Native American websites * Indigenous language * Indian tribes list

Kwakiutl [archive]

This article has been archived from the now-defunct MSU E-Museum ( for educational purposes. Please visit our Article Archive Index for further information. If the author of this article would like to make changes to it, or if you are the author of another article you would like us to add to our archives, please contact us.



The Kwakwaka'wakw (kwa-kwa-ka-wak) includes several nations and tribes. The Kwakiutl are the most famous of the Kwakwaka'wakw nations because of the research by Franz Boas. They have reserves in northwestern British Columbia with a higher population on Vancouver Island, a biologically diverse coastal area that includes temperate rainforest. Many have migrated away from their villages to have better access to social services.

According to treaty, the Kwakuitl have hunting, fishing and gathering rights in their traditional territory on Vancouver Island. The government has breached this treaty by giving out land grants. The Kwakiutl First Nation continues to pursue Land Claims in the face of privatization. In 1986 they used nonviolent means to protect Wazulis (Deer Island) from logging. The activists who were occupying the site found ancient burial remains that proved their right to the land and won a court order to repatriate the island (Wonders 2008). The struggle continues as the Ministry of British Columbia authorized a land transfer in 2007 without consulting the Kwakuitl. The Ministry's decision allowed Western Forest Products, a logging company that previously held a Tree Farm License in the area, to sell 28,000 hectares of land to developers, including 14,000 hectares that belonged to the Kwakiutl. The following year the Kwakiutl First Nation initiated a lawsuit against the B.C. government for failing to consult them on the land transfer.


Kwakwaka'wakw literally means "the people who speak Kwak'wala." Kwak'wala is a branch of the Wakashan (Wuh-CASH-shun) linguistic family and it has five dialects. Today less 4% of Kwakwaka'wakw speak their native language, but they have created initiatives to revive it through language instruction in primary schools and Kwak'wala literacy programs for children and adults.


Fish, particularly salmon, have always been an important food source for the Kwakwaka'wakw and many were employed in the commercial fishing industry until the early 1990s. The reserves currently have high unemployment rates and rely on government assistance. Additionally, the salmon aquaculture industry has challenged the local communities' access to their traditional food source. Many studies have shown a connection between fish farms and a rising sea lice population which is decimating wild salmon stocks, but scientists are debating whether the farms are directly responsible. Changes in local aquatic ecology could have a significant impact on Kwakwaka'wakw people living on reserves because the main components of their diet include local fish, shellfish, seal, seaweed, and barnacles. However, the younger generation is beginning to consume less seafood (U'mista 2009).

The Potlatch:

The potlatch is a gift-giving ceremony held at major life events. In the words of Agnes Alfred of Alert Bay:

"When one's heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are Indian. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy" (1980).

A modern potlatch generally lasts one day and night and is accompanied by a feast and dances depicting ancient stories. Each family has their own dances which were given to them by the Creator and passed down through the generations. One of the most important gifts of the potlatch is T'lina, made by rendering the oil of the dzaxwan (eulachon fish). Families travel to a sacred location every spring to catch dzaxwan and make T'lina (U'mista 2009). Other common gifts at a potlatch include jewelry, appliances, and money (Kwakiutl Indian Band 2008).


The Kwakwaka'wakw are well-known for their masks and totem poles, which depict animals and supernatural beings. Masks are an integral part dances and the stories they tell. The totem pole is a record of family history. Today's artists have revived the arts of carving masks and totem poles as well as canoe building and Chilkat weaving. Carving is considered a man's art, while weaving is done by women. The Chilkat technique involves weaving wool with twine made from cedar bark to make robes, aprons, skirts, and leggings.


Blunt, Zoe 2007 First Nations Say World Falling Apart, Will Fight., February 16.

Kwakwaka'wakw Blog 2008 Electronic document,, accessed December 11.

'Namgis First Nation Former Link (2009)

Richmond, C., S.J. Elliott, R. Matthews, and B. Elliott 2005 The Political Ecology of Health: Perceptions of Environment, Economy, Health and Well-Being Among 'Namgis First Nation. Health and Place 11(4):349-365.

U'mista Cultural Society 2009 Electronic document,, accessed January 18.

Virtual Museum Canada 2009 Preserving the Tradition of T'lina Making. Electronic document,, accessed January 18.

Wonders, Karen 2008 Kwakiutl. Electronic document,, accessed January 28, 2009.

Additional Reading

 Kwakiutl Indians
 Kwakiutl History
 Northwest Indians
 First Nations in Canada

Sponsored Links

Read our article submission guidelines

Native Languages

Mono language * Coushatta * Maine news * Paissa

Would you like to help support our organization's work with endangered American Indian languages?