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ETHNONYMS: Kwagulth, Kwakiool, Kwawkewlth, Kwawkwakawakw, Southern Kwakiutl


Identification. "Kwakiutl" was initially and properly applied only to one local group, the Walas Kwakiutl of Queen Charlotte Strait, British Columbia, but was subsequently used by fur traders and others to designate the four groups (including the Walas Kwakiutl) that assembled at the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Rupert in the 1850s. By extension, missionaries, government officials, and ethnologists identified all speaking obviously related dialects and languages as "Kwakiutl." The word Kwakiutl is native and variously interpreted as "smoke of the world," "smoke from their fires," and "beach at north side."

Location. Groups covered in this summary are those collectively referred to as the Southern Kwakiutl: occupants of Vancouver Island, the neighboring mainland, and the Numerous intervening islands. Their territory lies between approximately 50° to 51°30 N and 125° to 127° W. Most Kwakiutl remain in this area today: a few in their traditional winter Villages, more in larger settlements to which small groups have been attracted.

Demography. Hudson's Bay Company estimates for around 1835 put the population at about 8,575, but by then the numbers had already been reduced by disease. The Population declined steadily during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When Franz Boas's studies began, there were about 2,000 Kwakiutl, and at lowest ebb in 1929, half that number. Approximately 4,000 now live in the area.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kwakwala, the language of the Southern Kwakiutl, belongs to the North Wakashan division of the Wakashan stock. It contained at least three dialects: Koskimo, on the west coast of Vancouver Island centering on Quatsino Inlet; Newetee (or Nawitti), on the northern tip of Vancouver Island; and Kwakiutl for the balance of the areapredominantly the shores of Queen Charlotte and Johnstone straits and adjoining fjords and channels. Newetee is likely extinct.

History and Cultural Relations

Southern Kwakiutl border the Chickliset Nootka and Comox Salish on Vancouver Island and Homathco and Klahuse Salish and Owikeno Kwakiutl on the mainland. Relations with all these neighbors were similar to those that obtained among the Southern Kwakiutl groups themselves: a mixture of bellicose raiding and amicable feasting, marriage, and trade. The taking of slaves and other plunder had undoubtedly long characterized relations with neighbors. At least in historic times, territorial acquisition also rose to prominence as the Lekwiltok Kwakiutl drove Comox Salish from the southern reaches of Johnstone Strait. Early contact with Europeans began for some groups in the 1780s with maritime fur traders, for others, with American, British and Spanish Voyages of exploration in 1792. Through those groups on the north end of Vancouver Island there was direct participation in the early fur trade, but significant economic impact did not begin until the establishment of Fort Rupert ( 1849) for many decades the economic and ceremonial focus of the Southern Kwakiutl. In the 1870s, an Anglican missionary assembled his Fort Rupert converts at Alert Bay, where he later established a sawmill to employ natives in the developing timber industry. Native participation, as fishermen and cannery workers, in the even more rapidly expanding fishing industry grew through the later years of the nineteenth century. Early contact was marked by few incidents of conflict between Whites and native partners in the fur trade. Later, church and government, recognizing the pivotal role played by Potlatching in Kwakiutl culture, curbed this activity through arrests and confiscation of regalia.


Each of the twenty-nine Southern Kwakiutl local groups occupied a village in the winter months and moved, seasonally, to settlements situated at specific resource locales. At the winter village and such repeatedly used locations as the Eulachon and salmon fisheries stood the permanently erected, heavy timber house frames on which the villagers placed split plank cladding carried with them on their seasonal moves. Short-term camps, such as those used as bases for shellfish or seaweed gathering, typically were occupied by village segments. Shelters here were smaller and commonly formed of planks over a light pole framework. Winter village populations ranged from 100 to 750; aggregations at the eulachon fisheries could reach several thousands. Lesser resource locales might attract but one or two households. Dwellings were customarily ranged along the shores of a bay, protected Channel, or lower reaches of a river. Within the houses, which could be up to 29.5 feet square, mats, screens, and piled belongings formed compartments for the occupant households.

In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the Hudson's Bay Company post, sawmills, and canneries drew people into three principal settlements. Since formai establishment as Reserve communities, these three have expanded, attractive for the amenities and social services offered. Only four of the original groups remain at their traditional winter locations. Reserve housing stock has improved greatly in recent years and can now generally be described as of good rural standard. Large communities have one or more modified old-style big houses as a focus for traditional ceremonies and often a reCreation center for more recently adopted activities. Separate band office structures and churches are found in all but the smallest reserve settlements. Two communities have attractive, well-equipped, and professionally staffed museums.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Fishing for salmon, herring, eulachon, and halibut, hunting such sea mammals as seal and porpoise, gathering shellfish and other marine invertebrates, and foraging for wild plant foods characterized subsistence activities. For taking these predominantly seasonal resources, the Kwakiutl possessed a wide variety of devices, many specifically designed for particular species and circumstances. The most productive and efficient fishing techniques involved weirs and traps, of which there were several kinds. Movement from one resource locale to another matched subsistence activities with the highly localized resources, and preservation techniques (mainly based on drying) permitted accumulation of surpluses for off-season consumption. They participated in the early maritime fur trade through direct contact at the north end of Vancouver Island and indirectly through exchanges across the island with the Nootka. Subsequently, with establishment of Fort Rupert, barter for food staples and goods increased in importance. Late in the nineteenth century, Kwakiutl became full participants in a cash economy as commercial fishermen, cannery workers, and loggers. Although no canneries now operate in the Southern Kwakiutl area, commercial fishing remains the principal vocation. Others find employment in logging, the region's small-scale service industries, and with various levels of government. A periodic government-regulated "food fishery" remains an important contributor to subsistence.

