Richard Hunt, Kwakwaka'wakw artist
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Canada ( British Columbia)
English, Kwak'wala
Christianity, Traditional Indigenous religion
Related ethnic groups
Haisla, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv

The Kwakwaka'wakw /kwɑːkˈwɑːkjəwɑːk/[1] (Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw [kʷakʷəkəw̓akʷ])[2] are an Indigenous people with an approximate population of 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the adjoining mainland and islands around Johnstone Strait and Queen Charlotte Strait. They have historically been named after the Kwakiutl /ˈkwɑːkjʊtəl/, or Kwagu'ł, one of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes. Their language, now spoken by less than 5% of the population (about 250 people), consists of four dialects of what is commonly referred to as Kwak'wala. These dialects are Kwak̓wala, ’Nak̓wala, G̱uc̓ala and T̓łat̓łasik̓wala.[3] The name Kwakwaka'wakw translates as "The-Kwak̓wala-Speaking-People". Numerous tribes form the Kwakwaka'wakw, with each tribe constituting their own people or nation. They are today politically organized into 13 band governments.


The name Kwakiutl is derived from Kwagu'ł—the name of a single tribe of Kwakwaka'wakw located at Fort Rupert. The anthropologist Franz Boas had done most of his anthropological work in this area popularized the term for both this tribe and the collective as a whole. The term became misapplied to mean all the tribes who spoke Kwak'wala, as well as three other indigenous peoples whose language is a part of the Wakashan linguistical group, but whose language is not Kwak'wala. These peoples, incorrectly known as the Northern Kwakiutl, were the Haisla, Wuikinuxv, and Heiltsuk.

"Kwakiutl" is considered a misnomer by most of the peoples it is applied to; they prefer to be called the Kwakwaka'wakw, which means Kwak'wala-speaking-peoples. One exception is the Laich-kwil-tach at Campbell River; they are known as the Southern Kwakiutl, and the tribal council they are in is the Kwakiutl District Council.


The Kwakwaka'wakw believe that their ancestors (‘na’mima) came in the forms of animals by way of land, sea or underground. When one of these ancestral animals arrived at the given spot, it would discard its animal appearance and become human. Some animals that figure in these origin myths include the Thunderbird, his brother Kolus, the seagull, orca, grizzly bear or chief ghost. Some ancestors have human origins and are said to come from distant places.[5]

Historically, the Kwakwaka'wakw economy was based primarily on fishing, with the men also engaging in some hunting, and the women gathering wild fruits and berries. Ornate weaving and woodwork were important crafts, and wealth, defined by slaves and material goods, was prominently displayed and traded at potlatch ceremonies. These customs were the subject of extensive study by the anthropologist Franz Boas. In contrast to most other societies, wealth and status were not determined by how much you had, but by how much you had to give away. This act of giving away your wealth was one of the main acts in a potlatch.

The first documented contact was with Captain George Vancouver in 1792. Disease, which developed as a result of direct contact with European settlers along the West Coast of Canada, drastically reduced the Indigenous Kwakwaka'wakw population during the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Kwakwaka’wakw population dropped by 75% between 1830-1880.[6]

Kwakwaka'wakw dancers from Vancouver Island performed at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.[7]

An account of experiences of two founders of early residential schools for aboriginal children, was published in 2006 by the University of British Columbia Press. "Good Intentions Gone Awry - Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission On the Northwest Coast"[8] by Jan Hare and Jean Barman, contains the letters and and account of the life of the wife of Thomas Crosby, the first missionary in Port Simpson. This covers the period from 1870 to the turn of the 20th century.

A second book was published in 2005 by The University of Calgary Press "The Letters of Margaret Butcher - Missionary Imperialism on the North Pacific Coast" [9] edited by Mary-Ellen Kelm. It picks up the story from 1916-1919 in the village of Kitamaat and details Butcher's experiences among the Haisla people.

A review article entitled Mothers of a Native Hell[10] about these two books was published in the British Columbia on-line news magazine The Tyee in 2007.

