Haida Culture and Argillite Carvings

Haida Culture and Argillite Carvings

BBC Antiques Roadshow Specialist Marc Allum Takes a Look at the Fascinating Subject of Haida Culture and Argillite Carvings.

My fascination with the Haida culture began many years ago with the acquisition of an argillite pipe. It’s a curious object that represents Europeans in a naïvely sophisticated allegorical fashion and it was these stylish idiosyncrasies that led me to investigate further captivating aspects of the Haida people. The rugged Northwest coast of North America is home to the proud remnants of a once much greater and contextually highly sophisticated group of tribes, or First Nation bands as they are now called; in the north were the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, centrally, the Kwakiutl and Bella Coola, and in the south, the Nootka and Salish. Geographically, the area is roughly situated between the Columbia River in Oregon and Yakutat bay in Alaska, and comprises thousands of islands and inlets bordered by a narrow coastal strip, backed by a harsh mountainous terrain. This natural barrier historically separated these bands from the hinterland allowing them to develop in a highly distinctive way. These were sea-going people and their lives were dependent on this bountiful environment. Their Pacific canoes were fashioned from single red cedar trees with propulsion supplied by up to sixty paddlers. The Haida had a fearsome reputation both as warriors and slave traders; their prisoners were captured in battles or kidnapped from other ‘tribes’ and used for menial work and probably for gene-pool regeneration!

So what is argillite? Often called ‘black slate’, argillite is a sedimentary rock composed of fine silt-sized particles and varies in colour from jet-black to greenish in hue. The only known source of black argillite is on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and comes from a quarry in Slatechuck Creek, a site now protected and set aside for the exclusive use of Haida craftsmen. By law, the rock must be cut by hand and no vehicles are allowed into the quarry to facilitate its removal. The ‘slate’ is relatively soft but harder than soapstone and the Haida traditionally used oils and sharkskin to polish it to a high lustre finish. It has a comparison in the catlinite pipes of the plains tribes such as the Lakota Sioux, a reddish-brown form of argillite; however, these are generally far less expressive than the Haida pieces.

First European Contact

The first European contact with the Northwest tribes was thought to have been made by two Russian explorers, Vitus Behring and Peter Cherikof in 1741. This established the first fur trading routes and was followed in 1774-1775 by three Spanish expeditions. They dropped anchor off Vancouver Island and further north at Salisbury Sound, two with Juan Perez on the Santiago and another under the command of Francisco Bodega y Quadra on the Sonora. Captain James Cook also visited the Islands in 1778 and they were later surveyed by Captain George Dixon in 1787. Dixon named the islands after one of his ships, the Queen Charlotte, and wife of George III. The indigenous name for the group of islands is Haida Gwaii but is now known as British Columbia. The British Museum has several specimens collected by Cook and Dixon including a fine carved wooden Haida bowl. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, (One of my favourite museums) holds over 300 Haida objects and works of art; importantly, it nurtures close links and continual cultural research with the Haida Nation.

Sadly, this first contact proved highly detrimental to the life of the Northwest coast bands, as it did for most indigenous races. The Europeans were primarily interested in financial gain and exploiting the plentiful supplies of otter skins and furs, which were initially, eagerly traded by the First Nation peoples. This adversely altered their level of dependence on their environment, ultimately shifting their way of life away from their more traditional values. It’s estimated that between 1799 and 1802 almost 50,000 skins were shipped (The sea otter became almost extinct within a century). To operate at this level it was necessary to establish permanent trading posts and the English, Russians and Spanish did so with vigour. These in turn became centres of aboriginal population, the attraction being the permanent supply of tools, clothing and other goods. It’s thought that the Haida population numbered around 10,000-12,000 on first contact with the Europeans. Sadly, the ‘white man’ came with diseases and by the mid-1860s, the indigenous peoples were decimated by smallpox, typhoid, measles and syphilis, the population having been reduced by some 90%. In 1900 there were only around 700 Haida remaining. Today, there are approximately 2000 Haida living in the two exclusive communities of Skidegate and Old Masset, with around 3,500 people in total living on Haida Gwaii.

The naturally rich environment, in which the Northwest coast bands lived, greatly influenced their artistic output. These were hunter-gatherer peoples, secure in their well-established villages knowing that the proliferance of salmon - which was smoked for the winter - and raw materials from the forest, made for an easier life and therefore released more time for artistic pursuits. What to many might seem like a fog-bound, damp and harsh environment, fragmented into thousands of tiny islands, was the perfect environment for expert, seafaring hunters. Virtually everything from their canoes to houses, cooking utensils and armour could be fashioned from the prolific red cedar. The characteristic totems that stood before their homes, adorned with clan crests and stylised creatures, were carved from enormous cedars. It’s not known exactly how long the Haida have been carving totems as the oldest have long since rotted away, but what is clear from comparisons with items collected by the first European visitors, is that the style of Haida work was already well and truly established as an art form and showed no significant changes as a result of European intervention. It’s argued that the acquisition of traded iron tools increased their ‘output’ and this may well be true, but it didn’t change the basic premise of Haida art.


