Kwakiutl (Native Americans of the Northwest Coast)

Kwakiutltmp1026_thumbwas originally the name of a local group and may mean "beach on the other side of the water." Once roughly 30 autonomous tribes or groups, the Kwakiutl did not think of themselves as a people until about 1900. They are sometimes referred to as Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl-speaking people) or Kwakwala (Kwakiutl language).

Location Many Kwakiutls continue to live in or near their aboriginal territory, which is located around the Queen Charlotte Strait on the central coast of British Columbia.

Population The Kwakiutl population in the early nineteenth century was about 8,000. In 1991, roughly 2,300 Kwakiutl lived on local reserves, and perhaps another 1,800 lived in regional cities and towns.

Language Kwakiutl is a member of the northern (Kwakiutlan) branch of the Wakashan language family. The three related languages were Haisla, Heiltsuk-Oowekyala, and Kwakiutl proper.

Historical Information

History The area around the Queen Charlotte Strait has probably been occupied for 10,000 years or longer. During the last 5,000 years, two distinct cultures arose. One was based on simple obsidian technology and featured a broad-based subsistence economy. People of the second, or Queen Charlotte Strait culture (post-500 B.C.E.), used bone and shell technology and ate mostly salmon, seal, and other marine foods.


Spanish, British, and U.S. explorers arrived in the region in the late eighteenth century. By early in the next century the local sea otter trade was in full swing. The Hudson’s Bay Company became active when the sea otter trade diminished, around the 1830s. At that time the Kwakiutl began serving as middlemen in the fur trade. They and many other Indian peoples were frequent visitors to the company’s post at Fort Victoria.

Changes in Kwakiutl culture during the fur trade period included the substitution of iron and steel for native materials in tools as well as Hudson’s Bay blankets for the older style of robes. Disease epidemics leading to depopulation also took a heavy toll at that time. In the 1850s, several Kwakiutl villages consolidated around a Hudson’s Bay Company coal mine at Fort Rupert; this was the genesis of the Kwakiutl tribe. In general, the 1850s and 1860s were terrible years for the Kwakiutl, marked as they were by the destruction of several villages by the British Navy and Bella Coola raiders as well as smallpox epidemics. In the late 1880s, Canada established reserves for some Kwakiutl bands while claiming much of their aboriginal territory.

Aboriginally, trade partners were also often raiding targets. The enforced cessation of intertribal hostilities about 1865 precipitated an explosion of potlatching activity, as all Kwakiutl tribes became part of the system of social alliances and tribal ranking. The potlatch flourished despite legislation outlawing it in 1885 and 1915, as did traditional artistic expression.

Acculturation was proceeding rapidly by the 1880s. The Kwakiutl were giving up their traditional dress, subsistence activities, and many customs and were entering the local wage economy. Around 1900, Alert Bay, site of a cannery, a school, and a sawmill, superseded Fort Rupert as the center of Kwakiutl life. The early twentieth century was a period of economic boom for Kwakiutls owing to the growth of the commercial fishing and canning industries. Another boom in the fishing industry occurred after World War II. Many people abandoned the potlatch and traditional culture during the Depression and converted to the Pentecostal Church. Potlatching was not significantly reestablished until the 1970s.

Religion In traditional Kwakiutl belief, everything had a supernatural aspect that commanded respect from people in the form of individual daily prayer and thanks. Guardian spirits, which provided luck and certain skills, might be obtained through prayer or fasting. Associated with each spirit was a secret ceremonial society, such as Cannibal, Grizzly Bear, and Warrior, as well as specific dances and ceremonies.

Shamans formed an alliance with a supernatural helper and were initiated into their craft by other shamans. The Kwakiutl recognized several degrees of shamanic power, the highest being the ability to cure and cause disease; these most powerful people were usually attached to chiefs. Shamans used songs, rattles, and purification rings (hemlock or cedar) in public curing ceremonies. Witches could harm or otherwise control people without recourse to supernatural power, although knowledge similar to theirs was available to guard against such practices.

The winter ceremonials were based on complex mythological themes and involved representations of supernatural beings and stories of ancestral contact with them. Principal winter ceremonies, including the Cedar Bark Dance and the Weasel Dance, involved feasting, potlatching, entertainment, and theater. Winter was considered a sacred season because the supernaturals were said to be present at that time. People attempted to be on better behavior and even took on sacred names.

