The Haida were feared along the coast because of their practice of making lightning
raids against which their enemies had little defence. Their great skills of seamanship, their
superior craft and their relative protection from retaliation in their island fortress added to
the aggressive posture of the Haida towards neighbouring tribes. Diamond Jenness, an
early anthropologist at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, caught their essence in his
description of the Haida as the "Indian Vikings of the North West Coast":
Those were stirring times, about a century ago, when the big Haida
war canoes, each hollowed out of a single cedar tree and manned by fifty or sixty warriors,
traded and raided up and down the coast from Sitka in the north to the delta of the Fraser
River in the south. Each usually carried a shaman or medicine man to catch and destroy
the souls of enemies before an impending battle; and the women who sometimes accompanied
the warriors fought as savagely as their husbands.
The Haida went to war to acquire objects of wealth, such as
coppers and Chilkat
blankets, that were in short supply on the islands, but primarily for slaves, who enhanced
their productivity or were traded to other tribes. High-ranking captives were also the source
of other property received in ransom such as
crest designs, dances and songs.
Even prehistorically, the Haida engaged in sea battles. They tied cedar bark ropes
to heavy stone
rings that were hurled to smash enemy canoes and that could quickly
be retrieved for subsequent throws. A stone weighing 18 to 23 kg (40 to 50 pounds)
could shatter the side of a dugout canoe and cause it to founder. Most tribes avoided
sea battles with the Haida and tried to lure them ashore for a more equitable fight. The
Tsimshian developed a
signal-fire system to alert their villages on the Skeena River as
soon as Haida invaders reached the mainland.
The florescence of warfare was undoubtedly accelerated in the half
century from 1780 to 1830, when the Haida had no effective enemies except
the many European and American traders on their shores who would rather
trade than fight. During this period, the Haida successfully captured more
than half a dozen ships. One was the ship Eleanora, taken by chiefs
of the village of Skungwai (or Ninstints) in
retaliation for the maltreatment Chief Koyah had received from its captain.
An even more spectacular event was the capture of the ship Susan
Sturgis by Chief Wiah of Masset and the
rescue of its crew by Albert Edward Edenshaw. In
such conflicts, the Haida quickly learned the newcomers' fighting tactics,
which they used to good effect in subsequent battles, as Jacob Brink notes:
As early as 1795, a British trading ship fired its cannons at a village in the
central part of the archipelago because some of the crew had been killed by the inhabitants,
and the survivors had to put hastily to sea when the Indians fired back at them. They found
out later that the Indians had used a cannon and ammunition pilfered from an American
Schooner a few years earlier.
Swivel guns were added to many Haida war canoes, although initially the recoil on
discharge caused the hulls of many craft to split.
were part of the defensive strategy of all Northwest Coast groups for
at least 2,000 years. Captain James Cook was so impressed with one Haida fort off the
west coast of Graham Island that he called it Hippah Island after the Maori forts he had
seen in New Zealand. Military defences at Haida forts included stout palisades, rolling
top-log defences, heavy trapdoors and fighting platforms supplied with stores of large
boulders to hurl at invaders.
This heavy wooden war helmet in the form of a Seal's head, with
copper eyes and teeth, was probably made around 1820 and
preserved as an heirloom.
Collected on Haida Gwaii in 1897 by Charles F. Newcombe.
CMC VII-B-1543 (S92-4308)
Warriors wore various kinds of armour including war helmets, wooden
visors to protect their necks, and breastplates that were often concealed under a leather
tunic emblazoned with their crests. Few Haida wooden slat breastplates have survived,
although numerous Tlingit examples exist in museums. There are, however, many Haida
painted leather tunics.
Haida body armour favoured the war coat, which was made of the thick hides of sea
lions or of several layers of elkskin. The former was available through trade
on the Nass River while the latter was acquired from European and American traders who
obtained them from tribes at the mouth of the Columbia River.
The full outfit of a north coast warrior: a round wooden helmet,
a bentwood visor, and a painted leather tunic over a breastplate
made of interlocking wooden slats. This type of armour had its
origins in the bronze age of China and Japan. Its use in the New
World was limited to the west coast, but elements of the outfit,
particularly wooden slat breastplates, spread as far south as
CMC VII-X-1073 (S94-13,386)
The Haida replaced the bow and arrow and short spear with firearms as
soon as they became available early in the nineteenth century, and some
proud owners carved their crests onto the stocks of their muskets.
War daggers, however,
continued to be used in close combat, and many hundreds of them have been
collected from northern tribes. These daggers became something of an art
form in themselves and were treasured for many generations within the
families of chiefs. The descendants of the famous Tsimshian Chief Legaic
kept his war dagger until the 1980s, when its value had climbed to over a
hundred thousand dollars.
By the 1830s, endemic warfare had given way to the Pax Britannica on the Northwest
Coast, as warfare became too costly for the land-based fur traders to tolerate. John R. Swanton
was struck by the similarity between war and
potlatching among the Haida:
"Feasts . . . and the potlatches were the Haida roads to greatness more
than war. The latter, when not waged to avenge injuries, was simply a means
of increasing their power to give the former."