During periods of ‘leisure’ the Haida pursued ceremonial activities such as the ‘potlatch’. They are often labelled as ‘conspicuous consumers’ and the custom of the potlatch ceremony was obviously quite strange to foreigners. It involved a celebration in which individuals would stage large feasts and give away literally all of their worldly possessions. Individuals, particularly chiefs, would vie for greater displays of selflessness, gifting war canoes and goods - items that had involved a great deal of time and artistic input. However, this didn’t plunge the person into poverty but served as a great stimulus to artistic production, as it was mandatory to return these gifts with a rival potlatch. Some items would be destroyed and there are even tales of house burnings, yet Westerners failed to understand the cyclical advantage of this ‘waste’ and the custom was banned as the Haida were increasingly repressed by strong Christian ideals and bigotry.


The earliest argillite carvings seem to date from around about 1800 and are of pure Haida form. These are rare and valuable. Pipes were fashioned for use as ritual funerary objects and used with tobacco. By the 1820’s the trade in sea otter pelts had already essentially finished, and the Haida looked for other forms of trade. From this period onwards it was mainly visiting sailors who would buy souvenirs such as pipes. The ‘ship’ panel pipe illustrated here, probably mid-19th century, (33cm long) evolved from these first examples into a form of tourist commodity and its functionality took second place, although smaller more robust pipes were fashioned for use. They are often executed with incredible delicacy and this can be seen in the fine twisted cords and the glazing bars of the very Federal style window that was copied from the sterns of the ships that anchored offshore. This makes them susceptible to damage, as the argillite becomes more brittle with age. Current auction value for this piece would be in the region of £3,000-5,000. Carvings would also sometimes incorporate marine ivory, particularly when depicting the facial features of ‘the white man’. However, the inclusion of ivory (or even abalone and pewter) generally increases the value and this, combined with a good subject, can raise the stakes considerably. In 2007 Bonham’s auctioneers sold an argillite figure of a Russian sea captain, with an inset ivory face, for £28,800!

The Haida carvers also used their talents to produce Western style items such as platters and boxes. Some are quite pure in style while others display a mixture of Haida iconography and European influence. Generally these date from the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. During this period steamers with tourists on board were plying the straights between the mainland and the island chains and visitors would land to photograph villages, totems and the ‘indigenous population’. These ‘cross-over’ objects found favour with many souvenir hunters and wouldn’t seem out of place in the context of a 19th century parlour!

Haida Society and Iconography

Haida society followed strict moiety lineages, meaning that the society was divided into two groups. In the case of the Haida, these groups were known as Raven and Eagle. Within these two groups there were clans with their own idiosyncrasies and identities. It was forbidden to marry within the same moiety. Haida art prominently displays this symbolism and also incorporates complicated mythological and abstract iconography using various characters such as Seabear, Killer Whale, Mouse Woman, Good Bear/Bad Bear and Dogfish Woman. All are featured in the carved argillite totems, which are in effect models of full-size Haida totems. The most famous Haida artist (pictured here in the late 19th century with various argillite objects) was Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) or Chief Tahaygen. He worked in all mediums, wood, metal and stone and was commissioned by anthropologists of the day to craft items, many of which are now in major museums. His great grandsons Reg and Robert Davidson carry on the Haida tradition to this day.

Genuine old argillite totems are difficult to find. A quick Internet search reveals that there are plenty of contemporary carvings available by living Haida artists, some costing thousands of pounds, as well as countless resin casts! Occasionally they do come to light and during my time on the BBC Antiques Roadshow I have been lucky enough to film two examples. They came with an excellent provenance and also a photograph from the 1930’s showing them in situ on a mantelpiece. I valued them at around £1,500 each. More recently, I was lucky enough to come across a stunning cedar ‘grease’ bowl in the form of a seal pup. A truly wonderful object.

In Pursuit of Haida Art

My interest in Haida art has led to some interesting discoveries. Apart from the superlative collection in the Pitt Rivers Museum, I have - in recent years - viewed several pieces of argillite in a varied number of locations, including the Wunderkammer (cabinet or room of wonder) of Peter the Great in St Petersburg, Russia. The diversity of the First Nations artefacts - in what is one of the world’s oldest museums – amazed me. The British Museum has restored and relocated a 30ft Haida totem to the Great Court after it had languished in a poorly lit stairwell; Haida representatives attended the ceremony. It also holds over 80 argillite carvings in its collection and these represent but a small part of the artefacts representing the Haida and the other First Nations Tribes of the region.

Debates about repatriation and cultural heritage abound but the present Haida population – in conjunction with many institutions and academics - are actively striving to preserve and reinforce their culture and invaluable artistic legacy.

Further Reading:

Inverarity, Robert (1950) Art of the northwest Coast Indians. University of California Press/Cambridge University Press, England.

Bringhurst, Robert (2000) A Story as Sharp as a Knife: Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. Douglas & McIntyre.

Stearns, Mary Lee (1981) Haida Culture in Custody:The Masset Band. Seattle: university of Washington Press.

Macnair, Peter L.; Hoover, Alan L.; Neary, Kevin (1981) The Legacy – Continuing Traditions of Canadian Northwest Coast Indian Art. BC Provincial Museum, Scotland.

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