Government Each of the roughly 30 autonomous tribes (local groups) had its own hereditary chief, subsistence area, winter village, and seasonal sites. Tribes consisted of between one and seven (usually at least three) kin groups (numayms), each having perhaps 75-100 people aboriginally and roughly 10-15 in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. In early historic times, some tribes formed joint winter villages without losing their individual identities.

Customs Kin groups (tribes) owned resource areas, myths, crests, ceremonies, songs, dances, house names, named potlatching positions, and some inheritable guardian spirits. Crests, privileges, and rights were transmitted through marriage. The Kwakiutl recognized many forms of permissible marriages. Preserving the existence of crests and privileges remained all important, and rules were bent or broken over time to accommodate this need. There were four traditional classes or status groups: chiefs, nobles, commoners, and slaves. Society became much more equal in the mid-nineteenth century: As the population declined, the number of privileged positions remained constant, so that more people could rise to such positions.

Potlatches, once modest affairs, became highly complex, elaborate, and more culturally central in the late nineteenth century, helping to integrate and drive Kwakiutl society by validating social status and reciprocities. The size of a potlatch varied according to the event being marked: Life-cycle events for high-status children and wiping out casual mistakes received small potlatches; receipt of a first potlatch position, dancing the winter ceremonial, and the occasion of girls’ puberty received moderate-sized potlatches; and the assumption of a chiefly name and/or position within a kin group, a grease feast, the buying and selling of coppers, the erection of crest memorial poles, and marriage received the largest potlatches. All included feasting, socializing, speeches, songs, displays of wealth and crests, and dances. Such potlatches were occasionally given on credit; that is, on borrowed goods (blankets), usually lent at 100 percent interest.

Traditionally, the Kwakiutl practiced blood revenge, in which one or more people might be killed upon the death of a close relative. Corpses were buried in trees, caves, or canoes (chiefs), although northern groups cremated their dead.

Dwellings Rows of cedar beam and plank houses with shed roofs faced the sea in traditional villages. The central house posts were carved and painted with crests. A sleeping platform extended around walls. Four families of the same kin group occupied most houses, each in a corner with its own fireplace. Private areas were partitioned off. Each village also had one or more ceremonial houses, similarly constructed. By the late nineteenth century, houses were built with milled lumber and gabled roofs.

Kwakiutl tribe members participate in a winter initiation ceremony, 1892. The winter ceremonials were based on complex mythological themes and involved representations of supernatural beings and stories of ancestral contact with them. Winter was considered a sacred season because the supernaturals were said to be present at that time.

Kwakiutl tribe members participate in a winter initiation ceremony, 1892. The winter ceremonials were based on complex mythological themes and involved representations of supernatural beings and stories of ancestral contact with them. Winter was considered a sacred season because the supernaturals were said to be present at that time.

Diet The Kwakiutl ate mostly seafood: clams, salmon, halibut, and other marine life. Fish were smoke dried. The people traveled to their widespread resource areas in canoes. Fish (eulachon) oil was also an important dietary supplement. They also ate berries, sea grass, roots, mountain goat, elk, and deer.

As a people, the Kwakiutl were artists. Wooden objects such as massive house posts, totem poles, masks, rattles, feast dishes, and other objects used for crest displays were carved or painted. On this old house at Alert Bay in British Columbia, the legendary thunderbird is depicted carrying off a whale (1902).

As a people, the Kwakiutl were artists. Wooden objects such as massive house posts, totem poles, masks, rattles, feast dishes, and other objects used for crest displays were carved or painted. On this old house at Alert Bay in British Columbia, the legendary thunderbird is depicted carrying off a whale (1902).

Key Technology Fish were taken with dip nets, weirs, and rakes. Harpoons were used for seals and sea lions and bow and arrow for land mammals. Kelp tubes, baskets, wooden boxes, and chests served as containers. In general, men worked wood and women wove fibers. There were no full-time craftspeople. The Kwakiutl had an abundance of material goods such as boxes, mats, spoons, dishes, and canoes. Most craft production took place in winter. A few tools, such as the mortar and pestle, were made of stone.

Trade The Kwakiutl engaged in widespread intertribal trading for specific items such as eulachon oil, dried halibut, and herring roe.

