SpruceRoots - Stories
My name is Walker Brown, my Haida name is Geda Ku Juus.The ideas presented in this article are brief and random, covering many different subjects. I will touch on concepts and ideas in relation to Haida art form and crest origins.

Not all Haida clans or individuals will agree with what I present here, but then again not every clan has the same beliefs, rights, and privileges. This article shares a wide range of oral history and intellectual property belonging to a number of Haida clans of which I credit at the end.

This the location of Haida Gwaii after the sea level raised (figure 1). You can see that on the Islands there are no rivers of any size that compare to the Nass or the Skeena rivers. And the salmon runs on the Islands are also smaller. In the past some Island rivers had oolican runs but these were fished to extinction some time ago.

Haida Gwaii does not have interior trade routes or grease trails like mainland tribes and those tribes also have moose, mountain goat and fox. After the oolican were fished-out the Haida had to acquire their supply of grease from the mainland. Some wealthy Chiefs had business relationships with Chiefs and clans on the mainland and they would conduct their business through the host‘s house. Compared to the mainland, Haida Gwaii may have had less wealth in the form of fish running up its rivers, but with the Islands being situated out in the Pacific Ocean they are heavily influenced by ocean currents. These warm currents carried a different type of wealth in the form of animals and wreckage that washed up on the shores of Haida Gwaii (figure 2).

On Haida Gwaii cedar was plentiful, it was also larger and straighter grained than cedars on the mainland. Some inhabitants of these Islands used the metal washed in on wreckage to carve these trees efficiently and skillfully and in doing so created items that could be exchanged for other forms of wealth not available here.

The visual language referred to as formline was developed and perfected on Haida Gwaii as well as many other well-made objects like canoes, bentwood containers and the Haida house. Most items were developed and created, thanks in part to the metal washing in on shore.

Green sea turtles are seen on these shores (figure 3). In the past 50 years there have been 18 reported Green sea turtle sightings or beachings in BC. Of these 18, eight were sighted or found on and around Haida Gwaii. The turtles travel upon ocean currents and arrive here when the water temperature is higher and the current stronger than normal. Even though the water temperature is relativley warm, the turtles still become lethargic and head for the nearest beach in an attempt to warm up in the sun.

The Haida believed in a supreme being of the ocean, some refer to him as The One In The Sea. The One In The Sea is said to control all the wealth in the ocean and some Haidas believed that The One In The Sea would appear to humans in the form of a Green sea turtle.

Of all the species of sea turtles, Leatherback sea turtles seem to be the most often sighted around the Islands (figure 4). Leatherbacks are able to survive in colder waters far better than other turtles and the Leatherback has been seen hanging around Haida Gwaii during warm summers when there is an abundance of jelly fish to feed on.

In recent years fishermen have seen Leatherbacks entangled with large exotic jellyfish on the surface of the ocean. The Haida crest Sea Grizzly is said to have a Sea Ghost that rides on it’s back. Haidas have described the Leatherback as a Deep Sea Frog and the turtle is also known as the Mother of Frogs or Djiliquons. The feminine shape of this turtle’s tapered back, when viewed from above, may have played into its being thought of as The Mother of Frogs. Haidas may have also referred to the Leatherback as a Five-finned Sea Monster, as they have seven prominent ridges running down their back, five of which can be above the surface of the ocean when they are swimming.

Basking sharks also come to this area when the conditions are right (figure 5& 6). The Basking shark has been seen lining up nose to tail, similar to elephants in a circus, swimming along in a straight line. This could be imagined as a form of the Five-finned Sea Monster.
Carcasses of Great White sharks have been drifting into these waters on the current for years (figure 7). Some early Haidas referred to these sharks as Mother of Dogfish.

Elephant seals are another strange looking species that occasionally drifts into these waters (figure 8). They resemble Sea Lions but are much larger and have a different nose. Some earlier Haidas called these Supernatural Snags.

At one time Stellar’s sea cows inhabitated the north Pacific until about the 1700’s when they were hunted to extinction (figure 9).

The sea cow looked like a large manatee. In Florida, manatees head up rivers in the winter months to avoid harsh winter storms. This creature was also referred to as a Supernatural Snag and the behaviour could indicate why the Supernatural Snag is said to frequent the Skeena River.

