Haida live along the coastal bays and inlets of the Haida Gwaii of British Columbia (QCI). Archaeological evidence confirms continual habitation on the islands for at least 6000-8000 years (see Prehistory). A few hundred years ago a small group of Haida migrated north to the southernmost islands of the Alaskan "panhandle," where their descendants live in the village of Hydaburg. The Haida language is an isolate with 2 dialects - Masset is spoken on the northern island and areas of southeast Alaska and Skidegate in the south. Aboriginally, other dialects were present, including the now-extinct Ninstints Haida dialect of the southernmost QCI. Haida culture and art are distinctive within Northwest Coast traditions, though there are cultural similarities to the neighbouring Tsimshian and Tlingit.

The Haida Village

Traditionally, each village was an independent political unit, and to a great extent each family in a village was an independent entity. All Haida, however, belonged to one of 2 moieties - the Eagle or the Raven, earlier classified as clans. A Haida always married a member of the opposite moiety and clan membership was inherited from the mother. Each moiety was composed of a number of lineages. Individuals publicly proclaimed clan membership through an elaborate display of inherited family crests, carved on totem poles erected in front of houses and carved or painted on great war canoes, cedar boxes, masks, and utilitarian and decorative objects.

Social and Economic Organization

Large ceremonial feasts (see Potlatch) were a focus of Haida life, a means of reinforcing the social and economic organization and the interdependence of moieties, lineages and villages. The names of lineages were generally derived from the group's place of origin. Lineages were property-holding groups. Property owned by a lineage included rights to certain salmon streams, trapping sites, patches of edible plants and tobacco, stands of cedar, bird rookeries, stretches of coastline and to house sites in the winter village. Management of the lineage's property was in the hands of the lineage chief.

The first recorded European contact (1774) was with the Spanish explorer Juan Pérez. British Captain George Dixon initiated trade (1787) with the Haida for sea-otter pelts, and the Haida remained at the centre of the lucrative China sea-otter trade until the mid-1800s.

European settlers did not significantly populate Haida Gwaii (then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) until almost 1900. Mainland fur traders estimated a Haida population before 1850 of 6000-8000. By 1915 the population had declined to 588 people, mainly because of smallpox and other diseases. Though the Haida were traditionally a warlike people, their large seagoing canoes carrying them on raiding expeditions as far south as Washington state, incidents of violent confrontation with Europeans were few. In 1996 the Haida population of the archipelago was 3423.

Contemporary Haida

Contemporary Haida are famous for their fine art (see Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art), and many work as prosperous commercial fishermen, loggers and artists. Together with Parks Canada, the Haida manage the South Moresby/Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve on the QCI. A "Haida Watchman" program operated by the Haida protects and interprets archaeological historical sites throughout the islands. The Haida are also employed in eco-tourism programs including guiding and camping, bed and breakfast accommodation and boat charters. A commercial fishery includes a Masset band-owned herring roe on kelp license. Skidegate also holds several such harvesting licenses.

See also Aboriginal People: Northwest Coast and general articles under Aboriginal People.