Notable Arts As a people, the Kwakiutl were artists. Even in utilitarian items, visual art was joined with rhetoric, mythology, and performance art to glorify the kin groups. Wooden objects, such as massive houseposts, totem and commemorative poles (nonaboriginal), masks, rattles, feast dishes, and other objects used for crest displays were carved and/or painted. The point of most Kwakiutl art was social—to display ancestral rights—rather than specifically religious, although the two are basically inseparable.

Their basic colors were black and red. The Kwakiutl experienced a golden age of art from about 1890 to 1920. They also produced some excellent twined, spruce root, and cedar bark hats.

Transportation Most travel took place over water in a number of different style of dugout cedar canoes. Skin sails were used from the nineteenth century on.

Dress In warm weather, women wore cedar-bark aprons and men went naked. Women wore waterproof basket caps and cedar-bark ponchos in the rain. Blankets of woven cedar bark, mountain goat wool or dog hair, or tanned, sewn skins served as cold-weather protection. Long yellow cedar-bark robes were particular to Kwakiutl people. Both sexes wore their hair long. Some men let their facial hair grow. Those who could afford them wore abalone nose and ear pendants. Women also wore dentalia bracelets, necklaces, and anklets. People also painted their bodies and faces against sunburn.

War and Weapons The Kwakiutl often fought each other (other Kwakiutl tribes) for revenge and fought neighboring peoples such as the Coast Salish for plunder, land, heads, and slaves. One group, the Lekwiltok, were particularly aggressive. The Kwakiutl had guns as early as the late eighteenth century.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Canadian band councils have municipal power (over roads, water, sewers, and so on) and manage various economic activities. An administrative tribal organization, the Kwakiutl District Council, was organized in 1974. In 1982, four bands (later five) left the council to form the Musga’makw Tribal Council. See "Daily Life" for profiles of individual bands as of 1995.

This carved cedar mask of four bird beaks is almost four feet long. The Kwakiutl Hamatsa Society dancer who wore the mask needed considerable strength and dexterity to manipulate it.

This carved cedar mask of four bird beaks is almost four feet long. The Kwakiutl Hamatsa Society dancer who wore the mask needed considerable strength and dexterity to manipulate it.

Economy Various bands are associated with different activities, such as marinas, oyster hatcheries, tourism, laundromats, cafeterias, and shipyards. General band operating funds come from the federal government. Most people also engage in semitraditional seasonal pursuits, such as hunting and commercial fishing. Some jobs are also available within band enterprises.


Legal Status Bands may pass laws binding upon members and visitors; overall law enforcement is assumed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Daily Life Most Kwakiutl children are educated in provincial schools, although there are some band-administered schools. All have well-established programs to teach traditional language and culture. The Kwaguilth Museum (1979; Cape Mudge, Quadra Island, British Columbia) and the U’Mista Cultural Center (1980; Alert Bay, British Columbia) both hold ceremonial objects returned by the government in 1978. They also record oral histories, prepare school curricula and display exhibits, and organize classes.

Bands still reflect traditional family alliances and allegiances. Many traditional practices remain, such as potlatches for girls’ puberty, memorials, and other purposes; dance societies; and the inheritance of ceremonial prerogatives. The Kwakiutl never experienced a dramatic artistic revival, mainly because their artistry was never significantly interrupted. The elderly now maintain their own households, baptism is common, and most marriages and funerals take place in church. Soccer tournaments are popular, and an annual sports weekend is held in June. English is the first language of most Kwakiutl.

Campbell River Band: Their reserve was established in 1888. Population is 495, of whom 176 live on the reserve. They are governed under the provisions of the Indian Act and are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council. Children attend provincial schools. Economic activities include commercial fishing, tourism, logging, pulp and paper, and mining. Facilities include offices and a community hall.

Cape Mudge Band: Five reserves are located on about 665 hectares of land. Population is 761, of whom 314 live on the reserve. They are governed under the provisions of the Indian Act and are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council. Children attend band and provincial schools. Economic activities include salmon fishing, commercial fishing, tourism, logging, pulp and paper, trapping, and mining. Facilities include offices, a community hall, a museum, and the Tsaw-Kwa-Luten Resort and Conference Center.

Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw Band: Twenty-six reserves are located on 752 hectares of land near Port Hardy, British Columbia. Population is 502, of whom 374 live in 91 houses on the reserve. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council. Children attend band and provincial schools. Economic activities include commercial fishing, forestry, tourism, and mining. Facilities include offices, a community hall, and an arts and crafts building.

