Thursday, November 10, 2011

Condition of the Population

Economic conditions, so often overlooked, played a significant part in the decrease in numbers of the Haida people in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. After the extermination of the sea-otter in the early years of that century, no new commercial traffic of any importance came to take its place. A small trade in potatoes, fish and various land furs with the Hudson's Bay did a little to avert the coming tragedy, but the Haida people steadily grew poorer and fewer in numbers. The first missionaries who went among them in the seventies admitted that the introduction of the white man's civilization had increased the cost of living for the Haida people and had yet supplied no new means of revenue. Epidemics of smallpox and measles carried off tremendous numbers. Pulmonary diseases, to which the people had no natural resistance, were later to take a terrible toll. Worst of all was the decimation of the people by the demoralizing contacts with the lower elements in the white settlements. In their eager search for the coveted rum, boat-loads of Haida men constantly resorted to Victoria, or to Wrangell or Sitka to the north. Here they freely sold their women to a life of prostitution. Whole villages on their islands were almost completely deserted. Scattered along the coasts, mouldering and collapsing, "great house" with their totem poles still standing in ranks before them bore melancholy witness to the passing of a sturdy race of people.

Skidegate Cemetary, Haida Gwaii 1916
John Work, while acting as Hudson's Bay Company factor at Fort Simpson, made an estimate of the population of Haida Gwaii by villages, covering the years 1836 to 1841. His figure was 6,593 people, and it is likely that even at this date the number of inhabitants would have decreased substantially. Work's long residence in the North and his familiarity with the Haida make it seem likely that his figures would be reliable. By 1878 Collison, the resident missionary at Massett, reckoned there were no more than 2,000 Haidas left. This figure included as well all those who lived most of the time away from their Haida villages. Fifty years later a census gave the Haida population of Haida Gwaii as under 700, largely concentrated in the two remaining villages of Massett and Skidegate. By 1938 the number of white settlers stood at nearly 1,000 while the number of Haida has risen to 750.

The Haida of Haida Gwaii never signed a treaty with the Canadian government, and have always considered the immigrants as trespassers. The assimilation and enfranchisement policies included:  Indian Act 1876, Banning the Potlatch 1884, Infected Blankets, Use of Residential Schools , and later on, the 60s scoop. These policies all contributed to the deculturation of the Haida, which nearly silenced a language, and nearly exterminated a people and their history.

In 1884 Canada outlawed or banned the Potlatch until 1951, this had a huge political impact and destroyed the right to self-governance for many native people on the Northwest Coast including the Haida. For many years, the Canadian government called Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands.

In 1866 Susan Kihid Lai Gaaa t'a.angee Smith was born into the Tsiij Git'anee Clan to Ta'ow King Ung Duus (her mother) and passed away in 1926. Susan Smith had ten kids, 4 boys and 6 girls. Mary Louisa Dixon was born in 1910 on Fraser Island in Haida Gwaii. She and her brother and sisters lost their father, Herbert Smith, when he left in the Steamer "Beaver" to Victoria. He never came back. So Nonni (Haida word for grandmother) Mary Louisa Dixon composed a song which she sang and played at every opportunity, called the Steamboat Song. You can Listen to her singing on YouTube. Nonni Mary Louisa Dixon attended Residential School, had 5 boys, and 5 girls, lived to the age of 89 and buried in Skidegate.

Some of Louisa's children also attended residential school which not only destroyed their self-esteem growing up, it damaged their language use, traditions, values, and cultural identity. There were many other hazards they had to face as well, such as physical and sexual abuse, separation from family, and alienation from their culture.

Even after the near extermination, the population of the Haida people has prevailed. Some migrating back to the islands from Alaska after the epidemics peak and from elsewhere. It would appear then that the Haida people had passed the critical point in this history and were beginning to increase in numbers once again.