Haida people have a long history of attaching well thought out stories to an object in order to increase the value of it. Our geographic location has required us to be creative in order to access some of the wealth held by neighbouring tribes.

There is an old story about a giant spider that lived on the top of Tow Hill. The spider was eventually hunted and killed and it is said that from the giant spider all the small spiders came. Some people claim that there was no actual giant spider on Tow Hill and in fact a large tidal wave unearthed a couple of mastadon tusks at the base of Tow Hill (figure 10 &11). These tusks were then called spider fangs and were used to sell the smaller, but similarly shaped dentalium shells (figure 12). Buyers of these tusk-shaped sea shells may have been told that they were the fangs of the small spiders from Haida Gwaii and that the mastadon tusks were the fangs of the giant spider killed at Tow Hill. If you purchased the shells you would then imagine that even the small spiders of Haida Gwaii were formidable creatures.

In recent years fossilized remains of ancient creatures similar to Mosasaurs were taken from the Frederick Island area. Some of these remains are housed in the Canadian Museum of Civilization. These could have easily provided inspiration for the sea monster Wasco-Sea Wolf (figure 13).

Early Haidas also considered ammonite fossils to be of high value. They have been found in many different places on Haida Gwaii and can be as large as 2 feet across. In Europe, naturalists referred to these fossils as Serpent Stones because old stories linked them to mythological serpents. Haidas referred to these fossils as the Tail of the Wasco, or Wasco Tails. You can see the shape of fossils represented on all three of these argillite Wasco plates carved by Charles Edenshaw (figure 14).

As mentioned earlier, there is the belief among tribes up and down the coast of a Supreme Being in the Sea or a type of Chief of the Sea. Green sea turtle shells were considered to be of high value and Haidas traded parts of the shell to tribes up and down the mainland coast for resources they had (figure 15). Haidas also used creative stories, rare natural objects and other well made things to trade for resources held by mainland Chiefs and tribes. This creative economic development played an important role in the development of the Haida art form. It is also suggested that the consumption of psychoactive mushrooms by Haida artisans played a significant role in developing the art and apprectiation of the formline (figure 16 & 17).

The psychoactive mushrooms may also have helped neighbouring Chiefs who purchased and owned Haida art to appreciate the formline. These same mushrooms, in fact, may still help viewers appreciate and enjoy Haida formline a bit more.

Haida formline evolved as a result of many factors, and reached its peak between 1840-1884. Pre-1880, only a small percentage of the male population was working in this medium. The formline can be adapted to create objects of wealth in two and three dimensions. The two basic shapes of the formline are used over and over to create designs depicting crests and figures (figure 18). The formline can range from a few simple components, to thousands of complicated combinations of shapes and lines.

The labret, or ovoid-shape is considered feminine, while the u-shape is masculine. Haida formline can be adapted to fit almost any medium. If taken care of, formline will provide income for skilled artisans even if all of the suitable cedar trees on Haida Gwaii needed for monumental work are logged.

The formline has been very useful to Haida people and I think it should be considered one of our Nations most valuable assets.

The formline is Haida intellectual property, but certain Tlingit families have the right to work in Haida formline, as some are descended from early Haida immigrants to their territory.

Throughout the years there have been many books published about Haida formline and non-Haida craftsmen of all backgrounds and skill levels have attempted to copy and counterfeit the style. Most of these publications lack vital information and do not properly represent the form’s history or function. In a recent book published by the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, many Haida painted and carved objects are attributed to unnamed artisans from neighbouring tribes.

The introduction of outside ideas and concepts from a variety of sources, including Asia and the Columbia River area have contributed to the development of the formline. However the combination of concepts and principles of the form are distinctly Haida and were developed on Haida Gwaii. Aside from formline, many other unique objects were also developed on Haida Gwaii such as; canoes, copper shields, and houses.

Prior to 1884, craftsmen were constructing two main types of houses. The houses varied in size, but were usually built resembling one of two house types. Every Chief had at least one house. One type of house resembles the structure of a Green sea turtle, while the other resembles the structure of a Leatherback sea turtle (figure 19, next page). You can see that the seven prominent ridges running along the back of the Leatherback are similar to the seven beams running the length of the house. You can also see the feminine shape of the turtle’s back.

