Meeting the Haida Fleet by WH Collison

Posted on May 19, 2013

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Rev WH Collison, Family ca.1890William  Henry Collison arrived on the Northwest Coast in 1873 to begin work as a missionary for the Church Missionary Society.  He learned Tsimshian while teaching at the Utopian (and totalitarian) Tsimshian community of Metlakatla, which was then under the management of the famous William Duncan.  He also worked with the Nass River Nisga’a at the beginning and at the completion of his career, and with the Haida of Haida Gwai.  In his book, In the Wake of the War Canoe, Collison recounts a meeting with the Haida which happened before he went to join them as a missionary.

In the month of June 1874, for the first time, I witnessed a Haida fleet approaching the shores of the mainland from the ocean, and it left an impression on my mind not yet effaced. It consisted of some forty large canoes, each with two snow-white sails spread, one on either side of each canoe, which caused them to appear like immense birds or butterflies, with white wings outspread, flying shorewards. Before a fresh westerly breeze they glided swiftly onward over the rolling waves, which appeared to chase each other in sport as they reflected the gleams of the summer’s sun.

Haida canoe stampThese were the northern Haidas, who were famed for their fine war canoes. They have always been the canoe builders of the northern coast.

As they neared the shore the sails were furled, and as soon as the canoes touched the beach the young men sprang out, and amid a babel of voices hastened to carry up their freight and effects above the high-water mark.

These then were the fierce Haidas whose name had been the terror of all the surrounding tribes. And truly their appearance tended to justify the report. Many of the men were of fine physique, being six feet in stature; whilst those whose faces were not painted were much fairer in complexion than the Indians of the mainland. Some of their women wore nose-rings, and not a few of them were adorned also with anklets, whilst all the women wore silver bracelets, those of rank having several pairs, all carved with the peculiar devices of their respective crests. In their language there was no similarity whatever to the Tsimshian, with which I was now familiar, and which sounded softer and more musical than the Haida.  From In the Wake of the War Canoe [1915] by William Henry Collison