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Haida Villages
Haida Villages

     Haida Gwaii


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The modern-day village of Skidegate displays little evidence of its creative and tumultuous past. The single exception is the Band Council office building, designed by Rudy Kovaks and enhanced by a pole carved by Bill Reid.

The first contact between Europeans and the people of Skidegate appears to have been made by Captain George Dixon, who in July 1787 anchored off the entrance to Skidegate Inlet. He did not visit the village but does provide the first description of Chief Skidegate:

Of all the Indians we had seen, this chief had the most savage aspect, and his whole appearance sufficiently marked him as a proper person to lead a tribe of cannibals. His stature was above the common size; his body spare and thin, and though at first sight he appeared lank and emaciated, yet his step was bold and firm, and his limbs apparently strong and muscular.

Dixon's use of the term "cannibals" is an exaggerated reference to the ritual eating of human flesh by the initiates of secret societies. Although in some ceremonies the Tsimshian, Haida and the Kwakwaka'wakw (or Kwakiutl) did bite high-ranking people, it is likely that the Haida only pretended to eat human flesh from cadavers. The care with which they prepared artificial human and dog carcasses in order to fool spectators at the winter dances and initiations is described elsewhere.

Within a few years of Dixon's visit, many ships from Europe and New England included Skidegate in their itinerary while pursuing the lucrative trade in sea otter pelts. The name of the town chief was, as usual, applied by the traders to the community itself. Skidegate in Haida means "son of the chiton". One of the best observers is Joseph Ingraham of the brigantine Hope out of Boston, who recorded his first meeting in 1791 with the town chief of Skidegate in his journal:

At 10 o'clock in the evening a small canoe was seen coming to us in which was 4 men as she was so small I let them come alongside they said they were of the tribe of Skeetkiss and had furr for sale they sold us but one skin when they could better examine our articles of trade as the least flaw in our chizzles or daggers was sufficient to condemn them as unfit for their purpose . . . Towards night a large war canoe came into the bay and after holding a conversation with some other canoes (perhaps relative to the trade) they came alongside in this canoe was Skeetkiss a chief of the first consequence among these people as at every place we visited they spoke of him as a man of great power and of whom they were afraid.

James Deans, a Hudson's Bay Company trader, describes his successor, who was called Skidegate the Great:

He was named the Great because he was large in body and wealth, if not in good deeds . . . He was a man about six feet in height, had a very small head on an exceedingly large body, so large that a belt he wore round his waist could go around three ordinary sized men. He was the richest chief of his day. It is said he had thirty slaves, male and female . . . He also had all the neighbouring tribes under his tribute.

Maritime fur traders were cautious about venturing ashore and usually chose to conduct their trade from the relative safety of a well-armed ship. Ingraham provides graphic detail of the traders' fear of the Haida during his stay in Skidegate Inlet:

The Evening of the 25 we observed severall war canoes cross the port from Skeetkiss to Cummashawaas village I determin'd to watch them closely for fear of any design upon us therefore doubled our watch severall canoes took up their quarters in the cove about 2 oclock next morning the watch inform'd me the Indians were mustering in the woods as something uncommon was about to take place I order'd all hands immediately and we were soon in readiness to receive them after being on deck about 5 minutes I observed the fires on shore increase and a canoe put off from the beach and paddle towards us a man in her called out to me to look they were going away at the same time they advanced fast towards us I therefore answered him with a swivell and severall musketts on which every fire was immediately extinguished and all silent.