The Haida Canoe and the Vikings of the Pacific Northwest

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Before the arrival of Europeans, the Haida were the dominant culture among coastal First Nations in Canada’s Pacific Northwest, and their unique war canoes were a key reason.

Bill Reid's sculpture The Black Canoe

With plentiful food and towering evergreens on Haida Gwaii, the natives there had the time and resources to develop a boat like no other in the region. Their canoes were the only ones capable of crossing the 60 miles of Hecate Strait between Haida Gwaii and the coast, allowing them to raid and trade with mainland villages — without fear of counterattack — and range from present-day Alaska to Vancouver.

The Haida also had a size advantage: Thanks to their protein-rich seafood diet, the average Haida man in the 1700s stood 6 feet tall and towered over mainland natives and most Europeans.

A lightning raid by a fleet of Haida canoes would have been terrifying. Each boat was filled with two dozen hulking warriors in wooden helmets and war coats of thick sea lion or elk skin, armed with painted war paddles (points sharpened to a spear, edges shaved to a blade), and chanting battle cries. Early European sailors called them the “Vikings of the Pacific Northwest.”

Haida canoes were made from a single carefully picked cedar. Felled in the fall, the tree would be burned and carved over the winter into a dugout as large as 50 feet and 3/4-inch thick. The Haida design made two key two changes to the traditional dugout canoe. The bow and stern were raised and given long overhangs, and the sides were flared outboard by filling the dugout with water, steaming it with red-hot stones and pushing the gunwales apart with branches.

The result was a graceful 1.5-ton canoe able to hold as many as 40 people and navigate large seas without swamping. Haida paintings added to a canoe’s appearance. A singer/drummer in the bow kept time for the paddlers, and an oarsman in the stern steered. Each canoe typically carried a shaman or medicine man to catch and destroy the souls of enemy warriors in advance of battle.

Haida women also were skilled boat handlers and sometimes went to war alongside the men. Feared among mainlanders, they typically came for vengeance and fought more savagely than the men. “The land tribes, if they saw a Haida canoe with a woman in armor in front or a canoe full of Haida women, that’s when they’d say, ‘Let’s run!’ The women would be there for revenge,” says Sean Young, a watchman at the SGang Gwaay World Heritage Site on Anthony Island.

A modern Haida canoe

The Haida had an oral culture, and the skills to build these canoes were lost during the smallpox epidemics that almost annihilated the tribe in the mid-1800s. Revival of the modern Haida canoe is credited to the contemporary Haida artist Bill Reid, who studied the original canoes in museum collections.

Reid carved the first modern Haida canoe, named Lootaas (“wave eater”), for the 1986 Expo in Vancouver, and Haida paddlers learned how to use the 50-footer by trial and error. The following year, the Haida paddled it 300 miles up the British Columbia coast and across Hecate Strait for an emotional homecoming — the first time in more than a century that a traditional canoe had landed on the shores of Haida Gwaii.

New canoes are now carved at the Haida Heritage Center in Skidegate as part of the tribe’s cultural rediscovery program. Haida canoe races there are a regular event.

Reid saw the canoe as the single most important artifact to the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Lootaas inspired his largest and most famous work of art: a bronze sculpture called The Spirit of Haida — a near-life-size Haida canoe manned by 13 mythological figures of Haida legend.

Two castings were made. One, known as The Jade Canoe, greets travelers at the international wing of Vancouver International Airport. The Black Canoe is the only outdoor work of art displayed at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., near the Capitol.

See related articles:

- Haida Gwaii

- Passing Cloud - Cousin of Bluenose

March 2015 issue