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= Potlatch Longhouse - Historical Reference =

[ last updated October 18, 2004 ]

Information and images are edited from The Canadian Museum Of Civilization: http://www.Civilization.ca/


= Haida Houses =

According to ancient myth, the house was one of the main contributions that the Raven made to Haida life after he stole the idea from the Beaver. The house was the centre of Haida social, political and economic life. Certain aspects and themes related to the house call for some elaboration in order to better understand the setting within which all Haida art was created and used.

Haida houses were constructed of western red cedar with a framework of stout corner posts that supported massive beams. The frame was clad with wide planks.

Small houses averaged 6 by 9 m (20 by 30 feet) and were occupied by thirty to forty closely related family members, while large houses were up to 15 by 18 m (50 by 60 feet) with twice as many residents, including immediate family and slaves. The ideal house had a large pit in the central area, often lined with a vertical box structure of massive planks. The hearth occupied the centre, directly under a smokehole, which had a plank flap that could be moved with ropes to control the draft for the fire. Usually the house of the town chief had the largest or deepest housepit. The roofs of houses belonging to people of rank were covered with overlapping planks, anchored in placed with large rocks. The houses of poorer people and canoe sheds had roofs of cedar bark that had to be replaced frequently.

The people of the northern and southern regions of Haida Gwaii have different approaches to house construction. In the north Haida houses resemble the large gable-roofed plank structures found throughout other north coast villages. This house has an internal frame consisting of four or more massive vertical posts spanned by equally massive round beams up to 15 m (50 feet) or more in length, covered with a cladding of wide planks.

Northern Style (Kiusta Village)

In the south, houses have an external frame, with plank cladding that fits precisely between the parallel timbers of the house frame. This more elaborate style of house, with mortice and tenon joints and low-tolerance carpentry, probably did not develop until steel tools became available in the late eighteenth century.

Southern Style (Skedans Village)

A third type of house occurs predominantly among the Kaigani Haida of Alaska. It is a blend of the two basic styles, in having both an interior frame based on four massive posts as well as a system for the walls and gables supported by four smaller exterior corner posts.

The terms applied to a house's structural members are the same as for the bones of a human skeleton, or more specifically the bones of the collective ancestor. The two front vertical support posts are the arm bones, the two rear posts are the leg bones, the longitudinal beams are the backbone, the rafters are the ribs, and the exterior cladding is the skin. The inhabitants are the spirit force of the ancestor/house.

In addition to being a place of shelter, the house had a cosmological meaning for the Haida, who thought of the house as a very large box and often decorated its walls to coincide with the images used on boxes. The concept of boxes within boxes is central to Haida beliefs about containers and the spiritual beings who safeguard their precious contents.

The wealth contained by the house-sized box was in the form of human souls. The Haida believed that the fish stored in food boxes retained their souls until they were consumed, when their souls were released to become new fish and continue the cycle. Similarly, a house protected the souls of its inhabitants until they died, whereby their souls were released to newborn members of the family. The Haida were always concerned to know which child had inherited the soul of a recently deceased relative and would search the faces and actions of the newborn to determine that affiliation. The deceased were placed in burial boxes in mortuary houses or on posts, as close as tolerable to the house of their surviving kin.

The Haida viewed the universe as a large house (the World Box or World House), with the sides being the four cardinal directions. After the Raven brought the sun to this World Box from another box in the house of the Sky Chief, the sun entered the World House each day and passed over its roof at night. The stars were sunlight shining through holes in roof of the World House. The seasons were tracked by marking the position of the sun at daybreak on the wall opposite the hole where the sunlight entered.

Through the middle of each house ran an axis that centred the resident family at the centre of the world, where the contact between the various levels of the universe was the greatest. The smoke from the household fire signified this axis of conjunction of various worlds and was the site of daily prayers to the supernatural forces that determined people's destiny. The houses of important chiefs had a succession of box-shaped pits extending symbolically down into the underworld. The living compartment of the chief was like a smaller box at the back of the house.

