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Haida Art

     Secret Societies

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Secular power in Haida society was wielded by the chiefs, who, unlike their Kwakwaka'wakw (or Kwakiutl) neighbours to the south, never yielded their power each winter to the heads of the secret societies. Nevertheless, by the mid-eighteenth century, the Haida began to practise much weaker forms of secret society winter dances, which they learned from captives taken in wars against the Heiltsuk in particular. However, as many of the captives were of low rank and had not been fully initiated into secret societies, the Haida were copying poorly understood models. Like the Tsimshian, the Haida were late recipients of these winter dance societies and never elaborated them further. Photographer Edward Curtis noted that the Haida knew little of the underlying myths or esoteric features of the winter dances, though they did preserve the names of a dozen different kinds and performed them at all winter festivities, including those to mark the raising of a totem pole or the building of a house.

VII-B-1554 A secret society mask with face painting and copper inlay. Both types of decoration were actually used by dancers, who in addition to painting their faces sometimes attached cutouts of copper and abalone shell to them with halibut glue. This mask was probably made for ceremonial use in the 1850s and was extensively trimmed with fur to form a goatee, fringe beard and hairline, but only the leather that once held the fur remains.
Collected at Masset before 1884 by Alexander McKenzie of the Hudson's Bay Company
CMC VII-B-1554 (S85-3286)

The Tsimshian have a well-known story about how secret societies were acquired by two brothers out fishing. The Haida version is different: according to it, secret societies stolen by one of their own supernatural beings, Qingi, who travelled from Haida Gwaii in a small black canoe called Tobacco Canoe to the house of the Chief of the Undersea World. One part of the long story illuminates some features of Haida dance hats:

Qi'ngi sat by himself on one side of the house, and at intervals opened his bag, took out a piece of dried salmon, and ate it. For this all of the supernatural beings laughed at him. Then he put on a tall dance-hat and began to dance. At once they heard the "spirits" (secret-society whistles), --the first time that human beings had heard them. These whistling sounds were caused by flickers. Qi'ngi's hat now began to grow; and as it grew, sea-gulls and cormorants flew from the joints, and scattered their excrement over everybody, so that the supernatural beings covered up their faces. By and by his hat shrank again, and he took it off.

The living beings flying out from the joints of the stack of rings on the dance hat are a revealing reference to the Haida belief that the rings represent the spinal column of supernatural beings and are a source of new emerging life. The story ends with Qingi escaping with the new dances he had seen and introducing them to the Haida.

A wooden Killer Whale dorsal fin ornament with streamers of human hair. As many as five similar fins were tied to dance cloaks, or a single one was tied to the head of a dancer.

From a donated collection, no specific acquisition information.
CMC VII-X-31 (S94-6783)
A dancing spear that belonged to the Warrior Society, shown here in its entirety as well as a close-up of the carved point. The alternating thick and thin spiral lines imitate patterns observed on the legs of tables and chairs aboard European ships.

Collected on Haida Gwaii in 1879 by Israel W. Powell.
CMC VII-B-129.2 (S4192.2)

Among the Haida, the winter dances had died out around 1875, although they were given sporadically for another decade. There are, consequently, few eyewitness accounts of the performances. Nevertheless, Curtis was able to find Haida who still vividly recalled such events from their childhood:

Little children could be initiated into the society . . . They spent the eleven days behind the curtain, supposedly dead for eight days and absent with the spirits for the remaining three, and when the dancing began they came out and stood in front of the curtain . . .
After retiring behind the curtain the elder initiates also remained in concealment for eleven days, except that in the evenings of the first eight days they came out in full paraphernalia and went with characteristic actions through the village. During the day they too were supposedly lying dead behind the curtain.
At the end of eight days many whistles sounded in the woods, and gradually receded, and it was said that the spirits of the initiates were being carried away by supernatural beings. For the next three days the initiates remained in constant hiding. Then on the twelfth morning those initiates who were to represent dancers appeared on the beach as if they were wild creatures just come out of the woods after their absence with the supernatural beings. The members of the fraternity proceeded in a body to catch them with ropes, and dragged them into a house (not the skasnai) and behind a curtain. In the evening all the people, regardless of membership in the society, assembled in the skasnai to exorcise the spirit that possessed the initiates.
The female members danced in their various characters, and then the initiates, led in through the front door by their attendants, danced round the fire and retired behind the curtain. They reappeared and performed several times in different costumes until they were "tamed." The night was passed in dancing and performing sleight-of- hand tricks such as seemingly decapitating an initiate and restoring his life.