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SOME ENVIRONMENTAL INFLUENCES IN THE CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE HAIDA Willis B. Merriam University of Oregon, Eugene The Pacific Coast of British Columbia gave rise to one of the distinctive native culture centers of North America, and in many ways the Haida Indians of the Queen Charlotte Islands represented the foremost cultural development of the region. A comparison of the conventional designs of the Haida, their shapely and seaworthy dugout canoes, and their horn, slate, and wood carving , with that of similar work done by the Tlingits to the north and the Nootkas to the south, ably indicates what these people had achieved. In the non-material culture field, too, the Haida appear to have achieved superiority over other Northwest Coast groups, as evinced by the complexity of their social organization with an emphasis upon wealth as a mark of social distinction , a highly developed slave economy, and an extensive coastal trade. Although it is recognized that native cultures cannot be explained entirely in terms of, or held to be derived completely from, the natural environment , it is nevertheless recognized that cultures are rooted in nature, and that they can never be completely understood except with reference to the natural stage and setting on which they occur. The story back of the rise and subsequent decline of the Haida people appears to lie to an outstanding degree in the adjustments that they have made to an unusual and fleeting combination of elements in their geographic environment. It will be the problem of this study to investigate some of those environmental factors and point out the relationships involved. The Physical Stage and Setting The main body of the Haida historically inhabited the Queen Charlotte Islands, lying off the coast of North America, 75 miles northwest of Vancouver Island, and at a distance of from 60 to 100 miles from the mainland. The Queen Charlotte archipelago is made up of two large islands and numerous smaller ones, representing partly-submerged summits of the coast range. The shore is rough and of a subdued fiord character, with occasional stretches of gently sloping sand beaches. The climate is typically marine west coast, with mild winters and summers . Heavy winter maximum precipitation ranges from 40 to 60 inches on the leeward, to 80 or 100 inches on the windward sides of the islands. Mild temperature and abundant rainfall have combined to clothe the slopes in dense forests of Douglas fir, hemlock, spruce, and cedar trees which often attain large size. The faunal wealth of the region at the time of the peak of Haida cultural development lay in the marine life, particularly the seaotter . Among the fishery resources, salmon, halibut, and oolichan (the oilyielding candle-fish) were to be had in unlimited numbers. 23 24YearèooA: o/ the AssociationVol. 8 The Economic Basis of Haida Culture In common with much of the Northwest coast, the Queen Charlotte Islands proved inhospitable toward agriculture. Climate, soil, and topography were unfavorable. Ordinarily, without agriculture a sedentary and settled culture is not likely to develop. However, the Haida built large and permanent villages, engaged actively in commerce, kept slaves, and evolved a highly complex system of government and social control. This development was possible because the sea provided the main necessities for civilization, art easily obtained, abundant, and permanent supply of food, insular protection , the sea-otter which proved a basis for trade, and optimum conditions for easy and cheap transportation. A source of wealth such as that afforded by the sea-otter pelts enabled the Haida to trade for tools, boxes, baskets, and other articles, in time, including slaves. Active commerce up and down the coast from Prince William Sound to Puget Sound placed the Haida in contact with a wide range of cultures and resources. From trading it was only a step to plundering. For this the Haida had optimum conditions. Protected by a broad expanse of salt water, their families were relatively safe while the men were away. With war canoes, capable of carrying from 60 to 100 men, it was easy to attack a mainland village, gather plunder and prisoners, and make an escape. The first slaves were prisoners; later, an active slave trade arose...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1551-3211
Print ISSN
0066-9628
Pages
pp. 23-26
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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