Not a single complete original Haida dwelling survives, but there are historical photographs of about four hundred Haida houses in twenty-five villages, taken in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Cumshewa Village - circa 1875 (detail)

The oldest form of interior carved crest poles in Haida houses was probably the pair of matched posts that stood at the back wall under the central beams. Frequently, there was but a single crest figure on each of these posts, such as a Bear, Whale, Raven, Sea Lion or human, though in some houses all four support posts are elaborately carved. These carved house posts are typical of both Tlingit and Tsimshian houses and were probably the prototype for the carved interior central poles favoured by many Haida chiefs. Their placement at the centre of the house under the peak of the roof allowed them to be up to 5.5 m (18 feet) tall. The carved interior central pole was usually a complicated sculpture based on a founding myth of the family.

Massett Village
Monster House Beaver + Sculpin interior post - 1850

The interior central pole from Chief Wiah's Monster House portrays a standing Beaver gnawing a stick inlaid with over a hundred pieces of abalone shell. The nostrils of the Beaver also have abalone inlay, and its paws and tail have small faces on them. On its head are six skil-daden (or potlatch rings), a feature frequently associated with the Beaver. A similar carving stood outside of Wiah's house but sported a much larger stack of nine potlatch rings. The Beaver crest was given to Chief Wiah by Chief Legaic of Fort Simpson, who had a similar pole with thirteen potlatch rings standing in front of his house. The crest's origin goes back to the supernatural beavers who lived at Kitselas Canyon on the Skeena River.

Despite the fact that all of the mainland tribes between Vancouver Island and central Alaska had painted housefronts, they were rare among the Haida. This is surprising, since the Haida were the most accomplished artists on the coast in flat design as applied to canoes, chiefs' seats and storage chests. One example from the Skidegate area of Haida Gwaii is on the house of Chief Gold who was head chief of Kaisun village, but later moved his people to Haina village near Skidegate.

Skidegate Village - Moon House
Moon-Hawk plaque - 1881

When Chief Gold rebuilt his house, he added a housefront that follows the precise template of many such paintings among the Tsimshian, especially popular at Fort Simpson. That pattern consists of a Master of Souls flat design with multiple faces in the eyes and human figures in the mouth. The remarkable feature of the housefront is the profile Thunderbird flanking each side of the main design. Since the Haida from the Skidegate area travelled regularly to Fort Simpson to trade, Chief Gold may have either received the right as a gift or purchased it from a Tsimshian chief. Chief Gold added a distinctive Haida touch by putting his Moon-Hawk crest on the gable of his house.

Other features of the Haida house that were sometimes elaborated with carving or painting were the rafters, the retaining planks that framed the house pit surrounding the central fireplace, and the timbers around the smokehole above the fireplace.

The smokehole had mythical significance among the Haida, as it was the opening through which souls entered and left the house at birth and death, following the pathway of smoke uniting this world to the upper world and the Milky Way, which was the pathway of souls in the sky. It was also the opening through which the trickster-hero Raven escaped to carry his gifts of the sun, the moon and the stars to humans. It was while flying through this opening that the White Raven, the primal form, turned black in the smoke.

One notable smokehole carving depicts a double-headed Killer Whale with prominent dorsal fins. In form, it resembles the double-headed soul catchers traditionally used by shaman. To prevent souls of its inhabitants from wandering away during illness the placement of a soul catcher in the smokehole of a house presents some intriguing equations in the cycles of birth and death.

Masset Village - Monster House - 1873

Masset Village - Monster House - Interior - 1884

Haina (Sunshine Town) Village
House Where People Always Want To Go - 1888

Hiellan Village - House For A Large Crowd Of People
pre-1840 archiac style frontal pole - 1919

Chief Ninstints + Chief Giatlins - 1884

Skungwai (Ninstints) Village - Northern-most House
interior rear post - 1901

Klinkwan Village - interior rear house pole

Tanu Village - Easy To Enter House
interior Sea Grissly Bear + Wasgo (Sea Wolf) Pole - 1901

The housefront of this argillite model is decorated with a Grizzly Bear. Singers at the ends of the rafters perform when anyone approaches. - 1892

A small human figure crouches between two Killer Whales on this protective smokehole carving. - pre 1900
Tlingit - Klukwan Village - interior of Whale House (Raven Rain Screen)


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