There is some debate about how people arrived on the Islands but what is certain is that possibly as far back as 13,000 years ago a group of people inhabited these Islands and developed a culture made rich by the abundance of the land and sea. These people became the Haida, a linguistically distinct group with a complex class and rank system consisting of two main clans; Eagles and Ravens.
Links and diversity within the Haida Nation was gained through a cross lineal marriage system between the clans. This system was also important for the transfer of wealth within the Nation, with each clan reliant on the other for the building of longhouses, the carving of totem poles and other items of cultural importance.
Noted seafarers, the Haida occupied more than 100 villages throughout the Islands and were skilled traders, with established trade links with their neighboring First Nations on the mainland and farther a field. The Haida had a stable existence and vibrant culture at the time of European contact.
It was a Spaniard, Juan Perez, who first sighted the Islands on July 17th 1774. Blown off course, his crew aboard the Santiago had not seen land for several days when they sighted the area now known as Langara Island, a small island off the northwest tip of the archipelago. Perez was under orders to claim new lands in the name of Spain to prevent the feared expansion of Russian territory south along the coast. Perez ventured close enough to observe several large buildings along the shore and to conduct some trade with local Haida who paddled out in enormous canoes each carved from a single tree. Due to poor weather Perez soon departed, returning south without setting foot on shore or recording a name for his “discovery”.
The Islands were left unnamed until 1787 when Captain George Dixon, under orders to claim new lands and to investigate trade opportunities for Britain, named them after his ship the Queen Charlotte.
Contact & Trade
Little interest was paid to the Islands until their value was realized in the pelts of the Sea Otter. This resource, each worth a small fortune and highly prized in China, initiated a flourishing trade between European traders and the Haida who quickly realized the potential to amass considerable wealth to enhance their persona and status within the Nation. Europeans set up trading alliances to take control of the areas fur resources which contributed to the exchange of cultures and trade goods.
The trade in Sea Otter pelts was at first, only harmful for the Sea Otter but as this resource became scarce, trade became more cutthroat. The Haida, being experienced traders did well in initial trading which brought almost overnight wealth, sparking a surge in cultural traditions. Clan chiefs spent their new found wealth, commissioning longhouses, totem poles and potlatching, the name given to the ceremonial feasting, entertaining and witnessing of important events within the Nation. This ceremony concludes with the distribution of gifts to the attendees, a demonstration of the host clans wealth and confidence in their ability to re-amass this wealth. An attendee’s gift would be proportionate to their class and status within the Nation.
Greed on all sides soon led to the extinction of the Sea Otter from the waters around the Islands and trade changed to cultural objects and furs of lesser value. With the decline of the Sea Otter, trading slowed and missionaries filled the void eager to convert a Nation that didn’t fit into European experience or understanding.
The cross cultural trade left the Haida with more than the ability for a rapid rise in social standing. European diseases, like Tuberculosis and Small Pox never before encountered on the coast, were transferred to the Haida who, with no inherited immunity rapidly succumbed to the ravages of the diseases. Within a few decades the Haida Nation, which experienced an initial cultural boom was decimated with mass deaths and the loss of entire villages.
Outside pressures from missionaries, an instituted colonial government combined with the death of so many members eventually forced the abandonment of almost all of the Nations villages and the settlement of the remaining members to the communities of Old Massett and Skidegate Mission. From an estimated 7,000 Haida at contact, fewer than 700 found their way to these two villages.
With the Haida Nation in a state of upheaval and suppressed through various methods of forced assimilation, the Islands were at the mercy of a newly formed Canadian Government acquiring lands and populating them with immigrants to prevent a feared U.S. expansion into this yet to be populated territory. Returning veterans of WW I and agrarian immigrants were encouraged to settle the areas of the Islands and were given large land grants with hopes they would settle and develop an agricultural base for the Islands. Many settlers attempted farming but the distance from markets, poor world-wide economic climate and lack of quality agricultural lands doomed these ventures. Within a few decades nearly all had been abandoned.
Those settlers who took up fishing had better prospects. The Islands proximity to the nutrient richness of the continental shelf made the area a center for the fishing industry. Salmon, Halibut, Crab, Razor Clams, and other species all contributed to the development of a lucrative local industry. Many canneries and processing plants developed around the Islands including whaling stations in Naden and Rose Harbours. With their maritime background many Haida were able to adapt to this new economy and began profitable ventures building boats and fishing. Masset developed a lively harbour where work was abundant and profitable.
The readily accessible monumental stands of Western Red Cedar and Sitka Spruce provided another catalyst for European settlement to the area. During WWII the tight grained, shatter resistant Sitka Spruce was of particular importance for airplane manufacturing and logging increased significantly to support the Allied war effort. Communities like Sandspit, Queen Charlotte City, and Port Clements developed to meet the world demand for wood and thrived, attracting families and establishing services.
Logging continued at a rapid pace for decades, until blockades by the Haida Nation and international pressure forced the governments of British Columbia and Canada to slow the allowed cut rate of the Islands forests and led to the creation of the Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site. This National Park has continued with the unique style of the Islands by being the first National Park to be co-managed by a joint board of a First Nation and the Canadian Government. The isolation and ruggedness, unique natural endowments, intertwined with the ancient Haida village sites scattered throughout are some of the reasons that led to Gwaii Haanas, (Islands of Wonder) being named the best National Park in North America in 2005. The Park also protects the island of SGaang Gwaay a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features some of the best preserved totems and longhouse remains in their natural setting.