Timeless Cultural Traditions: The Haida


In this series, Andrew Harper-recommended destination specialists and tour operators share their insight into what they consider to be some of the most fascinating and culturally diverse populations across the globe.

The Haida

Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada

Off the north coast of British Columbia lies Haida Gwaii, formerly called Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago so rich in biodiversity that it is sometimes referred to as the “Canadian Galapagos.” Although the islands are a quick two-hour flight from Vancouver, Haida Gwaii offers a serene and remote contrast to the region’s bustling urban areas.

For thousands of years these islands have been the main territory of the Haida, a First Nation culture of skilled seafarers, hunters and traders. After the Europeans discovered the islands in 1774, the Haida began a lucrative relationship trading primarily in sea otter pelts, leading to an increase in the Haida’s wealth.

The Haida also were known as skilled craftsmen, particularly in carving wooden items such as canoes and totem and mortuary poles. These towering poles, carved from giant red cedar, display family crests as well as the local animal life, and weave story and art together to commemorate the Haida’s relationship to the land and sea.

As sea otters disappeared from the islands and the fur trade dried up in the late 1800s, missionaries moved into Haida Gwaii and discouraged the Haida from carving the poles, whose meaning and symbolism they misunderstood. Along with a drastic decrease in population from around 25,000 to less than 600 due to diseases such as small pox, this led to an almost century-long hiatus in Haida pole-carving.

Like the sea otters, the Haida language also became greatly endangered, with only a few dozen people estimated to speak Haida today. While efforts to ensure younger Haidas learn their ancestral language exist, the Haidas’ use of their distinctive artwork as a means of storytelling and documenting their history, particularly their connection to nature, has endured. Indeed, today the Haida have a renewed identity, expressed greatly through their art, including masks, cedar bent boxes, gold and silver jewellery, prints, button blankets and robes.

“Of all the artisan groups I have met, I have never known one whose artwork was more at one with the natural world,” says Stacy Sindlinger, director of artisan development with Lindblad Expeditions. “This is evident from the materials they use to create their art, to the ritual of thanking each living thing for their bounty—such as thanking the trees for their wood to build a loom, or sheep for their wool to spin into yarn—to glorifying and celebrating the magnificent animals that surround them as focal points of every totem pole, dance apron, print or silver cuff bracelet.”

Although the Haidas’ modern artwork ranges from paintings to jewellery, their richly detailed totem poles remain one of the most recognizable forms of Haida art and a glimpse into the history, spirit and culture of this people. The art form has resurged and today the islands include many active carvers. Pole-raising ceremonies occur every summer to mark the tradition. Visitors to Haida Gwaii can tour carving studios, learn from local Haida carvers and see current projects.

Ironically, the Haida do not have a word for “art.” Yet, as Sindlinger notes, that does not stop visitors from being moved by the Haida’s artistic expression of their extraordinary respect for nature and the people’s simple, yet powerful, collective wisdom handed down through the centuries.

Lindblad Expeditions, pioneers in small-ship expedition travel who recently partnered with National Geographic, offer multiple tour and expedition itineraries that explore Haida Gwaii and the Haida culture.

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This article is an excerpt from the October, November, December edition of the Traveler magazine. Click here to access the full issue.

By Hideaway Report Staff