January 26, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Haida: Canada's West Coast Indigenous Tribe

Haida: Canada's West Coast Indigenous Tribe

Haida are an Indigenous group who have traditionally occupied Haida Gwaii, a group of islands off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.

They have been around for at least 12, 500 years, but were almost nearly wiped out after European contact introduced disease and illness.

Let's explore the early traditions of the Haida Indigenous tribe. 



The Haida people live in the nation of Haida Gwaii—the ancestral territory of the Haida Nation, which includes over 150 rocky islands off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.

Haida Gwaii GregoryGo Photography, GH Videos


There are approximately 4,500 people living on the islands of Haida Gwaii, today. However, their pre-contact population is said to have been in the tens of thousands.

Population drastically dropped after contact with outsiders introduced diseases, such as smallpox. An epidemic lead to thousands of Haida losing their lives from both the disease and at the hands of the government. 

Haida peopleAPTN News

History of Haida Gwaii

Currently, The Haida Nation collectively holds Hereditary and Aboriginal Title and Rights to Haida Territories and the cultural and intellectual property rights of the Haida Nation.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Totem polesAtlas Obscura

Queen Charlotte Islands

Dating back to the 18th century, Haida Gwaii was inhabited by Haida people. But in 1858 it was annexed by British authorities and integrated into the Colony of British Columbia, and became known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands)...Graham Island - 2015Murray Foubister, Flickr

Haida Nation

In 2009, after decades of negotiations, the BC government officially renamed the islands to Haida Gwaii.

The new name was created as an alternative name for the islands to acknowledge the history of the Haida Nation as part of its land claim efforts in the 1980s.

Haida wait for their Heiltsuk hosts - 2015Shoutsofvictory, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


The Haida are known for their craftmanship, trading skills, and seamanship. However, they have also carried out violent raids and have practiced slavery.

They’ve often been compared to the Vikings of Scandinavia.

Haida GwaiiThe History Junkie


The Haida language is considered to be an isolate—meaning it has no demonstratable relationship to any other language.

Their language was de facto banned in the early 20th century with the introduction of residential schools in an effort to enforce the use of English language.

Even after revitalization projects to preserve the language began, there are less than 50 Haida-speaking people today.

Haida GwaiiHans Tammemagi, We Explore Canada


The Haida are hunter-gatherers. They hunt in nearby forests and mountains on the larger islands, and fish for large sea mammals such as sea lions and seals in the ocean and rivers. They use spears, nets, trolling hooks and stone traps. 

They gather berries and grow crops such as corn, beans and squash.

CanoesNorth Western Class


The traditional religious beliefs of the Haida include a variety of supernatural beings, a belief in reincarnation, and the presence of shamans.

Many Haida believe in an ultimate being called Ne-kilst-lass, which can manifest through the form and antics of a Raven.

Raven Rattle, mid to late 19th century, Haida peopleHaa900, Wikimedia Commons

Social Organization

The Haida nation was split between two moieties (groups), the Raven and the Eagle.

Eagles and Ravens were very important to the Haida families as they would identify with one or the other and this would signify what side on the village they would reside on.

Each group also had rights to their own myths and legends, dances, songs, and music.

A Haida village, Old Kasaan, on Prince of Wales Island - 1908E.A. Hegg, Juneau, Wikimedia Commons

Potlatch Ceremonies

The Haida people often host Potlaches, which are ceremonies that include the circulation of property in the form of gifts.

These ceremonies were held to commemorate an event of importance, such as the giving of names, weddings, and funerals. Some potlaches can take years to prepare.

A group of Haida people showed traditional dances - 2009p2-r2, Flickr


Typical Haida marriages were arranged by the parents when their children were still young. Chiefs were allowed to have more than one wife, though this didn’t occur too often.

There is evidence that preferred partners came from the father’s lineage, meaning there were cross-cousin marriages within the tribe.

Haida menHistory Museum Canada


A Haida man’s property would go to his younger brothers and nephews. The widow would be left with a little section of her own property.

A woman’s property would go to her daughter.

Haida village homesBill Reid, Haida Village, 1958–62 Cedar and paint Photograph by Adelaide de Menil, 1966

Family Dynamics

Marriages between two people from the same moiety were prohibited. Children would officially become part of the moiety that the mother had come from.

The family would also own their own property, and have specific areas for food gathering, according to which moiety they belong to.

Haida Gwaii familyHistory Museum

Family Dynamics Changed

In the 19th century, things changed within the Haida social system. At this point, Ravens and Eagles were now allowed to marry each other, and most families consisted of a nuclear family norm.

Haida mom and kidsHaida Nation

Early Gender Roles

Men were responsible for all of the hunting and fishing, building homes and carving canoes and totem poles.

