The Shaping & Structuring of Space: Haida Longhouses

First, we want to discuss the recent discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the former residential ‘school,’ Marieval Indian Residential School, Saskatchewan (in operation from 1899 to 1997).[1] Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation states, “In the 1960s, the Catholic Church removed the headstones and today, we have over 600 unmarked graves.”[2] Removal of the headstones points towards the church’s attempt to hide evidence of its involvement in the genocide of Indigenous Nations, which we are also observing in the federal government’s destruction of residential ‘school’ files and churches’ refusal to release school records and documents pertaining to residential ‘schools.’[3] Learn more about the history of residential ‘schools’ and colonialism in Canada by reading about Indigenous life, taking courses on Indigenous history, and following Indigenous scholars and activists. You can also visit our recent blog post on the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, which has a brief recommended reading list at the end.

Map of Haida Gwaii, 40 kilometres off the coast of central British Columbia. Credit: Google Maps.

This weeks’ blog post centres on the Haida Longhouses of the archipelago Haida Gwaii. Haida Gwaii consists of seven small towns and two major islands and has a population of 5,000 people, slightly under half of whom are Haida. The Haida have been on the archipelago for over 10,500 years, and parts of the island are government-protected parks (provincial parks in the north and national parks in the south).[4]

Haida Longhouses, Type 1. Credit: George F. MacDonald, A Monumental Art: Villages of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1983), 19.

Haida Longhouses had two types, the second of which is most prominent in southern Haida Gwaii. The first type “is a simple support structure of two parallel round beams set up on pairs of uprights. To this basic structure is added a framework of light rafters, sills, corner posts, and gables, which is then covered with planks.”[5]

Haida Longhouses, Type 2. Credit: George F. MacDonald, A Monumental Art: Villages of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1983), 19.

The second type uses interlocking joints and adds frontal totem poles, which are integrated into the structure itself.[6] These houses were often commissioned by high-ranking, wealthy chiefs and built by thirty to forty men, who had to travel in canoes to cut the large cedar trees for the houses.[7] Some houses also had deep house pits, which required the builders to first dig deep into the earth and create a solid foundation on which to build the longhouse itself.[8]

The house and its materials sought to represent the concepts “of transformation from one realm of creation to another and of personification of inanimate objects.”[9] It was the shared home of the ancestors and the living, occupied by 30 to 40 close family members. It was the centre of Haida life, and villages of Haida longhouses were structured based on social rank: “ideally with the house of more prestigious house chiefs arrayed on either side of the house of the village chief, which occupied a central location in the house row.”[10] The houses were also centred on and connected by the “transverse axis” – marking the intersection between the underworld and upperworld – which ran “through the centre of each house.”[11]

Gordon Miller, “Skidegate — circa 1875,” 1989, Canadian Museum of History.
Gordon Miller, “Ninstints,” Canadian Museum of History.

Various parts of the house and its furniture were decorated or carved. According to ancient Haida legend, the Haida Longhouse “was one of the main contributions that the Raven made to Haida life after he stole the idea from the Beaver,” a story which appears in artwork on the houses.[12] In the second type of Haida Longhouse, the front, called Kwakwa’awkw, had frontal totem poles often with the family crests (ravens, eagles, etc.) and stories, each house presenting a distinct design.[13] Often the front of the house was painted as well.[14] The totem poles, decorative elements, and painted fronts characterized southern Haida Longhouses, and their legacies of strength and life remain.

Haida Longhouse. Credit: “Shelter,” Haida Culture Project.

– Catherine Ramey

[1] “Canada: 751 Unmarked Graves Found at Residential School,” June 24, 2021, BBC News. For more on the Marieval Indian Residential School, explore the resources at “Marieval (Cowessess) Indian Residential School,” University of Regina.

[2] Kelly Skjerven, “Estimated 751 Unmarked Graves Found at Former Saskatchewan Residential School,” June 24, 2021, Global News.

[3] For example, see Omar Sachedina and Brooklyn Neustaeter, “Missing Residential School Records: Vatican Won’t Release Documents, Feds Destroyed Files,” June 3, 2021, CTV News.

[4] Cara Krmpotich, The Force of Family: Repatriation, Kinship, and Memory on Haida Gwaii (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 19-22.

[5]George F. MacDonald, A Monumental Art: Villages of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1983), 19.

[6] Ibid.

[7] MacDonald, A Monumental Art, 20; “Northwest Coastal People,” First Peoples of Canada.

[8] MacDonald, A Monumental Art, 18.

[9] Ibid, 18.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Houses,” Canadian Museum of History / Musée Canadien de L’Histoire.

[13] “Shelter,” Haida Culture Project.

[14] MacDonald, A Monumental Art, 26.

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