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Sang Gwaay meaning “Red Cod Island” is the Haida name for British Columbia. Initially referred to as Quee-ah after the chief Koyah of the early 19th century, it came to be known as Ninstints after most powerful chiefs in mid-19th century. It is a village site located in Haida Gwaii and was the southernmost of Haida villages on the north coast of British Columbia, Canada. It has been designated as cultural type world heritage site in 1981 (5th session) under criteria (iii) as it bears a unique and exceptional testimony to the living cultural tradition of the vanished civilization of the Haida Indians, a tribe based on fishing and hunting in the archipelago and their relationship to the land and sea, and offers a visual key to their oral traditions. It is a part of Gwaii Haanas National park Reserve and Haida Heritage site in Haida Gwaii. The site is remote, and access is only by sea or air from towns in the northern part of the islands.

Location of Gwaii Haans
Location of Gwaii Haans

Remains of houses, together with carved mortuary and memorial poles (totem poles) many of which are celebrated as great works of art, illustrate the Haida people’s power, artistry and way of life and are recognized to be among the finest examples of their type in the world.


The first traces of human occupation date back almost 2,000 years. A series of unit dwellings, cedar longhouses, still exists, of which 10 are in good condition. However, it is the 32 totemic and mortuary columns on the edge of the dwelling zone which contribute to the world renown of the site. These wooden columns, sculpted with stylized anthropo-zoomorphic figures, have suffered considerable erosion at the hands of nature. Fifteen poles were moved to museums in the 1930s and 1950s. More of the village has been taken by nature, consumed by age and returned to the forest.

Painting showing great Haida totem poles and longhouses

The Haida have always thrived on the wealth of both the sea and the forest. Shellfish and salmon were staple foods. Giant Western red cedars were the raw material of ocean-going canoes, vast post-and-plank houses, and great poles bearing both symbols of family history and holding inside them the bones of ancestors. Ninstints, whose English name was Tom Price, was a noted and highly artistic carver of Haida art, notably in Haida Argillite Carvings. Argillite became a popular carving medium after the decline of the sea otter fur trade in the early 19th century. These carvings enabled Haida to trade with visiting Europeans. The Haida lived on Sang Gwaii for thousands of years (as two-meter-thick refuse heaps of shells attest).

Hadia chief in his ceremonial garments- a spruce-root crest hat and Chilkat robe, holding copper shields.
Hadia chief in his ceremonial garments- a spruce-root crest hat and Chilkat robe, holding copper shields.


Haida houses were constructed of red cedar. Four slotted and notched corner posts held a bottom wall plank and a sloping roof plate beam.  Two central posts spaced about 4 feet apart, support the roof plate beams.  The six roof support beams were placed on the roof plate beams.  Sidewall planks were placed vertically in the grooved bottom wall planks around the structure.  A pole with the crests of the lineage of the house was built in the front wall in the space between the central posts. Occasionally, the front of a house would be painted with the lineage crests, rather than marked with the crest pole.  Haida houses also had two levels inside.

Structure of a Haida house
Structure of a Haida house

The Haida are especially associated with “totem” poles. The figures are actors in stories relating to the history and accomplishments of the lineage. Figures often used by Haida lineages include the frog, whale, raven, eagle or thunderbird, and bear. The very tall poles now associated with the art of the region probably came into use only after European metal tools became available; the traditional forms were likely the smaller crest pole wood carvings.

The great Haida Totem poles


The traditional Haida enemies of the chiefs of Ninstints were the chiefs of Skidegate, and a loose alliance with the Tsimshian of Kitkatla, also an enemy of Skidegate, was maintained, with the Ninstints lineage being conferred the Mountain Goat Crest from the allied Tsimshian chief.What was once a vigorous Haida community of 300 people was greatly reduced by the smallpox epidemic of 1862. The village was occupied shortly after 1880 as the population continued to decline due to other introduced diseases. Sometime around 1885 the remnants of the Ninstints people abandoned the village and moved to Skidegate and by the turn of the century only remnants of the houses and poles remained.

ninstints totem poles getting eroded at hands of nature

The distinct island flora and fauna have evolved over thousands of years and often differ from those found on the mainland such as the black bear and pine marten, deer mouse, dusky shrew and short-tailed weasel.
An estimated 1.5 million seabirds nest along some 4,700 km of shoreline on the islands from May to late August. Many are burrow-nesters, such as the rhinoceros auklet, ancient murrelet, tufted puffin, horned puffin, Cassin’s auklet, Leach’s storm petrel and fork-tailed storm petrel.
These waters are home to salmon, herring, halibut, rockfish, mussels, crab, starfish, sea urchin and octopus, along with numerous other species. Grey whales, Killer whales (orcas), humpback and minke whales are also seen in the waters surrounding Gwaii Haanas, along with dolphins, porpoises and harbor seals.

Reconstructed view of Haida village
Reconstructed view of Haida village

Gwaii Haanas is a protected area that contains the essence of the rugged beauty and ecological character of the Pacific coast. The remnants of the village represent an ongoing chapter in an epic story of human settlement and artistry. It is a celebration of more than 10,000 years of connection between land, sea and Haida culture.
• Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia(
• Nabokov, Peter and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.
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