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Haida Art
Haida Art


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The Haida and their neighbours held in common a set of beliefs about the way the human world interacted with the natural and supernatural worlds, though the Haida also had some profound differences in outlook. The shared concepts centred around curing the sick, ensuring the supply of fish and game, and controlling or at least influencing the weather. Among the ranks of shaman were specialists whose powers were particularly effective within a selected range of tasks such as securing the outcome of major enterprises like trading expeditions or warfare.

Both genders could be shaman, but more often it was men who chose the calling. Women shaman focussed more on curing illnesses and the difficulties of childbirth and, in rare cases, on power over animals and fish. Although shaman could come from any rank except slaves, they were usually members of high-ranking families, often even the brother of a chief; thus, together they combined both secular and supernatural control at the head of a lineage.

VII-B-779 An argillite birth charm depicting a woman in labour. She is sitting on a cedar bark mat and resting her head on a cedar bark pillow. Around her waist is a ceinture used to constrict the upper abdomen and aid in the delivery. Marks on the piece suggest it is a talisman rather than a tourist piece.

Collected on Haida Gwaii in 1879 by Israel W. Powell.
CMC VII-B-779 (S94-6827)

John R. Swanton was able to secure detailed information as to how a person became a shaman:

A shaman was one who had power from some supernatural being (sga'na) who "possessed" him, or who chose him as the medium through which to make his existence felt in the world of men. When the spirit was present, the shaman's own identity was practically abolished. For the time he was the supernatural being himself. So the shaman must dress as the spirit directed him, and, when the spirit was present, spoke in the latter's own language . . .
The calling of a shaman was generally hereditary in his family, the order being usually from maternal uncle to nephew. Before he died he revealed his spirits to his successor, who might start with a comparatively feeble spirit and acquire stronger and stronger ones. The principal classes of supernatural beings who spoke through shamans were the Canoe-People, the Forest-People, and the Above-People.

Alexander McKenzie also made some observations about shaman in Masset:

There were no prescribed stages or degrees in the initiation of a medicine-man. (Haida Sah-gah). The aspirant to that office was instructed by another medicine-man, generally his uncle, to whom he succeeded, and on his aptitude to learn the system did the length of his probation depend . . .
. . . Haida doctors never used the drum by way of divination, nor did they employ passes or signs among themselves. Their great aim was to avoid meeting, as they professed to be afraid of each other, and the custom was for each doctor to magnify himself and reduce his rival. They professed to fight in visions.