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Poles and Posts
Permanent Haida villages consisted of one or more rows of houses strung along a beach. Double-row villages were quite common, but villages with up to five rows of houses existed only in myth time. Generally the house owned by the town chief was larger than the rest and stood near the middle of the village.
The most extensive early reconnaissance of north coast Native villages was carried out by Ensign Albert Niblack, who first visited them during tours of duty with the U.S. Navy. Later, in the 1880s, he returned for a number of years to photograph and record them in detail for the Smithsonian Institution. He was most impressed by the houses built by the Haida:
Their houses are exceptionally well constructed, and the custom of erecting the carved column in contact with the front of the house and cutting a circular doorway through both, seems to be nowhere so universally practiced.
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. The subject of houses and their decoration is dealt with extensively in my book Haida Monumental Art.
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. The tools required for building houses included sledgehammers, adzes, hand mauls and wedges for splitting wood. Most housebuilding tools were not decorated, but a few examples in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization are quite remarkable.
||An elaborately carved basalt hand maul that was used for driving wooden wedges into red cedar logs to split off planks. James Deans identifies the lower face as that of a Bear, with the naturalistic head of a hunter above. The hunter's conical hat forms the traditional top of a nipple-top maul, suggesting this may have been an old maul that was later enhanced with a carved design. The accession record claims it was once in the collection of Sir Matthew Begbie, chief justice of British Columbia.
Acquired with the A. Aaronson collection in 1899, but probably originally collected by James Deans in the early 1890s on Haida Gwaii.
CMC VII-B-908 (S82-269)
||A sledgehammer used to drive wedges into cedar trees to split off planks. This fine specimen has the head of the Thunderbird holding a small Whale.
Collected on Haida Gwaii in 1879 by Israel W. Powell.
CMC VII-B-924 (K85-2630)
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 interior of Chief Wiah's Monster House at Masset, showing the two deep house pits. There are sleeping compartments on the upper level (right). A doorway (left) that is covered with pictures from the London Illustrated News leads to Wiah's sleeping compartment, which is built outside the house itself. Most of the furniture is from the captured ship Susan Sturgis.
Photograph by Richard Maynard, 1884.
The people of the northern and southern regions of Haida Gwaii have different approaches to house construction. In the north, including the villages of the Prince of Wales archipelago, 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.
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. The greatest incidence of the exterior frame house occurs at the village of Ninstints at the southern tip of Haida Gwaii.
Northern style (Kiusta)
Southern style (Skedans)
A third type of house occurs predominantly among the Kaigani Haida of the Prince of Wales archipelago in 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. Large houses, like that of Chief Skowl at Kasaan village, have a heavy horizontal timber between the front corner posts (repeated at the back wall) that effectively divides the cladding on the front and back gables above and below this beam into shorter boards.