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An Introduction to the Haida

By Moira McCaffrey, Director, Research and Exhibitions, McCord Museum; Guislaine Lemay, Curatorial Assistant, McCord Museum; and Robert Davidson, Guest Curator

On their lush island home of Haida Gwaii off the Northwest Coast, the Haida fashioned a world of outstanding artistic expression, one that sustained them through near annihilation in the late 19th century.

In the past, as today, Haida artists could be male or female. Their creative output was astonishing - carved and painted chests, lifelike masks, finely woven baskets, complex songs and dances, intricate tattoo designs, imposing totem poles. The Haida artworks in the McCord Museum reflect the tastes of one collector, the eminent Canadian geologist George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901). As the objects are mainly carved and painted, they were likely made by male artists.

Life and art on Haida Gwaii

Haida Gwaii is a homeland of towering cedar trees, spectacular seascapes and a rich array of natural resources. Archaeology places the arrival of the earliest peoples on the Northwest Coast of North America at about 12,000 years ago, as soon the last glacial ice receded. By 5,000 years ago, Haida ancestors were organizing seasonal harvests of salmon and halibut, hunting sea and land mammals and filling baskets with edible plants. Clams and mussels, available in abundance, were steamed and consumed all year round.

Within this bountiful universe their culture attained great sophistication and complexity, characterized by a growing population, a surplus supply of food and an emphasis on wealth and status. Permanent villages facilitated the secure storage of food, tools and luxury goods, and allowed specialized craftspeople to devote more time to art. Although objects of carved and painted wood have not survived beyond a few hundred years, discoveries of engraved antler and bone objects dating back 2,500 years show that a recognizable artistic vocabulary already existed at this time.


Spanish explorer Juan Pérez was the first European to sight Haida Gwaii in 1774, followed by British navigator James Cook in 1778. Soon European and American merchants were exchanging clothing, glass beads and steel knives for sea otter pelts and a range of Haida goods, such as canoes, carved bowls and spoons, and painted storage boxes. The Haida first contracted smallpox from these visitors in 1791. Massive devastation did not strike until 1862, however, when travellers to Victoria brought a smallpox epidemic back to Haida Gwaii. Within two years, the population had declined so severely that entire villages were abandoned, leaving survivors to regroup in Masset and Skidegate.

Ceremonial art

Traditional Haida society was highly structured, reflecting differential access to resources and power, as well as complex religious beliefs about animal and spiritual realms. The Haida were divided into two social groups or moieties - Raven and Eagle - each of which comprised a number of lineages. Marriages took place between Ravens and Eagles, with children joining their mother's moiety.

Permanent winter villages had as many as 40 huge cedar-plank houses arranged in rows along the shoreline, with each house occupied by 25 to 40 family members. The villages were politically independent units, using lineage-owned territories and led by the highest-ranking chief.

Each lineage granted members entitlement to economic resources such as fishing spots, hunting or collecting areas, and house sites. However, the wealth that provided the impetus and context for artistic production came mainly from intangible riches inherited from ancestors: the rights to dances, songs, names, masks and regalia, as well as to crests and other identifying symbols, made visible through the carved and painted creations of artists.

The potlatch

The potlatch is a large ceremonial feast hosted by a powerful family on the occasion of a birth, death, naming, installation of a new chief or raising of a totem pole. The hosts garner prestige and legitimize their social status by distributing gifts and displaying crests symbolizing their inherited rights. Dance performances are an integral part of a potlatch, feast or other ceremony. On such occasions, art is integrated with song, dance and re-enactments of the experiences of ancestors. A dramatic way of recreating the past is through the use of masks, which come alive when animated by the movement of a skilled dancer, especially in front of a fire. While dance presentations are deliberately crafted to impress, the purpose of the performance is to validate the ancient history and prerogatives of the mask owner's family.

Art, then and now

Between 1885 and 1951 the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch. This act threatened the survival of Haida beliefs and traditional art. Yet the Haida persevered, and recent decades have seen an outpouring of new cultural and artistic energy. Contemporary Haida artists are constantly exploring the ancient language of their art; it is the foundation on which new endeavours are built and the grammar with which future histories are written.

Source: "Haida Art: Mapping an Ancient Language" Exhibition Text, 2006


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Davidson, Robert, and Ulli Steltzer. Eagle Transforming: The Art Of Robert Davidson. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

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McLennan, Bill, and Karen Duffek. The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

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