Restoring their ties to their land, culture, and rights, the Kwakwaka'wakw have undertaken much in bringing back their customs, beliefs, and language. Potlatch occur more frequently as families reconnect to their birthright and language programs, classes, and social events utilize the community to restore the language. Artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Mungo Martin and Willie Seaweed have taken efforts to revive Kwakwaka'wakw culture and art.


Each Kwakwaka'wakw nation has its own clans, chiefs, history, culture and peoples, but remain collectively similar to the rest of the Kwak̓wala-Speaking tribes. After the epidemics and colonization, some tribes have become extinct, and others have been merged into communities or First Nations band governments.

Tribe Name IPA Translation Community Anglicized, archaic variants or adaptations
Kwagu'ł Smoke-Of-The-World Tsax̱is / Fort Rupert Kwagyewlth, Kwakiutl
Mamaliliḵa̱la The-People-Of-Malilikala 'Mimkumlis / Village Island
'Na̱mg̱is Those-Who-Are-One-When-They-Come-Together Xwa̱lkw / Nimpkish River and Yalis / Alert Bay, Nimpkish-Cheslakees
Ławitsis Angry-ones Ḵalug̱wis / Turnour Island [11] Tlowitsis
A̱'wa̱'etła̱la Those-Up-The-Inlet Dzawadi / Knight Inlet
Da̱'naxda'x̱w The-Sandstone-Ones New Vancouver, Harbledown Island Tanakteuk
Ma'a̱mtagila Itsika̱n Etsekin, i'tsika̱n [11]
Dzawa̱da̱'enux̱w People-Of-The-Eulachon-Country Gwa'yi / Kingcome Inlet Tsawataineuk
Ḵwiḵwa̱sut̓inux̱w People-Of-The-Other-Side G̱wa'yasda̱ms / Gilford Island Kwicksutaineuk
Gwawa̱'enux̱w Heg̱a̱m's / Hopetown (Watson Island) Gwawaenuk
'Nak̕waxda'x̱w Ba'a's / Blunden Harbour, Seymour Inlet, & Deserters Group Nakoaktok, Nakwoktak
Gwa'sa̱la T̓a̱kus / Smith Inlet, Burnett Bay Gwasilla, Quawshelah
G̱usgimukw Quatsino Koskimo
Gwat̕sinux̱w Head-Of-Inlet-People Winter Harbour Oyag̱a̱m'la / Quatsino
T̓łat̕ła̱siḵwa̱la Those-Of-The-Ocean-Side X̱wa̱mdasbe' / Hope Island
Wiwēqay̓i Ceqʷəl̓utən / Cape Mudge, British Columbia Weiwaikai, Yuculta, Euclataws, Laich-kwil-tach, Lekwiltok, Likw'ala
Wiwēkam Am̓atex̌ʷ / Campbell River, British Columbia Weiwaikum



Kwakwaka'wakw kinship is based on a bilinear structure, with loose characters of a patrilineal culture too, with large extended families and interconnected tribal life. The Kwakwaka'wakw as a whole make up numbers tribes, and within those tribes they were organized into extended family units or na'mima, which means of one kind. Each 'na'mima' had positions that carried responsibilities and privileges. Each tribe had around four 'na'mima', although some had more, some had less.

All Kwakwaka'wakw follow their genealogy back to their ancestral roots. A head chief, who through primogeniture could trace his origins to that 'na'mima's ancestors, would delineate the roles throughout the rest of his family. Every clan had several sub-chiefs, also ranking forth, who gained their title and position through their own families group primogeniture. Organizing to harvest the lands which were part of the property owned by that family was done by these chiefs.

Kwakwa'wakw society was assembled into four classes:the nobility, attaining through birthright and connection in lineage to ancestors, the aristocracy who attained status through connection to wealth, resources, or spiritual powers which all would be displayed or distributed in the potlatch, the commoner, and the slaves. On the nobility class, "the noble was recognized as the literal conduit between the social and spiritual domains, birth right alone was not enough to secure rank: only individuals displaying the correct moral behavior [sic] throughout their life course could maintain ranking status."[12]


As in other Northwest Coast peoples, the concept of property was well developed and important to daily life. Territorial property such as hunting or fishing grounds was inherited, and from these properties material wealth was collected and stored.[13]


A trade and barter subsistence economy formed the early stages of the Kwakwaka'wakw economy. Trade was carried out between internal Kwakwaka'wakw nations, as well as surrounding aboriginal nations such as the Tsimshian, Tlingit, the Nootka and Coast Salish peoples.

Over time, the potlatch tradition created a demand for stored surpluses, as such a display of wealth had social implications. By the time of European colonialism, it was noted that wool blankets had become a form of common currency. In the potlatch tradition, hosts of the potlatch were expected to provide enough gifts for all the guests invited.[14] This practice created a system of loan and interest, using wool blankets as currency.[15]

Like other Pacific Northwest nations, copper played a crucial role in the Kwakwaka'wakw economy.[15] Contact with European settlers, particularly through the Hudson's Bay Company, brought an influx of copper to the tribal territories. It has been proposed that prior to trade with Europeans, copper was acquired from natural copper veins along riverbeds, but this has not been proven. The Kwakwaka'wakw tribes were aware of silver and gold, and crafted intricate bracelets and jewellery from hammered coins traded from European settlers.[16] Despite this, copper held a special value amongst the Kwakwaka'wakw, most likely for its ceremonial purposes. This copper was beaten into sheets or plates, and then painted with mythological figures.[15] The sheets were used for decorating wooden carvings, or just kept for the sake of prestige.

Individual pieces of copper were sometimes given names based on their value.[15] The value of any given piece is defined by the number of wool blankets last traded for them. In this system, it was considered prestigious for a buyer to purchase the same piece of copper at a higher price than it was previously sold.[15] During potlatch, copper pieces would be brought out, and bids were placed on them by rival chiefs. The highest bidder would then have the honour of buying said copper piece.[15] If a host still holds a surplus of copper even after throwing an expensive potlatch, he would then be considered a wealthy and important man.[15] Further evidence of copper's significance is shown in the fact that highly ranked members of the tribes often have the Kwak'wala word for "copper" in their names.[15]

Due to the importance of copper and its use as a mark of status, there is a Kwakwaka'wakw shaming ritual, the copper cutting ceremony, involving breaking copper plaques. The act represents a challenge; if the target cannot break a plaque of equal or greater value, he or she is shamed. The ceremony, which had not been performed since the 1950s, was revived by chief Beau Dick in 2013, amid the Idle No More movement. He performed a copper cutting ritual on the lawn of the British Columbia Legislature on February 10, 2013, to ritually shame the Stephen Harper government.[17]


The Kwakwaka'wakw are a highly stratified bilineal culture of the Pacific Northwest and comprise many separate nations, each with their own history, culture and governance. Commonly among the Nations, there would be a head chief, who acted as the leader of the nation, then below him numerous clan or family chiefs. In some of the nations, there also existed Eagle Chiefs, but this was a separate society within the main society and applied to the potlatching only. The Kwakwaka'wakw are one of the few bilineal cultures. Traditionally the rights of the family would be passed down through the paternal side, but in rare occasions, one could take the maternal side of their family also. Within the pre-colonization times, the Kwakwaka'wakw were made up of three classes; nobles, commoners, and slaves. The Kwakwaka'wakw shared many cultural and political alliances with numerous neighbours in the area including the Nuu-chah-nulth, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv and some Coast Salish.


Main article: Kwak'wala

The Kwak'wala language is a part of the Wakashan language group. Word lists and some documentation of Kwak'wala were created from the early period of contact with Europeans in the 18th century, but a systematic attempt to record the language did not occur before the work of Franz Boas in the late 19th and early 20th century.The use of Kwak'wala declined significantly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mainly due to the assimilationist policies of the Canadian government, and above all the mandatory attendance of Kwakwa'wakw children at residential schools. Although Kwak'wala and Kwakwaka'wakw culture have been well-studied by linguists and anthropologists, these efforts did not reverse the trends leading to language loss. According to Guy Buchholtzer, "The anthropological discourse had too often become a long monologue, in which the Kwakwaka'wakw had nothing to say." [18] As a result of these pressures, there are relatively few Kwak'wala speakers today, and most remaining speakers are past the age of child-rearing, which is considered crucial for language transmission. As with many other indigenous languages, there are significant barriers to language revitalization.[19] Another barrier separating new learners from the native speaker is the presence of four separate orthographies; the young are taught U'mista or NAPA, while the older generations generally use Boaz.

However, a number of revitalization efforts have recently attempted to reverse language loss for Kwak'wala. A proposal to build a Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations Centre for Language Culture has gained wide support.[20] A review of revitalization efforts in the 1990s shows that the potential to fully revitalize Kwak'wala still remains, but serious hurdles also exist.[21]


Main article: Kwakwaka'wakw art

In the old times, art was thought to symbolize a common underlying element in which all species shared.[22]

Kwakwaka'wakw art consist of a diverse range of crafts, including totems, masks, textiles, jewelry and a multitude of carved objects. Cedar wood was the preferred medium for sculpting and carving projects as it was readily available in the native Kwakwaka'wakw regions. Totems were carved with bold cuts, a relative degree of realism, and an emphatic use of paints. Masks make up a large portion of Kwakwaka'wakw art, as masks are important in the portrayal of the characters central to Kwakwaka'wakw dance ceremonies. Woven textiles included the Chilkat blanket, dance aprons, and button cloaks; each patterned with tribal designs. The Kwakwaka'wakw used a variety of objects for jewelry, including ivory, bone, abalone shell, copper, silver and more. Adornments were frequently found on the clothes of important persons.


Main article: Kwakwaka'wakw music

Kwakwaka'wakw music is the ancient art of the indigenous or aboriginal Kwakwaka'wakw peoples.. The music is an ancient art form, stretching back thousands of years. The music is used primarily for ceremony and ritual, and is based around percussive instrumentation, especially , log, box, and hide drums, as well as rattles and whistles. The four-day Klasila festival is an important cultural display of song and dance; it occurs just before the advand there masksent of the tsetseka, or winter.

Ceremonies and events


Main article: Potlatch

The potlatch culture of the Northwest is famous and widely studied and remains alive in Kwakwaka'wakw, as does the lavish artwork for which their people and their neighbours are so renowned. The phenomenon of the potlatch, and the vibrant societies and cultures associated with it, can be found in Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, which details the incredible artwork and legendary material that go with the other aspects of the potlatch, and gives a glimpse into the high politics and great wealth and power of the Kwakwaka'wakw chiefs.

The potlatch was also seen as a key target in assimilation policies and agendas. Missionary William Duncan wrote in 1875 that the potlatch was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized.”[23] Thus in 1885, the Indian Act was revised to include clauses banning the potlatch and making it illegal to practise. The official legislation read, “Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the "Potlatch" or the Indian dance known as the "Tamanawas" is guilty of a misdemeanour, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not more than six nor less than two months in a jail or other place of confinement; and, any Indian or other person who encourages, either directly or indirectly an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, or who shall assist in the celebration of same is guilty of a like offence, and shall be liable to the same punishment.”

“We want to know whether you have come to stop our dances and feasts, as the missionaries and agents who live among our neighbors [sic] try to do. We do not want to have anyone here who will interfere with our customs. We were told that a man-of-war would come if we should continue to do as our grandfathers and great-grandfathers have done. But we do not mind such words. Is this the white man’s land? We are told it is the Queen’s land, but no! It is mine.
Where was the Queen when our God gave this land to my grandfather and told him, “This will be thine?” My father owned the land and was a mighty Chief; now it is mine. And when your man-of-war comes, let him destroy our houses. Do you see yon trees? Do you see yon woods? We shall cut them down and build new houses and live as our fathers did.
We will dance when our laws command us to dance, and we will feast when our hearts desire to feast. Do we ask the white man, “Do as the Indian does?” It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you come to forbid us dance, be gone. If not, you will be welcome to us.
- O’wax̱a̱laga̱lis Chief of the Kwagu'ł “Fort Rupert Tribes”, to Franz Boas, October 7, 1886

Eventually it became amended to be more inclusive as earlier discharged on technicalities. Legislation was then expanded to include guests who participated in the ceremony. The Kwakwaka'wakw were too large to police, and enforce. Duncan Campbell Scott convinced Parliament to change the offence from criminal to summary, which meant ‘the agents, as justice of the peace, could try a case, convict, and sentence.”[24]

Sustaining the customs and culture of their ancestors, the Kwakwaka'wakw now openly hold potlatches to commit to the restoration of their ancestors' ways. Potlatches now occur frequently and increasingly more over the years as families reclaim their birthright.

Food and cuisine

The Kwakwaka'wakw were excellent hunters, fishers, and gatherers. Living in the costal regions, seafood was a staple of their diet, supplemented by berries. Salmon was a major catch during spawning season when the salmon would be swimming upriver. In addition, they sometimes went whale harpooning for which a trip could last days while the whale was being stalked. They ate most of the fauna in the Northwest coast, including land animals like rabbits, caribou and more. They also collected shellfish and seaweed from the beach, called beach food. Many of the marine mammals they hunted for furs and food were sea otters, walruses, seals, and whales. The sea birds living on the shore were a good source of eggs, and the bird flesh was very tender and oily, making it quite delicious.

Housing and shelter

The Kwakwaka'wakw built their houses from cedar planks. They were very large, some up to 100 feet. The houses could hold about 50 people, usually families from the same clan. At the entrance, there was usually a totem pole carved with different animals, mythological figures and family crests.

Clothing and regalia

The men during summer wore no clothing at all except tattoos and jewellery. In the winter, they usually rubbed fat on themselves in order to keep warm. In battle the men wore red cedar armour and helmets, along with breech clouts made from cedar. During ceremonies they wore circles of cedar bark on their ankles as well as cedar breech clouts. The women wore skirts of softened cedar, and a cedar or wool blanket on top during the winter.


Kwakwaka'wakw transportation similar to that of other coastal people. Being an ocean and coastal people, the main way of travel was by canoe. Cedar dugout canoes, made from one log, would be carved for use by individuals, families, and tribes. Sizes varied from ocean-going canoes for long sea-worth travel in trade missions, to smaller local canoes for inter-village travel.

Notable Kwakwaka'wakw

See also



  • Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch Aldona Jonaitis (Editor) U. Washington Press 1991 (also a publication of the American Museum of Natural History)
  • Bancroft-Hunt, Norman. People of the Totem: The Indians of the Pacific Northwest University of Oklahoma Press, 1988
  • Boas, Contributions to the Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, vol. 3, New York: Columbia University Press, 1925.
  • Fisher, Robin. Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1977.
  • Goldman, Irving. The Mouth of Heaven: an Introduction to Kwakiutl Religious Thought, New York: Joh Wiley and Sons, 1975.
  • Hawthorn, Audrey. Kwakiutl Art. University of Washington Press. 1988. ISBN 0-88894-612-0.
  • Jonaitis, Aldona. Chiefly Feasts: the Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.
  • Masco, Joseph. “It is a Strict Law that Bids Us Dance”: Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch, 1849 to 1922, San Diego: University of California.
  • Reid, Martine and Daisy Sewid-Smith. Paddling to Where I Stand, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.
  • Spradley, James. Guests Never Leave Hungry, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.
  • Umista Cultural Society. Creation myth of Kwakwaka’wakw (December 1, 2007).
  • Walens, Stanley “Review of the Mouth of Heaven by Irving Goldman,” American Anthropologist, 1981.
  • Wilson, Duff. The Indian History of British Columbia, 38-40; Sessional Papers, 1873-1880.

External links

  • U'mista Cultural Society - Alert Bay
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