will cover their struggles and decline in the colonial era.
In the Beginning - Part One
The world was dark. Total blackness.
Raven (Yáahl) was tired of bumping into things. He longed for the light.
Raven learnt that an old man and his daughter lived in a small hut at the edge of the water. He learnt that the old man had a small box within which was all the light of the universe.
Raven waited until the girl went to the water to drink and transformed himself into a hemlock needle and the girl drank him down into her belly where he transformed again into a tiny human.
He grew and eventually the girl gave birth to him and the old man loved and treasured this strange child.
The boy begged to see the light inside the box and eventually the old man gave in. He opened the lid and tossed the glowing orb at the child.
The boy transformed in an instant and caught the light in his beak. Raven then stretched his wings and flew out of the chimney hole in the roof, carrying with him the orb of light which he shared with the world.
In the Beginning - Part Two
In the beginning there was ice, lots of thick ice. Glaciers that covered the continent of North America, pushing all life into the most remote pockets of existence. These refugia, as they are known, were the tiny points of survival from which recolonisation of the land could occur once the ice melted. The land of Haida Gwaii were one of these remnants, the sea being substantially lower than in other places and with an active volcano just over 100 miles west of the archipelago. Bowie Seamount as it is called, or SG̱aan Ḵinghlas in the Haida language - The Supernatural One Looking Outwards - was still active around 18,000 years ago and supports a vast host of marine life today. It may well have been visible, should you have been standing on the land all those millennia ago. The extent of ice cover on Haida Gwaii is still debated, but it seems to have formed part of a series of coastal refugia allowing bears, martens, multiple species of plants, trees and fish to survive the glacial maximum and to repopulate the landscape as it became available.
Despite the presence of these forbidding glaciers, recent evidence for early human presence in the Americas has been uncovered, pushing the confirmed date for habitation back to between 23 -21 thousands years ago. The relationship between these people and the later migrants is not fully understood and it may be that they died off before the advent of the Holocene and the raising of the sea levels. Whilst it is tempting here to divert into a full analysis of the current evidence for the peopling of the Americas, it is better to stick to the Haida Gwaii and what possible role it played in these migrations.
Water and Ice
To take Haida oral history seriously we have to entertain some fascinating possibilities: firstly that they have preserved memories and testimonies of the earliest migrants reaching the archipelago before it was disconnected from the mainland; secondly that the original Haida populated a landscape without trees, and thirdly that these voyages used forms of seafaring technology that we have yet to properly understand. According to Swanton, the most comprehensive ethnographer of the Haida, these early stories are the ‘Period of the Supernatural Beings’. A time of Raven, a child cast adrift in a skin boat, Eagle and Stone-Ribs; when the four races of men were summoned from the earth - the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl and Tsimishian; when the Great Flood cut off the ‘reef’ from the mainland.
In 1969 the Canadian Broadcasting Service interviewed Haida Chief William Matthews, a conversation covering all sorts of topics, of history and culture. In this discussion he mentions the original migration of the Haida people, the crossing to Alaska, as occurring before they could make ‘good canoes’. Instead he references the earliest sea crossings as using inflated seal stomachs as rafts or pontoons. This extraordinary claim was bolstered in a similar interview with Henry Geddes - the greatest storyteller of his generation - he confirmed that in the earliest memories of the migrations, the Haida were not using canoes.
We know that sometime in the distant past, a movement of peoples from Asia must have crossed across Beringia and were potentially stranded. Further overland migrations have been demonstrated using genetics and scatters of archaeological excavations. Alongside these terrestrial paths have been hypothesised a number of other ways that humans could have reached North America, prominent among them is the ‘Coastal Route’ and the ‘Kelp Highway Hypothesis’. These proposals suggest that, alongside the mainland path, other humans could have traversed the Beringian gap and migrated into the Americas down the coastlines, following the highly productive marine habitats. One of the main places that these migrants would have encountered would be the Haida Gwaii archipelago, then still part of the mainland. Studies of seal populations and carbon dating of osteological remains along the potential coastal path have confirmed that the route would have been open at least 16 thousand years ago.
