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The Haida Indians of Queen Charlotte's Islands, British Columbia
(a short excerpt) by James G. Swan 1874

James Swan and a Haida man named Johnny Kit Elswa, Victoria, BC, 1883
James Swan and a Haida man named
Johnny Kit Elswa, 1884

In The custom which prevails among them, and seems to be a distinctive feature of this tribe, is that of tattooing their bodies with various designs, all of which are fanciful representations of animals, birds, or fishes, either an attempt to represent in a grotesque form those which are known and commonly seen, or their mythological and legendary creations. A recent visit of a party of these Indians to Port Townsend has enabled me to study carefully a variety of their carvings and tattoo marks, and to ascertain with accuracy their true meaning and signification.

I have forwarded to the Smithsonian Institution, to accompany this memoir, several carvings in wood and stone; and, in order the better to describe them, I have made sketches illustrative of these carvings and also of various tattoo designs, which were copied by me from the persons of the Indians, and also have caused photographs to be taken to still further illustrate this subject...

The designs which I have copied and described are but a portion of the whole which were tattooed on the persons of this party; but the limited time they remained did not enable me to make a very extended examination. Enough, however, has been obtained to show that this subject is one of great ethnological value, and if followed up with zeal and intelligence would be certain to produce interesting results.

The method by which I determined with accuracy that meaning of these various carvings and tattoo designs was by natural objects, by alcoholic specimens of frogs and crayfish, by dried specimens, by carvings of bears and seals, and by pictures, and by the mythological drawings of similar objects which I had previously obtained and determined among the Makahs. The Haidas, in explaining to me the meaning of their various designs, pointed to the articles I had, and thus proved to me what they meant to represent.

Haida tattoosThe tattoo marks of the codfish, squid, humming bird, etc., never could have been determined from any resemblance to those objects, but by having the specimens and pictures before me they could easily point each one out. Nor was I satisfied until I had submitted my drawings to other Indians, and proved by their giving the same names to each, that my first informant had told me correctly. The allegorical meaning, however, will require for determination time and careful study. Indians are very peculiar in giving information relative to their myths and allegories. Even when one is well acquainted with them and has their confidence, much caution is required, and it is useless to attempt to obtain any reliable information unless they are in a humor of imparting it...

I will not, at this time, press further this discussion, upon a subject which to perfectly understand will need extended observations to be made upon the spot, and would require an explanation that would carry me beyond the limits to which I propose to confine myself in this present paper. I trust that it will be sufficient for me to have shown that the subject of the carvings in wood and stone and precious metals, the paintings and tattoo marks of the Haidas, is one of very great interest, and one which not only never has been properly explained, but never properly understood. When we reflect on the great number of centuries during which all knowledge of the interior of the Pyramids of Egypt was hidden from the world, until the researches of Belzoni discovered their secret treasures, and until Champollion, by aid of the Rosetta Stone, was enabled to decipher their hieroglyphic writings, may we not hope that the knowledge of the ancient history of the natives of the northwest coast, which has so long been an enigma, may be traced out by means of the explanation of the meaning of the symbols such as I have been enabled to discover in part, and have in this paper described.

This very brief memoir, made during the visit of a party of Haida Indians for a few weeks in Port Townsend, will serve to show what could be effected if the Government would empower some person here, and appropriate sufficient funds to be expended in these ethnological and archaeological researches.


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