The first documented contact between the Haida and Europeans was in 1772, on Juan Pérez’s exploratory voyage. At this time Haidas inhabited the Haida Gwaii, Dall Island, and Prince of Wales Island. The precontact Haida population was about 15,000; the first smallpox epidemic came soon after initial contact, reducing the population to about 10,000 and depopulating a large portion of the Ninstints dialect area. The next epidemic came in 1862, causing the population to drop to 1,658. Venereal disease and tuberculosis further reduced the population to 588 by 1915. This dramatic decline led to the merger of villages, the final result being three Haida villages: Masset (merged 1876), Skidegate (merged 1879), and Hydaburg (merged 1911).
In the 1830s a pidgin trade language based on Haida, known as Haida Jargon, was used in the islands by speakers of English, Haida, Coast Tsimshian, and Heiltsuk. The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858 lead to a boom in the town of Victoria, and Southern Haida began traveling there annually, mainly for the purpose of selling their women. For this the Haida used Chinook Jargon. This contact with whites had a strong effect on the Southern Haida, even as the Northern Haida remained culturally conservative. For instance, Skidegate Haida were reported as dressing in the European fashion in 1866, while Northern Haida “were still wearing bearskins and blankets ten years later.”
In 1862, William Duncan, a British Anglican missionary stationed at Fort Simpson, took fifty Tsimshian converts and created a new model community, Metlakatla. The new village was greatly successful, and throughout the Northwest coast the attitude spread that abandoning tradition would pave the way for a better life. The Haida themselves invited missionaries to their community, the first arriving in 1876. These missionaries initially worked in the Haida language. The Rev. John Henry Keen translated the Book of Common Prayer into Haida, published in 1899 in London by the Missionary Society. The book of Psalms as well as much of the New Testament would also be translated into Haida. However, negative attitudes towards the use of the Haida language were widespread among the Haida people, even in the fairly conservative village of Masset where Keen was located. In an 1894 letter, Keen wrote:
These people would fain have their services etc. entirely in English. It has been by sheer determination that I now have the whole service (except hymns and canticles) in the vernacular.
— John Henry Keen, 1894 letter, quoted in Enrico (2003:6)
Beginning at the turn of the century, Haida began sending their children to residential schools. This practice was most widespread among the Southern Haida; among the Northern Haida it was practiced by the more “progressive” families. These schools strictly enforced a ban on the use of native languages, and played a major role in the decimation of native Northwest Coast languages. The practice of Haida families using English to address children spread in Masset in the 1930s, having already been practiced in Skidegate, the rationale being that this would aid the children in their school education. After this point few children were raised with Haida as a primary language.
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