1/28/2012

Haida Cedar Plank Longhouses

Haida 6-Beam Longhouse, artwork by Gordon J. Miller

The cultures that have thrived on the west coast of North America have lived among some of the biggest trees in the world for thousands of years. In that time, they have used these wood resources in creative and monumental endeavors, including the Haida 6-beam longhouse.

Since time immemorial coastal people have been using the rain forest for an amazing variety of things. Haida Gwaii produced some of the largest Western red-cedar in the world, and they provided lodging, clothes, transportation, and tools - everything the Haida needed. 

Cedar is valuable because its wood and bark are water-resistant. The wood grain is unusually straight with few knots so it's excellent for splitting into the long, even, and smooth planks which the big houses required. Cedar is a solid wood yet is easy to carve and its natural oils resist rot.

Forest resources are just as important today as they ever were, although they have been logged unsustainably since the arrival of Europeans. The once rich resource is being depleted, especially the sacred (and expensive) cedar, the center pole of west coast life. However, the Haida approach logging differently, now and in the past.

When Haida lumberjacks of days gone by needed to harvest huge cedar for a new plank longhouse, they would canoe in a large group to the location of big cedars. While one group set up camp and cooked, another went to fell the giant trees needed for the beams and large planks used in building the massive long houses.

To fell the large cedar, wet mud was packed at breast height all around the base of the trunk. Wood was piled around the tree and set alight. The fire was maintained until the tree was weakened and fell to the ground. Then it would be de-limbed and prepared for the journey by canoe to the building site.

The posts and beams, which weighed several tons, were lifted into place using simple tools and the cooperation of the entire village. The longhouse, which could be up to 120 feet long and 20 feet high, had a number of fire pits for warmth and cooking with smoke holes directly overhead. The Haida raised totem poles in front of their houses while other groups painted the facade with pictures of real and mythical beasts.

The trees were harvested in a process of respect and reverence, then were used in efficient and artistic ways that also showed respect for the resource. When the longhouse was old and no longer used, it would slowly return to the forest, melding in to the greenery without a trace.

Contemporary longhouses at the Haida Heritage Centre
Beautiful longhouses are still being built on Haida Gwaii, although not as large as some of the historical structures. It has only been fairly recently that the Haida regained control of their access to the cedars of their territory, so we can expect to see more of these traditional dwellings as the Haida continue to reclaim their past.
"In the past cultural wood was used mainly for poles, boxes and masks but with the Supreme Court of Canada, Sapier and Gray decision (2006) this has changed. The court decision, in part says, that the use of cultural wood for domestic purposes is a constitutional right much like the right to harvest wood for poles and weaving. This means that Haida and other First Nations are now able to take wood to build houses or use wood for siding a house."
- from: Haida Laas, September 2009
The Haida Gwaii Land Plan, and the implementation of Ecological Based Management, will ensure that there are trees available in the future for canoe logs, longhouse beams, posts, and planks, totem poles, and other cultural uses.

The Haida Heritage Centre has new longhouses that contain exhibits for the public to enjoy. The totem poles and canoes shown here are incredible.

Check here for photos of some amazing contemporary cedar structures built by a local company.

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