The premiere episode of Nations at War—on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on APTN—took us back to 1787 in the Pacific Northwest, a region of North America that was dominated by the Haida, the greatest naval power North America had ever seen.
Host David Lyle reminded viewers that at this time European and American ships were cross-crossing the world in search for goods to amass wealth. The Haida flourished and conquered the harsh Pacific seas with their war canoe designs. Their intimidating naval strength meant the Haida were able to grasp great wealth.
The episode included interviews with student and artist Erika Stocker, who shared knowledge concerning the connections the Haida have with both with the oceans and the spiritual beings of the region; and Jim Hart, artist and Hereditary Chief, who discussed the attributes of the Haida dugout war canoe, some of which carried 50-60 paddlers.
Topics the episode covered included: Pot-latch Ceremony, the natural cultural barrier that the Hecate Strait provided, the war canoe design, various war implements such as canoe breakers, the armour that was unique to the Haida people and the war club. Also discussed was the use of slaves by the Haida.
Nations at War is a unique approach to Canadian history and to understand this macro approach, I am including the following statement about the Haida, made by series creator and writer Tim Johnson. (Read more of my interview with Tim and producer and co-writer Jason Friesen here.) The depth in which he spoke illustrates the breadth of knowledge this series has encapsulated in an extremely engaging format:
Coming face to face with Pacific Northwest art, it is this stunning centuries old practice and cultural tradition that has endured,” he said. “I remember going and seeing the statues in the Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, and how stunning those totems were. I knew very little about the Haida other than the fact where they lived and that they were an Indigenous people who had been on those islands for probably thousands of years if not longer and they were a very artistic and a very culturally gifted people.
It is interesting that in European history, the Vikings loomed large. They are this tidal wave of change and evolution in Europe. They revolutionized trade and trade routes, they completely changed maritime travel, they were a whisk that essentially mixed up all of these different political factions and re-forced them, especially in Britain, into the kingdoms which would go on to shape history for generations to come.
But when you compare the Haida to the Vikings, there are a lot of similarities. These were people who used warfare as a means to solve economical and logistical problems. Many societies, like the Mi`kmaq or the Metis, are utilitarian societies. They go and they hunt and fight and do work and defend their territory. So there is always a shortage of labour. If you are devoting all of your time to sustenance or survival, your outlook on life is pragmatic. Then your cultural traditions and your artistic traditions will be shaped by that outlook. There is a means to an end, it is mobile, it does not take up too much time or energy. That is why songs and dances actually, for a lot of people who lived a sustainable life, were more important than carving or building, because that was something that was personal that could be done around your life.
The Haida were an incredible adaptation where they took captives. They used slavery. Not only did they trade slaves as a resource to get more of what they lacked on their island, but they also had, I think at one point from the research that we found, was an estimated 24-26 per cent of the Haida population was probably non-Haida slaves. All of that manual labour, all of the domestic chores were taken care of which means that your young men and young women could devote themselves to art. Could devote themselves to culture. Could devote themselves to warfare. And what happens is kind of like what happened with the Egyptians; the emergence of monumental architecture.
So when I remember seeing those Haida totem poles as a child, I am not understanding the context. I was impressed by their size and power and beauty. When I understood how their society and their economy functioned, that raiding was not just warfare for warfare`s sake but it was warfare—like the Vikings—with a purpose, because of the need for resources, for the need for labour, for the need to gather the goods you can trade from one group of people to different group of people; it propelled their society into a cultural golden age. These carvings and these canoes with their decorated carvings on their hulls were not only incredibly useful pieces of technology, but they were emulated and envied. The nations on the coast would buy Haida canoes because they were awesome. They were incredible. They were well made, they were fast, they were durable and they were the perfect vessel for those waters.
When you see that art, those poles, which in many ways has become a brand for the west coast across the world, that is the product of a Haida cultural golden age that emerged from one of the most powerful and sophisticated civilizations in the history of the Americas. Now when I think back to when I saw those totem poles as a child, I realize now that I was seeing a statement of power from one of the most intellectual people in human history.
Once again, I extend my thanks to Tim Johnson for taking the time to share his passion for Canadian history.
If you missed the premiere episode, you can check it out here.
Nations at War airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on APTN.