The women's responsibilities were to stay close to home doing a majority of their work on the land, which mostly included keeping the home, making clothing, and gathering berries.

Haïda Man next to Indian type canoe - 1927Library and Archives Canada , Wikimedia Commons

Children: Boys

As soon as a young boy hit puberty, his uncles on his mother’s side would teach him the family history and how to behave as a man.

They believed a special diet would increase his abilities. For example, duck tongues helped him hold his breath under water, and blue jay tongues helped him to be a strong climber.

A Haida hereditary leader of the eagle moiety awaits guests with his nephew - 2016Graham Richard, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Children: Girls

The girls would seek guidance from the aunts on the father’s side. They would teach her about her duties to her tribe as soon as she reached puberty. 

The girls would go to a secluded space in her home and be made to sleep on a stone pillow. She was only allowed to eat and drink small amounts, as this would make her tougher.

Elderly haida womanResearch Gate

Vision Quests

It was once customary for young boys and girls to embark on vision quests once they hit puberty. These quests would send them out alone for days. They would travel through the forests, in hopes of finding a spirit to guide them through their lives.

Once they found their spirit guide, they would return home and celebrate with masks, face painting and costumes.

Haida villageHistory Museum


Permanent Haida villages included one or more rows of houses built along a beach. They were made from western red cedar with massive support beams.

Most houses had a large firepit in the center with a smoke hole above.

Haida boys near totem poles, canoes and houses at Howkan village, Long Island, Alaska, circa 1897University of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

Housing: Size

Small houses were about 20 feet by 30 feet. One small house provided shelter for 30 to 40 people, which included closely related family members and slaves.

High ranking people had better built homes with stronger materials, while everyone else had the bare minimum.

Haida HouseCanadian Encyclopedia


Early Haida people made dugout canoes out of single tree trunks. After it was cut out, it was shaped using steaming water and hot stones and then inserting stretchers made of wood. It was then painted and decorated.

A single canoe could carry from 30 to 60 people.

Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands)...Graham Island - 2015Murray Foubister, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Traditional Clothing

Haida women wore skirts and capes of cedar bark. Haida men wore long capes of cedar bark with decorative mountain goat wool woven between planks.

Other materials used for clothing, depending on the weather, included deerskin, otter fur, moccasins and caribou coats.

A Haida dances in full regalia. - 2016Graham Richard, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


Many Haida people decorated their face and bodies with tattoos. Their markings indicated their status, spiritual devotion, and sometimes simply decoration.

Some women pierced their lower lips and inserted plugs as accessories.

Tattooed Haida of Masset - 2011Popular Science Monthly Volume 53, Wikimedia Commons


Before contact with Europeans, other Indigenous communities believed the Haida to be aggressive warriors, and many groups actively avoided contact with them.

They were known to fight battles both on land and sea, but also were willing to negotiate Peace Treaties with some groups.

People standing on beach with Haida totem poles and dwellings in background - 1899Arthur Churchill Warner, Wikimedia Commons


Haida slaves were used as a commodity for trading for other commodities, as well as for paying debts and buying wives.

Slaves were allowed to marry, even to a Haida woman if she would have him. But children of slaves were also enslaved.

They often did menial work and paddled war canoes.

Haida woman dancing outside - 2009p2-r2, Flickr

Totem Poles

The Haida were one of the Northwest Indian tribes who put up totem poles. They were carved from wood and took the shape and design of animals that symbolized their guardian spirits who watched over the family or clan.

Haida Heritage Centre totem - 2016Christine Rondeau, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons


The Haida are most known for their wood carvings. They were very decorative in nature, often creating masks, totem poles, and welcome poles, and large entrance poles into their homes that resembled a large open mouth.

Predominant colors included black and red, and was sometimes complemented with blue-green.

Totem polesNational Observer

Haida Gwaii Today: Education

Currently, public education includes elementary and secondary schools ranging from kindergarten to grade 6.

Higher education programs are available at the Haida Heritage Centre in partnership with Coast Mountain College, University of Northern British Columbia, and with the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society.

Haida Gwaii kids dancing at school - 2015Province of British Columbia, Flickr

Haida Gwaii Today: Healthcare

The healthcare on Haida Gwaii is funded by Northern Health and serves two hospitals, and four BC Ambulance stations. They are staffed by approximately 36 casual emergency medical responders (EMR), and one part-time community paramedic based in Masset.

New Haida Gwaii General Hospital - 2012Province of British Columbia, Flickr

Haida Gwaii Today: Protection

Although the Haida people have changed a lot of their traditional ways of life to adapt to the newer, modern world, traditional Haida people remain as isolated as possible to protect their heritage.

Current Haida efforts are largely directed at protecting their land.

Welcome to Masset, Haida Gwaii sign - 2019William Matheson, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons


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