Kwa-wa-aineuk Band: Ten reserves are located on 205 hectares of land on Watson Island. The main community is also known as Hopetown. The reserves were allotted in 1916. Population was 28, of whom 19 lived in six houses on the reserve. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Musga’makw Tribal Council. Children attend provincial schools. Facilities include offices and a workshop.

Kwakiutl Band: Eight reserves are located on 295 hectares of land near Port Hardy, British Columbia. Population is 536, of whom 279 live in 68 houses on the reserves. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council. Children attend band and provincial schools. Economic activities include commercial fishing, forestry, tourism, and mining. Facilities include offices and a community hall.

Kwiakah Band: Two reserves are located on 69 hectares of land. The reserves were allotted in 1886. Most people live on the Campbell River Indian Reserve. Population is 17, of whom none live on the reserve. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council.

Kwicksutaineuk-ah-kwaw-ah-mish Band: Ten reserves are located on 172 hectares of land 40 miles east of Port Hardy, British Columbia. The reserves were allotted in 1886. Population is 251, of whom 144 live in 22 houses on the reserves. They are governed under the provisions of the Indian Act and are affiliated with the Musga’makw Tribal Council. Children attend provincial schools. Facilities include offices, a longhouse, and a community hall.

Mamaleleqala-Que’Qua’Sot’Enox Band: Three reserves are located on 233 hectares of land. The reserves were allotted in 1886. This band was formerly known as the Mamalillikulla Band. Population is 295, of whom none live on the reserve. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council.

Namgis First Nation, formerly the Nimkish Tribe: Eight reserves are located on 388 hectares of land south of Port NcNeill, British Columbia. The reserves were allotted in 1884. Population is 1,346, of whom 714 live in 121 houses and 15 apartment units on the reserve. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Musga’makw Tribal Council.

Children attend band and provincial schools. Economic resources include a salmon hatchery. Facilities include offices, a museum, a longhouse, community buildings, and a community health center.

Oweekeno Band: Three reserves are located on 712 hectares of land on the Wanuk River, British Columbia. Population is 204, of whom 60 live in 23 houses on the reserve. They are governed under the provisions of the Indian Act and are affiliated with the Oweekeno-Nuxalk Tribal Council. Children attend band and provincial schools. Economic resources include logging and salmon enhancement. Facilities include offices, a community center, and a drop-in center.

Quatsino Band: Nineteen reserves are located on 346 hectares of land south of Port Hardy, British Columbia. The reserves were allotted in 1886. Population is 316, of whom 214 live on the reserve. They are governed under the provisions of the Indian Act and are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council. Children attend provincial schools. Economic resources include mining, forestry, tourism, and fishing. Facilities include offices, a community center, and a fire station.

Tanakteuk Band: Seven reserves are located on 318 hectares of land 270 kilometers northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia. The reserves were allotted in 1866. Population is 150, of whom 22 live on federal land at Whe-la-la-u, Alert Bay. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council. Economic resources include mining, tourism, and fishing. Facilities include offices.

Tlatlasikwala First Nation, formerly known as the Nuwilti Band: Six reserves are located on 3,474 hectares of land. The reserves were allotted in 1916. Population is 37, of whom all live on federal land at Whe-la-la-u, Alert Bay. They are affiliated with the Kwakiutl District Council, the Kwakiutl First Nation Treaty Society, and Kwakiutl Territorial Fisheries. Economic resources include commercial fishing.

Tlowitsis-Mumtagila Band, formerly Turnour Island Band: Eight reserves are located on 188 hectares of land 260 kilometers northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia. The reserves were allotted in 1916. Population is 293, of whom 3 live on the reserve. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Whe-la-la-u Area Council and the Musga’makw Tribal Council. Economic resources include forestry, mining, fishing, and tourism.

Tsawataineuk Band: Five reserves are located on 218 hectares of land 290 kilometers northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia. The reserves were allotted in 1886. Population was 447, of whom 113 live in 41 houses on the reserve. They are governed by custom and are affiliated with the Musga’makw/ Tsawataineuk Tribal Council. Children attend band and provincial schools. Economic resources include commercial logging, fishing, and silviculture. Facilities include offices, a community hall, a longhouse, and a church.

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