Ha’ina: supernatural Nuu-chah-nulth crystal?

Crystal artifact said to be used to summon guests to feasts. Source: British Museum

Hmmm, coincidences.  Two or three days ago I was having a beer with a recently graduated student of mine, who was telling me about a number of quartz crystal artifacts he had found in an excavation in the Fraser Valley.  Now, artifacts made of quartz crystal are well known in the Gulf of Georgia — the nature of the rock makes it highly suitable for flaked stone tool production, especially microblades.  Ethnographic accounts suggest they could also be used for sawing very tough rock types such as nephrite.  However, the artifacts being described to me the other night included complete crystals with grooves around the bases — pendant-like, perhaps, or specialized abraders, or, well, or what?

Well,  in a stunning display of “coincidence”, or a happy intervention from a raven, today I ran across just such a shiny little thing at the British Museum website.  From their text, (which I cannot vouch for, having never heard of such a thing before):

The Nuu-chah-nulth believed that these crystals, or ha’ina, grew on the top of mountains and were endowed with magical qualities for bringing wealth and good fortune, for example, when hunting sea otter.

This ha’ina was collected by Captain George Dixon, who had accompanied Captain Cook on his Third Voyage (1776-80) to Vancouver Island. In 1785-88 Dixon made a trading voyage on the King George and Queen Charlotte which was promoted by the King George’s Sound Company (King George’s Sound was Captain Cook’s short-lived name for Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, where this crystal was collected, probably from the Mowachaht people.)

The Nuu-chah-nulth used the ha’ina to invite people to potlatches, the great feasts given to celebrate life-cycle events at which hereditary rights were displayed. The invitation to a potlatch would take place at a gathering a year or two before the potlatch, when the crystal would be, metaphorically speaking, sent out to the prospective guests. They may have ‘sent’ this example to Dixon. Dixon was supported by Sir Joseph Banks in his work, and through Banks gave this ‘piece of rock crystal’ to the British Museum on 22 May 1789.

It would be sad and ironic (though not surprising) if this artifact was indeed an invitation never acknowledged, an unfulfilled RSVP, and if the gormless British had managed to interpret an invitation as a commodity and not as a request for honour, attendance and respect.  It would be wrong on a number of levels to draw conclusions about the Fraser Valley examples, but it does show the potentially fuzzy boundaries between symbolic and functional material culture.

4 responses to “Ha’ina: supernatural Nuu-chah-nulth crystal?

  1. Wow, this is the same type of object that we have been finding at sites in the the Stave Watershed. The transverse groove is clearly visible in the cross-section of the photo you posted. If invitations they are, there sure are a lot of them where we have been working!

    Thanks for this awesome little nugget.



  2. Hi Duncan,

    Yeah, I thought you might be interested, but I wasn’t sure if you knew of this item or the source citation which is not clear. If I get time I will poke through my copy of Drucker or Arima to see if that’s where the BM is getting its information.

    This one is quite large, the BM site says 10 cm long which is a fair sized crystal.

    Does this make your site in the Stave a sort of “party central”? I note that they use the phrase “metaphorically passed” and also note other uses such as lucky charms, so to speak. Either way, its cool stuff and it’d be nice to track down references to this one & also talk to people in the know.


  3. Quartz is also very important ritual item for the kwakwala speaking people north of the Nuu-chah-nulth, formerly known as the Kwakiutl. Boas (1910:103) notes how quartz was traded to the west coast (Mowachaht definitely included) for sea otters, slaves and coppers, undoubtedly through the Nimpkish Valley. Several quartz sites are located in ‘Namgis terrirory, including a reliable report of large crystals exposed at the top of a mountain near Woss lake which is along one of the trade routes.


  4. Thanks for the info, Jim. I guess quartz crystals are less localized than many mineral types and also I imagine that sourcing wouldn’t be effective on them since they are what, pure silica? But then again, maybe there are some rare earths or something in there. I’ll make a note of that Boas reference!


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