The "kwakwaka'wakw" (often referred to as Kwakiutl, which is the name of the Fort Rupert band, and Kwagulth) occupy coastal areas of BC extending from Smith Inlet in the north to Cape Mudge in the south, west to Quatsino and east to Knight Inlet. Originally, there were 28 Aboriginal communities, all speaking dialects of Kwakwala, from which comes the people's name for themselves, Kwakwaka'wakw. The first census in 1835 recorded the total population as 8575. A member of the Wakashan language family, Kwakwala is related to other languages such as Westcoast (Nootka), Heiltsuk (Bella Bella), Oowekyala (Rivers Inlet people) and Haisla (Kitamaat).

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 Company 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' 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 Aboriginal 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).

See also Aboriginal People: Northwest Coast and general articles under Aboriginal People.