Assuming that both the oral history and the hypothetical route suggested by the data are correct, this leaves us with the possibility that a secondary migration route was utilised by at least one wave of migrants out of Asia and most likely made use of the open land on the Haida Gwaii. We are hampered for early dates by the relative lack of underwater excavations in the area, since most of the archipelago was later submerged as the ice melted. Most likely the oldest site dates to 13 thousand years ago, which strongly suggests that the coastal migration routes were being made use of as soon as the climate permitted. Fragments of charcoal, tiny deposits of food, scatters of lithics - these are so often the only clues that archaeologists have when dealing with early colonisation phenomena, and the Haida are no exception.
The Eagle and the Raven
Having established that the Haida people had arrived as the warming temperatures of the Holocene was rapidly changing the landscape, we can turn to the question of who the Haida are. What kind of society are they? Why are they so distinct and what made them so unique?
To understand the Haida it is worth setting the scene in terms of their extraordinary homeland, the archipelago itself. Haida Gwaii consists of two main islands - Kiis Gwaay, or Graham Island in the north and Gwaay Haanas (Islands of Beauty) or Moresby Island in the south. Complimenting these are around 400 smaller islands, adding up to around 4,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of the ‘Big Island’ of Hawai’i. Rain soaked but blessed with a moderate temperature, the islands are a foggy, misty paradise for trees, famously red and yellow cedar, sitka spruce and hemlock. Everything is blanketed in a layer of moss and lichens.
Unsurprisingly the Haida are ruled by the waves, the rhythms of the sea and the tides, patterns of cloud and rain, the two winds which sweep in from both the north and south and the seasonal shifts. They use a lunar cycle calendar and split the year into two six month periods with October/November referred to as the ‘in-between month’. These have wonderfully descriptive names like ‘killer whale month’ and ‘month when the laughing geese fly north’. The interior forests were rarely explored and the Haida feared the ‘wild men’ of the woods, at most exploring for large cedar trees to make canoes. The ocean was also populated with ‘sea people’, as anyone who drowned came back as a killer whale. In between the forest and the ocean lived the Haida themselves, in plank longhouses, doors facing the waves since no-one ever visited from the woods. The back of the house was always associated with witchcraft, malice and sorcery. The woods were populated by bears, martens and otter, the sea itself teeming with seals, whales, sea lions, five types of salmon and abundant shellfish and seaweed. The fresh water streams which led into the islands were central to the salmon harvest every year and they shared the bounty with the eagles and ravens, the totemic birds so foundational to Haida identity.
The Eagle and Raven are symbolically the most important system of social division within the Haida. Everything, from the mountains to the dolphins, belongs to either the Eagle or Raven moiety. People are no exception and every Haida is born into one or the other. The other crucial component to their social system is matrilineality. Men marry across the divide, while the women maintain their birth membership. The importance of this has been underlined by genetic studies on the Haida showing deep and visible differences between the mitochondrial DNA of the two groups:
“When mtDNA data were sorted according to the descent groups of Tlingit and Haida individuals, we noted a strong correspondence between mitochondrial haplotype and maternal moiety affiliation… Haida mtDNA data showed a clear distinction between the Eagle and Raven moiety members. Aside from those persons adopted into an Eagle clan, all but one of its members had only the A2 founder HVS1 haplotype #1. The remaining mtDNA haplotypes belonged to Raven clan members”
Intriguingly the origins of the two moieties have an ‘indigenous/foreign’ distinction. The Raven clan claim descent from a mythical being known as ‘Foam-Woman’ who was present on the ‘reef’ when the Haida arrived. The Eagles, who have a reputation for a more foreign influence, claim descent from multiple origins - some from Tlingit and Tsimshian sources; the majority from an ancestress called ‘Djilaqons’, brought to the islands by another deity - ‘He-Whose-Voice-Is-Obeyed’. Swanton argued that the cognitive structure of the two totems reflected the founding of the Haida themselves, with a much larger number of ancient villages belonging to Raven and the mythical descriptors of Raven as connected to the sea and Eagle as a latecomer from the land. Within these moieties a number of lineages exist, each connected with a particular land or sea based resource - cliffs, river mouths, beaches and so on.
