Window on the Past: The Photographic Ethnohistory of the Northern and Kaigani Haida


236 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography




Reviewed by Edwin G. Higgins

Edwin G. Higgins was a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.


This monologue, commissioned by the Natural Museum of Man, stems from the author’s doctoral dissertation for a Ph.D. in anthropology, at Ohio State University.

It is a treatise on techniques of analysis to obtain the maximum ethnohistorical information from old photographs. The subject matter used to illustrate the methods were 236 photographs of the Northern Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands and those of the Hydaburg area of southern Alaska. The time frame is 1875 to 1900.

As a background to the technical analysis of 236 photographs, the first two chapters contain an excellent overview of the setting, climate, flora, fauna and ethnography of the Haida.

The study deals with three periods and the cultural changes involved: 1) the maritime exploration and fur trade 1774-1834; 2) land fur trade and the impact of the Hudson’s Bay Co. 1834-1875; 3) the missionaries and forced acculturation, 1875-1900. This latter was the photographic period. The writer demonstrates successfully that photographs, when employed together with other ethnohistoric documents, field research, and the memory culture of the oldest Haida of the early 1970s, can be an important medium for a study of periods of culture change.

The author employs the analysis techniques on photographs showing settlement patterns, changes in villages over a time span, house architecture, house interior layouts and their cultural significance, house contents, and totem pole types. The paper concludes with a discussion of the processes of cultural change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Haida culture.

This paper should be of particular interest to researchers of other native cultures during the same period. Students and the general reader will find that the first two chapters provide an excellent overview of Haida culture.

There is an impressive bibliography as well as a list of the Mercury Series of Publications by the Natural Museum of Man, of which this is paper No. 74.


Blackman, Margaret B., “Window on the Past: The Photographic Ethnohistory of the Northern and Kaigani Haida,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,