Another object of great value made by Haida craftsmen are copper shields. (figure 20) Small versions of these were originally made of copper collected from wrecks that floated onto the beaches, but later they were made out of sheet metal acquired from Europeans.

The copper shield has a shape or outline similar to the plates on a Green sea turtle’s forehead (figure 21). Scalps from neighbouring tribes were prized and collected by some Haida Chiefs, so this may contribute to the value placed on the scalp of a Green sea turtle. The shape or outline of the Haida copper shield also resembles the shape of a valued type of mushroom the amanita muscaria which was considered a form of wealth before the introduction of alcohol and other exotic drugs to Haida Gwaii.

Haida craftsmen created other items that involved more than one person (figure 22). Bentwood chests were made by a container maker and a person who designed, painted and carved formline. The majority of these chests display an image of The One in the Sea — the Green sea turtle (23). The actual eyes are in what appear to be the nostrils of the chest design (figure 23a).

If you compare the cutout box design with the Green sea turtle you can see the abstracted figure. In figure 24, a is the fore-flippers, b- the hind-flippers, c - is the turtle’s shell, and just below the shell are the eyes (d) which intially appear to be the nostrils.

When a Haida Chief potlatched and distributed wealth, he would dress up as The One in the Sea. In order to dress appropriately, a Chief would have to own various items displaying formline. A Chief’s robe represents the shell of a Green sea turtle (figure 25). Artists would create an appropriate formline design and then the robe would be woven with mountain coat wool and cedar. Contrary to popular belief the best of these Chief’s capes were made by Haida artisans. It was recorded by Swanton that before 1884 Haida women used to weave Mountain goat wool. Haida robes are easily distinguished from the robes designed and woven by Tlingit artisans.

The Chilkat Tlingit versions of these robes are early attempts at counterfeiting Haida formline. The design elements on these capes are poorly executed when compared to Haida formline.

Because a Chief was imitating The One in the Sea he also needed a forehead on par with the creature. (figure 26a) The frontlet represents the upper plate on a Green sea turtle’s forehead. The Chief’s frontlet was carved to display the owner’s clan crest or crests. Some frontlets were inlayed with abalone shell. Notice how the Haida frontlet sits above the eyebrows of the wearer. (figure 26b). Some say that this is where the T-shape on the copper shield comes from.

When making an appearance at his potlatch, a properly outfitted Chief held a rattle in the shape of Raven. These rattles were held with the Raven figure upside down as the Chief danced with them at his potlach (figure 27a&b).

The figure on the underside of a raven rattle is a depiction of The One in the Sea. As the potlatching Chief was dressed as The One in the Sea, he would be looking at a reflection of himself on the underside of the Raven rattle. This concept may have something to do with the belief that The One in the Sea lived at the bottom of the ocean and would be able to see a reflection of himself on the ocean’s surface. The reflection on the surface of the water is also what would be presented to humans.

All of these Chiefly possessions represent Green sea turtle shells — the bentwood chest is contained within the house; the frontlet, Chief’s robe and copper shield are contained within the bentwood chest. This concept is similar to the wooden dolls of varying sizes that fit inside one another. Concepts like this appear throughout Haida mythology and usually involve a small box, within a large box, which is inside a larger box.

I hope this brief and somewhat random article will give you some insight in to the Haida art form and some of its functions, as well as make you curious about the origins of our stories and traditions.

I thank all the Haida artists whose work has appeared here and I also thank anyone whose photos I have used.

I would like to acknowledge and credit the following people and clans for allowing me to use their intellectual property in this article; Joe Tulip; Jim Hart and the Stastas Eagle clan; Guujaaw and the Skedans Raven clan; the Tanu Raven-Wolf clan; most members of the Djus Haida Eagle clan; the Cumshewa Eagle clan; Dempsey’s clan; the Big House Eagle clan; the Kuunlaanas Raven clan; and any other Haida clans or individuals claiming any of the intellectual property discussed here. •

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