Kwakiutl / Kwakwaka wakw
The Kwakiutl or Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw are a Pacific Northwest Coast Indigenous people. Most live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the adjoining mainland, and on islands around Johnstone Strait and Queen Charlotte Strait.
Some also live outside their homelands in urban areas such as Victoria and Vancouver. They are politically organized into 13 band governments, consisting of a total population of about 5,500.
Their language, now spoken by only 3.1% of the population, consists of four dialects of what is commonly referred to as Kwak’wala. These dialects are Kwak̓wala, ’Nak̓wala, G̱uc̓ala and T̓łat̓łasik̓wala.
The name Kwakiutl derives from Kwagu’ł, the name of a single community of Kwakwaka’wakw located at Fort Rupert. The anthropologist Franz Boas had done most of his anthropological work in this area and popularized the term for both this nation and the collective as a whole.
The term became misapplied to mean all the nations who spoke Kwak’wala, as well as three other Indigenous peoples whose language is a part of the Wakashan linguistic group, but whose language is not Kwak’wala.
These peoples, incorrectly known as the Northern Kwakiutl, were the Haisla, Wuikinuxv, and Heiltsuk.
Many people who others call Kwakiutl consider that name a misnomer. They prefer the name 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 their council is the Kwakiutl District Council.
Kwakwaka’wakw oral history says 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 a given spot, it discarded its animal appearance and became human.
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.
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 non-native 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.
Kwakwaka’wakw population dropped by 75% between 1830 and 1880.
Kwakwaka’wakw dancers from Vancouver Island performed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
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 by Jan Hare and Jean Barman, contains the letters 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 edited by Mary-Ellen Kelm picks up the story from 1916 to 1919 in the village of Kitamaat and details Butcher’s experiences among the Haisla people.
Restoring their ties to their land, culture, and rights, the Kwakwaka’wakw have undertaken much in bringing back their customs, beliefs, and language.
Potlatches 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, Ellen Neel, and Willie Seaweed have taken efforts to revive Kwakwaka’wakw art and culture.
Kwakwaka’wakw kinship is based on a bilinear structure (descent is reckoned through both father and mother, without unilineal descent groups), with loose characteristics of a patrilineal culture (descent traced through the father). It has large extended families and interconnected community life.
The Kwakwaka’wakw are made up of numerous communities or bands. Within those communities they were organized into extended family units or na’mima, which means of one kind. Each ‘na’mima’ had positions that carried particular responsibilities and privileges.
Each community had around four ‘na’mima’, although some had more, some had less.
Kwakwaka’wakw follow their genealogy back to their ancestral roots. A head chief who, through primogeniture (the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child), could trace his origins to that ‘na’mima’s ancestors, delineated the roles throughout the rest of his family.
Every clan had several sub-chiefs, who gained their titles and position through their own family’s primogeniture. These chiefs organized their people to harvest the communal lands that belonged to their family.
Kwakwa’wakw society was organized 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 displayed or distributed in the potlatch, commoners, and slaves.
On the nobility class, “the noble was recognized as the literal conduit between the social and spiritual domains, birthright alone was not enough to secure rank: only individuals displaying the correct moral behavior 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 Nuu-chah-nulth 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.
This practice created a system of loan and interest, using wool blankets as currency.
As with other Pacific Northwest nations, the Kwakwaka’wakw highly valued copper in their economy and used it for ornament and precious goods. Scholars have proposed that prior to trade with Europeans, the people acquired copper from natural copper veins along riverbeds, but this has not been proven.
Contact with European settlers, particularly through the Hudson’s Bay Company, brought an influx of copper to their territories.
The Kwakwaka’wakw nations also were aware of silver and gold, and crafted intricate bracelets and jewellery from hammered coins traded from European settlers.
Copper was given 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 kept for the sake of prestige.
Individual pieces of copper were sometimes given names based on their value. The value of any given piece was 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, in their version of an art market.
During potlatch, copper pieces would be brought out, and bids were placed on them by rival chiefs. The highest bidder would have the honour of buying said copper piece.
If a host still held a surplus of copper after throwing an expensive potlatch, he was considered a wealthy and important man. Highly ranked members of the communities often have the Kwak’wala word for “copper” as part of their names.
Copper’s importance as an indicator of status also led to its use in a Kwakwaka’wakw shaming ritual. The copper cutting ceremony involved 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, as part of 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.