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Kwakiutl Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Kwakiutl tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Kwakiutl website for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Kwakiutl pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Kwakiutl Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Kwakiutl"? What does it mean?
Kwakiutl is is usually pronounced "kwah-kee-oo-tl." This is an English pronunciation of a band name from their own language, Kwagu'ł, which is actually pronounced closer to kwah-gyoolth. Another name which is commonly used is Kwakwaka'wakw, which means "speakers of the Kwak'wala language."

Is "Kwakiutl" a polite name?
Yes, but it can sometimes be an inaccurate one. Kwakiutl is the name of one of the major groups of Kwakwala speakers, not all of them. So although all Kwakiutl people are Kwakwakawakw, not all Kwakwakawakw people are actually Kwakiutl.

"Kwakiutl" is a perfectly good name and is used by many Native people (including in official names such as the Kwakiutl First Nation and the Kwakiutl District Council,) but Kwakwakawakw is a more inclusive name referring to all the related Kwakwala-speaking communities as well as the Kwakiutl. Some Kwakwakawakw people prefer to simply call themselves "First Nations" when speaking in English.

Where do the Kwakiutls live?
The Kwakiutl Indians are original people of the Pacific Northwest. They live in British Columbia, Canada.

How is the Kwakiutl nation organized?
Each Kwakwakawakw community has its own reserve, or reservation. Reserves are land that belongs to a Native American tribe and is legally under their control. Each Kwakwakawakw tribe--known as a band or First Nation in Canada--is politically independent and has its own leadership. The fifteen Kwakwakawakw bands each have their own government, laws, police, and services, just like small countries. However, the Kwakwakawakw are also Canadian citizens and must obey Canadian law.

What language do the Kwakiutl Indians speak?
Almost all Kwakiutl people speak English today, but some Kwakiutls, especially elders, also speak their native Kwakiutl language, which is known as Kwak'wala. Kwakwala is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Kwak'wala word, "gilakasla" (sounds a little like gee-lah-kah-slah, with a hard 'g' as in 'go') is a friendly greeting. You can also read a Kwak'wala picture dictionary here.

What was Kwakiutl culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the homepage of the Kwakiutl First Nation in Canada. There you can find information about the Kwakiutl tribe in the past and today.

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How do Kwakiutl Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Kwakiutl children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys and games to play. Like many Native Americans, Kwakiutl mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs. Here is a website with Native American cradle pictures.

What were men and women's roles in the Kwakiutl tribe?
Kwakiutl women gathered plants, herbs and clams and did most of the child care and cooking. Men were fishermen and hunters and sometimes went to war to protect their families. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine. The Kwakiutl chief was always a man, but the clan leaders could be either men or women.

What were Kwakiutl homes like in the past?
The Kwakiutls lived in coastal villages of rectangular cedar-plank houses with bark roofs. Usually these houses were large (up to 100 feet long) and each one housed several familes from the same clan (as many as 50 people.) Here are some pictures of a cedar lodge like the ones Kwakiutl Indians used. Today, old-fashioned buildings like these are still made from cedar wood, but they are only used for ceremonial purposes, not for everyday shelter. Kwakiutl people live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Kwakiutl clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Kwakiutl men didn't usually wear clothing at all, though some men wore a breech clout. Women wore short skirts made of cedar bark. In colder weather, both genders wore knee-length tunics, long cloaks of shredded cedar bark, and moccasins on their feet. For formal occasions, Kwakiutl people wore more elaborate outfits, with tunics, leggings and cloaks painted with tribal designs. Some important and wealthy Kwakiutls wore the spectacular Chilkat blankets, which were woven from cedar bark and mountain goat hair. Here is a website on Northwest Indian clothes and textiles, and some photos and links about Indian costume in general.

The Kwakiutls didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux Indians. Instead, both men and women sometimes wore basketry hats made of finely woven spruce root. The designs and patterns of these hats often displayed a person's status and family connections. The Kwakiutls did not usually paint their faces, but they did paint their hair red for festive occasions, and sometimes wore tattoo art in stylized animal designs. Kwakiutl women wore their hair long and loose or in two long braids, while men often coiled theirs into a topknot. Like other Northwestern Indians, Kwakiutl men often wore mustaches and beards. Here is a website with pictures of Indian hairstyles.

Today, some Kwakiutl people still have a traditional cloak or basket hat, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths.

What was Kwakiutl transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes--the Kwakiutl Indian tribe made large dugout canoes by hollowing out cedar logs. The Kwakiutl tribe used these canoes to travel up and down the sea coast for trading, fishing and hunting, and warfare. Their most impressive war canoes, which could be more than sixty feet long and withstand ocean storms, were bought from the Haida tribe, who had access to the best cedar trees and were considered the best canoe-makers by the other Northwest Coast tribes. Here is a website about American Indian boats. Today, of course, Kwakiutl people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes.

What was Kwakiutl food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Kwakiutl Indians were fishing people. Kwakiutl men caught fish and sea mammals from their canoes. They also hunted deer, birds, and small game. Kwakiutl women gathered clams and shellfish, seaweed, berries, and roots. Here is a website with more information about Northwest Native food.

What were Kwakiutl weapons and tools like in the past?
Kwakiutl fishermen used harpoons, nets, and wooden fish traps. Hunters used bows and arrows. In war, Kwakiutl men fired their bows or fought with spears and war clubs. Some Kwakiutl warriors wore bulky armor made of wooden rods lashed together to protect themselves from enemy archers. Here is a website with pictures and information about Northwest Indian weapons.

What are Kwakiutl arts and crafts like?
Kwakiutl artists are known for their fine Native American basket and woodcarving arts, including wooden mask and totem pole carvings. Here is a website about Kwakiutl dance masks.

What other Native Americans did the Kwakiutl tribe interact with?
The Kwakiutls traded regularly with all the other tribes of the Northwest Coast, particularly the Tlingit and Haida tribes. They especially liked to buy fine Tlingit weavings and Haida canoes. The Northwest Coast tribes also fought each other frequently, raiding each other's villages to steal wealth and capture slaves.

What kinds of stories do the Kwakiutl Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Kwakiutl legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Kwakiutl Indian culture. Here is one Kwakiutl legend about the origin of totem poles. Here's a website where you can read more about Kwakiutl mythology.

What about Kwakiutl religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Kwakiutl life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Kwakiutl people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Kwakiutl religion or this site about Indian values and beliefs in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
There are not many books for kids specifically about the Kwakiutl tribe. Older kids may want to read The Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia, a book for adults about Kwakiutl culture and history. You could also read a book about another Northwest Indian tribe closely related to the Kwakiutl, such as Jason's New Canoe (a fiction story about a Nootka boy) or Clamshell Boy (a picture book based on a Makah legend.) Meet Lydia is an illustrated biography of a modern Tlingit girl which makes a great introduction to Northwest Coast Indian life in general. If you want to know more about Kwakiutl culture and history, two possibilities are The Kwakiutl Indians and The Kwakiutl. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended Indian stories for kids. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Kwakiutl Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Kwakiutl Tribe

Kwakiutl Indian Tribe
An overview of the Kwakiutl people, their language and history.

Kwakiutl Language Resources
Kwakiutl Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Kwakiutl Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Kwakiutl Native Americans past and present.

Kwak'wala Words
Kwakiutl Indian vocabulary lists.

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