With these structures dominating Haida society there was a fissioning downwards from the lineages towards status and caste. There was never any formal class system among the Haida, with each lineage having heads and chiefs. Some observers of the Haida found them frustratingly flexible in their attitudes towards hierarchy, with many responses echoing the idea that ‘we are all chiefs here’. However, while the politics of reciprocity and prestige ebbed and flowed among between the vague ‘noble’ and ‘commoner’ classes of Haida, there was a small group of slaves at the very bottom who served as the ultimate outsiders to support their social structure. Slaves were often captured in war and raids or traded with other peoples. They performed menial tasks and could be scapegoated for disease and sickness for bringing bad luck or evil spirits down on the people. Rumours that sometimes slaves were cast into totem pole holes while still alive before the pole was erected have been strenuously denied by the modern Haida, who insist only the Tlingit could have been so barbarous.
Potlatch - the bedrock of governance
The Pacific North-West peoples are famous for the elaborate and ostentatious social ceremony known as ‘potlatch’, the practice of rich and high status people distributing their wealth and goods outwards and downwards among others. These events, often conducted in special buildings, involved a high degree of ritual artwork, announcements of names, clans, kinship ties and were also the basis for discussing and agreeing to treaties and negotiating rights to resources and other necessities of governance. While the practice was made illegal in Canada in 1884, it has nevertheless persisted and since the repealment of the law in 1952, has been fundamental for the modern system of Haida government.
Westerners are often told that they are an individualistic people and that this tendency comes with industrialisation and modernity. In truth many indigenous and tribal peoples are just as oriented toward the individual and the Haida foremost among them. Their mythologies and stories regularly focus on the plight of a banished young noble who must court the supernatural and make use of plant medicine in order to regain and grow their wealth and status. The metaphysical description of hierarchy is pronounced, with no inference that in some ‘golden era’ was there equality, even between animals. In fact, in their cosmological ordering, there has been and always will be a hierarchy of species and beings, its existence a prior reality. With this in mind we can see how the potlatch becomes a key institution within the a system that actively rewards the individual, even against their own clan or lineage.
The traditional potlatch ceremony amongst the Haida occurs for a number of reasons: on the completion of a new cedar longhouse, for a new totem pole, as a face-saving exercise, for a funeral and as part of an act of vengeance. It is difficult to assess, and indeed entire books have been written on the subject, whether the potlatch functioned as means of social mobility or whether it legitimised those with an already high status birth. If a child of a high status family hosts a potlatch, how does it compare to an up-and-coming family who have built several new houses and have held potlatches for the first time? The flexible and complex politics of kinship, status, prestige and potlatching means that the social system was always in a constant flux of change, but anchored through the permanent institutions of moiety and lineage.
Warfare and Raiding
“A large ship supposed to be English and to belong to London put into a Sound at the south end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, some time last winter with the loss of some of her masts: the natives for several days traded very peaceably with them, but from the distressful situation of the ship they took their opportunity and cut off the vessel, killing the whole crew. (Howay 1925, 297)”
This capture of an English vessel occurred in 1794, the same year as the Haida also captured the Eleanora, another English ship, and killed the crew to a man, suffering no casualties in return. Again in 1799 the Haida attacked two more ships, the Dragon and the Caroline and in 1803 captured the Boston, along with several noted assaults on other foreign merchant vessels. This snapshot of recorded history should indicate the boldness and skill of the Haida in their own waters. Attacking ships many times their size, against crews armed with muskets and cannon, they thought nothing of aggressively defending their territory, where others might have shrunk from the challenge. This, more than any other part of Haida culture, has fascinated historians and readers of North American history. How could such a small and bounded people, armed with stone age technology, become so feared at sea?
The context of the Haida’s success and notoriety is the general culture of maritime belligerence and organised violence that permeated the peoples of the Pacific North-West.
