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The Haida People and Their Culture

By Jeane Breinig (Haida), 2009

(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)

Sea, Land, Rivers

It’s an endless cycle – gathering food, putting it up, sharing it among the people. Subsistence is fundamental to our being, even for city-dwellers. Every summer since the kids were little, we would return to Kasaan to join in harvesting activities with family and friends. Our traditions pass on through the foods, the seasons and the generations. I am Haida Yáahl-Xúuts (Raven–Brown Bear), of the Taslaanas clan (The Sandy Beach People) at Kasaan, Alaska. By the custom of our matrilineal society, I trace my descent and clan affiliation through my mother, her mother and a long line of Raven women going back through the centuries.

Haida identities are linked to the history of our people. Alaskan Haida look south to Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada) as their ancestral homeland. The present villages of Masset and Skidegate were the only settlements that remained after a smallpox epidemic ravaged Haida Gwaii in 1862. Survivors from at least seventeen other communities found refuge there. Alaskan Haida are the descendants of emigrants who left Haida Gwaii sometime before European contact. Residents of Old Kasaan, one of the original Alaskan villages, moved to (New) Kasaan in 1902, and people from Howkan, Klinkwan, and other early Alaskan Haida settlements consolidated at Hydaburg in 1911. The distance from northern Haida Gwaii to Prince of Wales Island is not great, only about thirty-five miles. It is easy to imagine our forebears going across in their canoes: the Haida are justly famous as seafarers and boat builders. Our red-cedar canoes, some large enough to carry forty passengers, traveled up and down the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia and were sought in trade by Tlingit, Tsimshian and other peoples.

When the salmon start jumping in Kasaan Bay, it’s time to begin gathering the foods of our land. We pick sghiw (black seaweed) during the minus tides of May, when you can get out to the rocks where it grows. They spread it out on flat rocks to dry in the sun, took it home in gunnysacks, ground it up, and stored it as a savory food for winter. We love to eat it by the handful or sprinkle it on fish soup. As the summer goes on we fish for halibut and the different species of salmon that arrive in our waters. Sockeye from the Karta River, a staple of the diet in Kasaan, are smoked and preserved using an endless variety of family recipes. Clams, abalone, “gumboots” (chitons), crabs and shrimp are also harvested, and salmonberries, blueberries and huckleberries are picked as they ripen in succession. The men go deer hunting in the fall. Another staple is hooligan (eulachon) oil or “grease,” called satáw in the Haida language. Haida traditionally bartered for fish grease and soapberries from the Tsimshian in exchange for our dried seaweed and halibut. That kind of trading still goes on at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention every October, when everyone brings specialties from home to exchange for favorite foods from other places.

Family and Community

In a traditional Haida village, cedar-plank longhouses stood side by side, each paired with a tall pole displaying the crest animals of the clan members who resided there. An opening through base of the pole, representing the mouth or stomach of the lowest crest figure, served as the doorway to some houses. Like other southeast Alaskan peoples, the Haida are socially divided between Ravens and Eagles, each half (moiety) composed of numerous matrilineal clans. Traditional marriages were always between a member of a Raven clan and a member of an Eagle clan. The residents of a longhouse included multiple generations of male clan members and women of other clans who came there to live with their husbands.

Much of a child’s education was the responsibility of clan mentors outside the nuclear family: for a boy, this was his maternal uncle, and for a girl, her maternal aunt. On their pathways to adulthood, children received the names of ancestors, as well as piercings and tattoos that signified their clan and rank. Children still learn through watching and participating in the activities of the community. Our oral tradition is another participatory way of learning. Elders teach through stories, although the message may be indirect. If you seek an elder’s counsel, you might hear a tale about another place and time. It is up to you to think about the meaning and apply it to your own life.

The worst horrors of Haida contact with the West were waves of epidemic disease – smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, whooping cough and others – that consumed the aboriginal population, unchecked by natural immunity. Perhaps fourteen thousand Haida in the 1780s had withered to six hundred by 1915. It is hard to imagine loss on that scale, not only of life, but also of culture and heritage. Most of the clan leadership was gone, and consolidation of the widespread population into just a few villages almost destroyed the complex social system as it had functioned until then.

