Haida Potatoes

Haida Potatoes

After several years of living in a condo, my husband and I moved to a house with a yard on Vancouver Island.  I was delighted to think about having a garden again.  As we dug around the yard we realized that the soil was very poor and would need some work to get a vegetable garden going.  I remembered a woman I knew when I lived in Hazelton. She always had a wonderful garden and told me that if you want to get the soil going, plant potatoes.  So I trotted off to Seedy Saturday and bought a bag of mixed heritage potatoes.   This prompted me to think about what might be the oldest heritage potatoes in BC.

My research led me to Haida potatoes. Their cultivation has been documented on Haida Gwaii for at least 200 years.[1]  The potatoes became a major economic enterprise, sought after by traders as a welcome change from their monotonous diets and as  a trade item with the coastal people for grease and smoked Eulachon.[2] For example, the Chief Factor at Fort Simpson apparently reported in 1840 that the Fort acquired 1119 bushels of potatoes from Queen Charlotte Islands[3] that arrived in 48 canoes.[4]

It is a bit of a mystery how the potato got to the islands.  Different authors have speculated that perhaps potatoes came with the Spanish explorers in the late 1700s or were brought by European settlers. Another possibility is that Russian explorers and fur traders brought potatoes that they had obtained from their circumnavigation around South America. Then there were Alaska native stories about Tlingit and Haida travelers who were going down to South America in big canoes and brought potatoes north.[5]  Nancy Turner describes the Haida potato as having arrived on Haida Gwaii from Haida communities in Alaska, where it originally may have been obtained in trade from Pacific Islands such as Hawaii.[6]

Most likely the Haida potato grown in Haida Gwaii was obtained from the Haida from Kasaan on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island.  It is very similar to two other varieties of potatoes grown by First Nations people, Maria’s potato of the Tlingit Nation and Ozette potato of the Makah in Washington State. Often the names are used interchangeably[7].

A 2009 genetic research was conducted on the three varieties as part of the Potato Genome Project. This study included several “Ozette” potatoes obtained from different sources and showed that all of the potatoes were genetically identical. A type of potato known by the name “Haida,” derived from Haida gardeners on the Queen Charlotte Islands [Haida Gwaii], Canada, was also identified as “Ozette” with exactly the same SSR profile.  Mexico and Chile were the most plausible sources for the “Ozette” and “Maria’s” and the “Kasaan” cultivars based on this phylogenetic study and other historical evidence. (p. 26)

This is an intriguing find because it had been generally accepted that after the dispersion of potatoes out of the Andes (Chile and Peru) to Europe, all other potato introduc­tions were comprised of a European naturalized variety. This study shows that three of the potato varieties grown along the coast were not directly related to the European variety, but more closely related to the Peruvian cultivar or a cultivar naturalized to Mexico.

This information indicates that these varieties were either brought directly from Peru, or were brought to Mexico from Peru, and were dispersed into the Pacific Northwest from there. This means they probably arrived via Spanish ships [8]

The Haida potato is called Xaadas sgúusadaa, in the Haida language meaning “long and skinny”[9] . It also is  “knobby” and resembles a finger, therefore often thought to be a fingerling variety.  The term “fingerling” refers to shape, not colour or texture. While classic potato varieties are either round or oval (long), fingerlings have a slender, elongated form with many eyes. The Haida potato has yellowish skin and white flesh. It apparently is a “prolific producer” well suited to the damp, cool conditions of the north coast of BC and Haida Gwaii and is still grown there. Backyard potato saving is a tradition and has saved the Haida potato from extinction since there is no source of seed potatoes.[10] The people of Haida Gwaii have kept it alive for over 200 years.

[Image source: Hope Organics https://www.facebook.com/hopefarmorganic/photos/a.309254815798956/1548633621861063/?type=1&theater]

[1] Kerby, N. (2014, May 30). Super Spuds: Heritage potatoes return to the North. Northword



[2] Wenstob, S. (2011). The Profusion of Potatoes in Pre-Colonial British Columbia. PlatForum, 12, 103; Suttles, W. (1951). The Early Diffusion of the Potato among the Coast Salish. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 7(3), 272-288. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3628605; Fedje, D. W. & Mathewes, R. (2011).  Haida Gwaii: Human History and Environment from the Time of Loon to the Time of the Iron People.  Vancouver, BC: UBC Press; for more information on grease and eulachon see https://bcfoodhistory.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/BC-Food-History-The-Ooligan.pdf

[3] Given the name of the Queen Charlotte Islands In 1787, after the ship of Captain George Dixon which had been named for Queen Charlotte, the wife of the British monarch at the time, King George III the name was changed June 3, 2010, to Haida Gwaii as part of the Kunst’aa guu – Kunst’aayah Reconciliation Protocol between British Columbia and the Haida people.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haida_Gwaii

[4] Fedje, D. W. & Mathewes, R. (2011).  Haida Gwaii: Human History and Environment from the Time of Loon to the Time of the Iron People.  Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

[5] Goodrich, B. (2017, July 10). Tlingit and Haida Potatoes: Eyes into a Unique History.  Edible Alaska Magazine http://sustainablesoutheast.net/tlingit-and-haida-potatoes-eyes-into-a-unique-history/. 

Interview of Elizabeth Kunibe, the leading academic researcher of Alaska’s unique potato past.

[6] See the following references:
Turner N.J. (1975) Food Plants of British Columbia Indians, Part 1, Coastal Peoples. British Columbia Provincial Museum Handbook, No. 34. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum.
Kerby, N. (2014, May 30). Super Spuds: Heritage potatoes return to the North. Northword Magazine.

[7] Suttles, W. (1951). The Early Diffusion of the Potato among the Coast Salish. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 7(3), 272-288. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3628605

[8] Zhang, L., Brown, C. R., Culley, D., Baker, B., Kunibe, E., Denney, H., & Pavek, J. J. (2010). Inferred origin of several Native American potatoes from the Pacific Northwest; Elizabeth Kunibe, “The Origin of Alaska’s First Potato,” in Conference Abstracts. (Fairbanks, AK: American Association of the Advancement of Science, Arctic, 2008) and Southeast Alaska using SSR markers. Euphytica, 174(1), 15-29.

[9] https://haidalanguage.blogspot.com/2011/12/x-haida-english_10.html

[10] http://northword.ca/features/super-spuds-heritage-potatoes-return-to-the-north; Will, J. (2009, Oct. 29).
The Potato Underground. http://thetyee.ca/Life/2009/10/29/PotatoUnderground/
For information on seed potatoes see







3 Responses to Haida Potatoes

  1. tyson March 9, 2020 at 10:36 am #

    thanks buddy;)

  2. Christina August 2, 2021 at 5:43 pm #

    Fantastic article. My husband and I just sourced (after 2 years of searching) 5lbs of seed this spring from the island. They are now growing amazingly across the country in Ontario. We are so excited to harvest them soon and introduce many people to this little gem. Thank you for your research

  3. Kathryn September 2, 2021 at 9:58 am #

    Thank you for all your research! I am teaching/developing a new course – Indigenous Foods – this year and am looking for ideas!

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