Each of these tribes - the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Bella Coola, Chinook, Coast Salish, Kwakiutl and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth - became proficient at littoral warfare, ambushes and raids from canoes, the capture of slaves and war prisoners, the highly aggressive but ritualised combat between professional warriors and each developed an astonishingly striking aesthetic in armour and war vessels. A few choice quotes from Native North American Armor, Shields, and Fortifications by David E. Jones provides a good overview:
“Boys who showed the right personality traits (surliness, aggressiveness, hostility, insensitivity, violence) were educated as warriors. Trained in the martial arts, these young men practiced running, swimming, and diving and were taught to be cruel and treacherous and to ignore all rules of decent social behavior. Their people disliked and feared them because of their violent outbursts, which could come at any time and for the slightest provocation. They carried rocks to attack people who irritated them. Never smiling or laughing, they walked with stiff, jerky motions—which to the Kwakwaka’wakw indicated tension and anger—and never wore a shirt or robe over their right shoulder, so that they would always be ready to fight. These martial specialists were sprinkled throughout the ranks of raiders to stiffen them for the displays of ferocity that Kwakwaka’wakw warfare demanded”
“The military organization of the Snoqualmie, a Puget Sound chiefdom, included Fall City, a town devoted to military training, and Tolt, the administrative center. Young boys who at the age of twelve or thirteen exhibited warrior traits were sent to Fall City for martial arts training. The best of them became the elite force of the chief, and these semiprofessional soldiers conducted raids and ambushes at his direction”
“Northwest Coast Indians warred for a variety of reasons. They sought revenge for affronts against their populations by other groups (murder, rape, assault, theft) and for what they felt to be insults against their honor, status, and the prerequisites of such ranked positions; they raided for slaves; they fought over women; they struggled to acquire, as well as defend, valuable food sources; they battled to defend territory and also to win it; and they fought for control of trade and trading routes”
From their cedar wood canoes the raiders would come, armed with bows, atlatls, spears, clubs, daggers, knives and lances, made from wood, bone, shell, stone and, later, copper. As well as these aggressive tools, there was also a culture of personal armour, by far the most elaborate and specialised on the continent of North America.
Haida, along with the Tlingit, manufactured rod and slat armour chest protection, solid wood greaves for the arms and legs and wooden helmets, described by the Spanish as ‘hard as iron’. Along with elk-hide garments underneath, this combination prevented arrows and even musket balls from causing severe injury. As metals and currencies began to flow into Canada, these were found to be useful for further protection and ethnographers noted the presence of Chinese coins, sewn into armour plates, as well as sheets of copper and iron used for chest defence.
The final piece of the Haida warfare puzzle are their canoes, the powerful cedar wood vessels which are reported to have reached 60 feet in length.
The canoes were carved from red cedar in the manner of a dug-out canoe, hollowing the centre using fire and stone or bone tools. The walls were carved to the thinnest extent possible before the centre was filled with water. Hot rocks were placed in the water until it reached boiling point, whereupon the craft was covered with material and the wood allowed to steam. As it did so, long sticks and planks were forced between the sides, bending and extending the width and forcing the ends to curl upwards. The end result was a versatile, lightweight and fast boat which served the needs of the Haida perfectly, with their vast array of inlets, coves, shores, sounds and bays. When going into battle, the warriors would be armed on the ships and often fought hand to hand with their enemies from the boats themselves. This dance of rowing, managing tides and winds, avoiding being hit by arrows and rocks and standing up while attempting to hit an opponent or drag him into the boat, meant the Haida and their neighbours were some of the most skilled seafarers on the continent. Often they would try and sink an enemy vessel by launching small boulders to crack the hulls or capsize the boats.
End of Part One
In order to make this topic manageable I have split this into two halves. The next will cover Haida artwork, some of their religious beliefs and their history of conflict and decline with European settlers. Hopefully this has been interesting enough for you, the reader, to want to read part two and maybe do some of your own research into these incredible and lesser known cultures of the Pacific North West.
Boelscher 2011. The curtain within: Haida social and mythical discourse.
Swanton, J.R., 1905. Haida texts and myths.
Leer, J. 2000. A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classic Haida Mythtellers and Their World.
Jones, D.E., 2010. Native North American armor, shields, and fortifications.
White, F., 2014. Emerging from out of the margins: Essays on Haida language, culture, and history.
Fedje, D.W. and Mathewes, R. eds., 2011. Haida Gwaii: human history and environment from the time of loon to the time of the iron people.