Haida oral literature is renowned for its epic tales of battles and migrations, transformations from animals to human beings and vice versa, and journeys to spirit worlds in the sky and underwater. Other Haida tales, especially Raven stories, are simply fun with a touch of mystery. Raven, the comical trickster is always in trouble. Elders say that he turned black by getting stuck in the smoke hole of a house and being too fat and lazy to escape.

Today there are fewer than a dozen fluent Alaskan Haida speakers. I am fortunate that my mother, Julie Coburn, is one of them. Her Haida name is Wahlgidouk, “Giver of Gifts,” meaning a person who brings in presents to be distributed at a ceremonial giveaway, or potlatch. She has been giving the gifts of language and literature throughout her life. Keeping her language was a kind of heroism under all the pressures for acculturation. Her parents, concerned about their children’s survival in Western culture, spoke Haida to them at home but asked them to answer in English. At her boarding school in Sitka, speaking Haida was harshly punished. But as an adult in her fifties, she recognized that the language was fading away, so she relearned it and now has had the good fortune also to teach others. She participated in the Haida Society for the Preservation of Haida Language and Literature and contributed to work accomplished at the Alaska Native Language Center when Haida elders developed a standardized writing system.

Ceremony and Celebration

In 1880, Chief Son-I-Hat built Neyúwens ("Great House") near Kasaan Bay, a mile from the location where New Kasaan was later founded. That structure, today called the Whale House, was restored in 1938 by Haida craftsmen working for the Civilian Conservation Corps. The restoration included the house’s crest pole and carved interior posts, which portray Coon-Ahts, a legendary figure who captured the monster Gonaqadate and put on his skin to hunt whales. Surrounding the house are additional totem poles brought over from Old Kasaan and restored, along with copies of several more. The Whale House is the only surviving traditional Haida clan house in Alaska.

The English word potlatch has been used for traditional Haida ceremonies that centered on feasting, dancing and the distribution of property by chiefs and other leaders. The Haida word is 'wáahlaal. The largest potlatches marked the completion of a new clan house or the death of a chief and succession of his heir. Chief Son-I-Hat, one of the wealthiest Haida leaders, hosted numerous potlatches before his death in 1912. Potlatches were outlawed by the Canadian government in 1884, and they were discouraged by Christian missionaries who came to the Haida region in the 1870s and 1880s.

Despite attempts to suppress of our traditional ceremonies, we still hold feasts and memorial potlatches, but now in transformed ways. Traditionally, potlatches represented a time for the deceased person’s clan to repay those from other clans who had helped them at the time of the death. In many respects, a potlatch can be viewed as a social occasion but with very formal aspects, acknowledging the sadness of the loss but also marking the end of mourning. Potlatches are also the time to repay those who have served as witnesses for naming ceremonies. By accepting a gift, recipients acknowledge that the name is legally granted within the traditional Haida system.

We are celebrating and revitalizing Haida culture in southeast Alaska. Teaching the language and rebuilding the Whale House are just a part of it. Every summer in Kasaan, a culture camp for the kids is held, with storytelling, dancing and subsistence activities. They want to learn and are so proud of their heritage. What does it mean to be Haida? The answer now is different from that of the past, obviously. We need to know our history and learn from it. We need to know our culture and draw strength from it. We need to make it work for us today.

Tags: Haida, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Sea, Land, Rivers: Cedar canoe

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Canoe model

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Sea, Land, Rivers: Harvesting and processing halibut

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Halibut hook

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Basket

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Community, Family: Village view

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Clan house model

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Community, Family: Clan membership

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Hat

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Feast dish

National Museum of the American Indian

Ceremony, Celebration: Wearing regalia

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Headdress

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Ceremony, Celebration: Haida Dancer

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Mask

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Tunic

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

The Haida People and Their Culture

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Map of Haida Territory in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska