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Kwakwaka'wakw people in a wedding ceremony, bride in centre.
Photo taken by Edward Curtis, 1914.

The Kwakwaka'wakw (formerly known as the Kwakiutl) are an Indigenous group of First Nations, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbiamarker on northern Vancouver Islandmarker and the the adjoining mainland and islands. Kwakwaka'wakw translates as "Those who speak Kwak'wala", describing the collective nations within the area that speak the language. However, even though the people share a common language, each nation considers itself as a separate independent nation. Today the Kwakwaka'wakw are organized politically into 13 band governments. Their language, now spoken by less than 5% of the population (about 250 people), is Kwak'wala. The Kwakwaka'wakw are known for their history, culture and art. In recent years, the Kwakwaka'wakw have been active on the revitalization of their culture and language.

Kwakwaka'wakw society was highly stratified, with three main classes, determined by heredity: nobles, commoners, and slaves. Their 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 term Kwakiutl for the Kwakwaka'wakw, created by anthropologist Franz Boas, was widely used into the 1980s. It comes from one of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes, the Kwagu'ł, at Fort Rupertmarker, with whom Franz Boas did most of his anthropological work and whose Indian Act band government is the Kwakiutl First Nation. The term was also 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.


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.


Contact with Europeans

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.

Residential Schools

A rare account of native schooling, Mothers of a Native Hell authored by two founders of residential schools for aboriginal children, is a detailed chronicle of the Methodist Mission on the Canadian northwest coast from the 1870s to the turn of the century.

Cultural revitalization

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 kwak'wala speaking tribes. After the epidemics and colonization, some tribes have become extinct, and others have been merged into communities or First Nation band governments.

Kwakwaka'wakw Nation International Phonetic Alphabet Translation Village or Community location Anglicized, archaic variants or adaptations
Kwagu'ł Smoke-Of-The-World Fort Rupertmarker Kwagyewlth, Kwakiutl
Mamalilikala The-People-Of-Malilikala Village Island
'Namgis Those-Who-Are-One-When-They-Come-Together Alert Baymarker, Nimpkish River Nimpkish-Cheslakees
Ławit'sis Angry-ones Turnour Island Tlowitsis
A'wa'et'ala Those-Up-The-Inlet Dzawadli, Knight Inletmarker
Da'naxda'xw The-Sandstone-Ones New Vancouvermarker, Harbledown Island Tanakteuk
Ma'amtagila Etsekin
Dzawada'enuxw Kingcome Inletmarker Tsawataineuk
Kwikwasut'inuxw People-Of-The-Other-Side Gilford Islandmarker Kwicksutaineuk
Gwawa'enuxw Hopetownmarker (Watson Island) Gwawaenuk
Haxwa'mis Wakeman Soundmarker Ah-kwa-mish
'Nak'waxda'xw Blunden Harbour Nakoaktok
Gwa'sala Smith Inletmarker
Gusgimukw Quatsinomarker Koskimo
Gwat'sinuxw Head-Of-Inlet-People Winter Harbourmarker Quatsino
T'lat'lasikwala Those-Of-The-Ocean-Side Hope Island
Weka'yi Cape Mudge, Quadra Islandmarker Weiwaikai, Yuculta, Euclataws, Laich-kwil-tach, Lekwiltok, Likw'ala
Wiwekam Campbell Rivermarker 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."


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.



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.

Man with copper piece, hammered in the characteristic "T" shape.
Photo taken by Edward Curtis.

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. This practice created a system of loan and interest, using wool blankets as currency.

Like other Pacific Northwest nations, copper played a crucial role in the Kwakwaka'wakw economy. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.


Kwakwaka'wakw canoe welcoming with masks and traditional dug out cedar canoes.
On bow is dancer in Bear regalia.
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.


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." 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. 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. A review of revitalization efforts in the 1990s shows that the potential to fully revitalize Kwak'wala still remains, but serious hurdles also exist.


The Kwakwaka'wakw believed in many spirits and mythological beings. It was believed that every living thing had a spirit and had to be respected.


Totem poles in front of homes in Alert Bay in the 1900s

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

Kwakwaka'wakw art consist of a diverse range of crafts, including totems, masks, textiles, jewellery 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 jewellery, including ivory, bone, abalone shell, copper, silver and more. Adornments were frequently found on the clothes of important persons.


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 advent of the tsetseka, or winter.

Ceremonies and events


Showing of masks at Kwakwaka'wakw 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.” 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.”

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 desirable. The wealthiest sometimes threw potlatches or giveaways where they would give most of their possessions to the guests as a way to show wealth and power.

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.


Ocean-going canoes.
Kwakwaka'wakw transportation similar to that of other coastal peoples. 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.


  1. House built by Mungo Martin and David Martin with carpenter Robert J. Wallace. Based on Chief Nakap'ankam's house in Tsaxis (Fort Rupert). The house "bears on its house-posts the hereditary crests of Martin's family." It continues to be used for ceremonies with the permission of Chief Oast'akalagalis 'Walas 'Namugwis (Peter Knox, Martin's grandson) and Mable Knox. Pole carved by Mungo Martin, David Martin and Mildred Hunt. "Rather than display his own crests on the pole, which was customary, Martin chose to include crests representing the A'wa'etlala, Kwagu'l, 'Nak'waxda'xw and 'Namgis Nations. In this way, the pole represents and honours all the Kwakwaka'wakw people."
  2. Boas, (1925) vol. 3, pp 229-30.
  3. Duff Wilson, The Indian History of British Columbia, 38-40; Sessional Papers, 1873-1880.
  4. Joseph Masco, “It is a Strict Law that Bids Us Dance”: Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch, 1849 to 1922, 48.
  5. Hawthorn, A. (1988) pp. 31
  6. Hawthorn, A. (1988) pp. 33
  7. Hawthorn, A. (1988) pp. 35
  8. Hawthorn, A. (1988) pp. 173
  9. SFU News Online - Native language centre planned - July 07, 2005
  10. Stabilizing Indigenous Languages: Conclusion
  11. SFU News Online - Native language centre planned - July 07, 2005
  12. Reversing Language Shift: Can Kwak'wala Be Revived?
  13. Jonaitis, A. (1991) pp 67.
  14. Robin Fisher, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774-1890, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1977, 207.
  15. Aldona Jonaitis, Chiefly Feasts: the Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1991, 159.


  • Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch Aldona Jonaitis (Editor) U. Washington Press 1991 (also a publication of the American Museum of Natural Historymarker)
  • 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 0888946120.
  • 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.

See also

Notable Kwakwaka'wakw

External links

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