The culture of the Kwakiutl is similar to that of their northern neighbours, the Bella Bella and Rivers Inlet peoples. Trails across Vancouver Island made trade possible with Nootka villages on the West Coast. Archaeological evidence shows habitation in the Kwakwala-speaking area for at least 8000 years. In precontact times Kwakiutl fished, hunted and gathered, according to the seasons, securing an abundance of preservable food. Consequently, this allowed them to return to their winter villages for several months of intensive ceremonial and artistic activity.
In 1792 Spanish explorers Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano and Cayetano Valdés and Captain George VANCOUVER encountered most of the south Kwakiutl groups, and Vancouver wrote detailed descriptions of them. Farther north, in 1849 the HUDSON'S BAY CO established Fort Rupert, which operated until 1877, when it was sold to Robert Hunt, the last factor. George HUNT, Robert's son, became anthropologist Franz BOAS's assistant, and together they wrote a large body of material on the language and culture of the Kwakiutl.
A federal law of 1884 prohibiting the POTLATCH threatened to destroy the heart of the culture. In 1921 a large potlatch at Village Island resulted in the arrest of 45 people, of whom 22 were imprisoned, their ceremonial goods confiscated. Knowing that these masks and other ritual objects had been wrongfully taken, the Kwakwaka'wakw in 1967 initiated efforts to secure their return. The National Museums of Canada agreed to return that part of the collection held by the CANADIAN MUSEUM OF CIVILIZATION, on the condition that 2 museums be built, the Kwakiutl Museum in Cape Mudge and the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay (see NORTHWEST COAST NATIVE ART).
Today, most Kwakiutl children speak English as their first language, and many schools in the area sponsor programs in Kwakwala and traditional dance and art. Traditionally fishermen, the Kwakwaka'wakw continue to fish commercially in a highly competitive industry. Hereditary chiefs still pass on rights and privileges at potlatches, but band government is conducted by elected councillors.
A number of original villages have been abandoned as inhabitants moved to communities such as Alert Bay, Campbell River and Port Hardy to be close to schools and hospitals. Only 9 villages are now inhabited, with a total population of about 5700 for the area (1996c).
Author GLORIA CRANMER WEBSTER
F. Boas, "The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians," Smithsonian Institution Annual Report for 1895 (1897); H. Codere, ed, Kwakiutl Ethnography (1966); Aldona Jonaitis ed, Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlach (1991).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Languages of Canada
A comprehensive online database of languages currently in use in Canada. Also provides details about extinct languages. Check out the "language maps" for more information. Based on "Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition." From SIL International, a US website.
Heritage BC Stops
Click on the tabs at the top of the page to access interactive maps and virtual tours of unique heritage sites located throughout British Columbia. Features points of interest, archival illustrations and photographs, personal anecdotes, and much more. From Heritage BC. Note: try various web browsers for the best display of website pages.
The website for the Kwakiutl Band, one of the original inhabitants of the northern Vancouver Island region. Features an illustrated overview of their culture, history, and heritage and information about treaty negotiations and reserve lands. Click on the Our Land: History section for links to articles about the fragile relationship between local First Nations communities and the Hudson's Bay Company in this area.
The Bill Reid Centre For Northwest Coast Art Studies
Part of the Department of First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University, this centre is devoted to "the study of First Nations art of the Northwest Coast as the visual embodiment of a broad cultural development since the end of the last Ice Age." Click the links on the right side of the page to view an illustrated profile of the history and heritage of featured language groups and villages.