Industrial Arts. Woodworking was of prime importance for the production of a very broad range of products, from dishes and spoons to houses and watercraft. The textile arts produced baskets, mats, and blankets. Many objects were richly decorated, a tradition that has continued in this Century through production of small carved tourist items. A few artists now specialize in two-dimensional paper art: paintings and prints in traditional or modified traditional style.

Trade. Precontact trading patterns reflected only some local groups having direct access to eulachon fisheries. Eulachon oil was widely traded both among Kwakiutl and with Nootka. The region's nineteenth-century fur trade centered on Fort Rupert. Many outlying groups dealt through native middlemen, at least some of whom, in later years, became Hudson's Bay Company rivals, traveling south to Victoria for their stock.

Division of Labor. A gender-based division of labor prevailed. Women gathered plants and shellfish, processed all kinds of foods for storage, prepared meals, and manufactured nets, mats, fabrics, clothing, and baskets. Men built traps, made and used other hunting and fishing equipment, and did all woodworking, including manufacture of canoes and Construction of houses. Men might be part-time specialists in the making of such items as masks, boxes, canoes, or crest poles. Women's specializations included blanket weaving and fine basketwork. Slaves were employed at menial tasks, including carrying water, gathering firewood, drying fish, and paddling canoes. In the early decades of the commercial fishery, men worked in the troller, gillnet, or purse-seine fleets and women in the canneries. With the removal of fish-processing plants to urban British Columbia, females have found local employment principally in the service industry and government. Males are still mainly employed as commercial fishermen.

Land Tenure. Descent groups controlled all significant resource locations and owned such constructions as traps and weirs. They were also identified with specific segments of the local group's winter and other seasonal villages. When Reserves were allocated in the late nineteenth century, plots of land at many traditional resource locations, winter village sites, and burial areas were attributed to "bands"remnants or amalgamations of the old local groups. Title to reserve land is held for each band by the Canadian government. As Kwakiutl signed no treaties ceding their land, they continue to press for compensation or restitution.


Kin Groups and Descent. Each local group comprised several loosely structured, exogamous, nonunilineal descent groups (numayms). Affiliation with these was nominally ambilineal with pronounced patrilineal bias. Numayms disappeared several generations ago.

Kinship Terminology. Cousin terminology was of Hawaiian type; aunt terms, lineal.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Preferred spouses were from other similarly ranked numayms. High-ranking, wealthy individuals might engage in polygynous unions. Divorce was effected by return of property equivalent to those gifts exchanged by families at the time of marriage. For several generations, marriage practices have conformed to those prescribed by the Anglican church and Canadian law.

Domestic Unit. Independent households, centering on a nuclear or polygynous composite family but including Otherwise unattached relatives and slaves, were fundamental units of production and consumption. They shared a single large dwelling with three to five or more other such units, forming an extended household usually linked by a core of patrilineally related male heads. For much of the year, there was little activity in which these larger domestic units collectively engaged, but seasonally they cooperated in some hunting and fishing activities and shared food surplus to any independent household's needs. The typical domestic unit is now the Nuclear family-centered household.

Inheritance. Most personal effects closely identified with an individual were burned at death. More valuable kinds of property (houses, coppers, ceremonial regalia, crests, dances, privileges, and titles) were transferred to heirs during one's lifetime. The usual path of inheritance and succession was defined by a rule of primogeniture with no distinction made between a male or female heir. If there was no child, property seems rightfully to have gone to the eldest offspring of the next oldest sibling, although that next oldest sibling might assert a claim. Many items could be passed on only within the numaym; others (especially titles, dances, coppers) that had been received from in-laws could be conveyed to other inlaws. Positions as functionaries or performers in the winter ceremonies were patrilineally transmitted.

Socialization. Children were raised with comparatively few restrictions until puberty, after which a girl was expected to become skilled at basket making and other women's work. Girls were instructed by older female members of the Household. Boys learned appropriate skills from their fathers. Children continue to be raised in a setting of affection and permissiveness with the major responsibility for guidance falling on the parents, especially the mother. In later childhood, peer group influences predominate. Gender stereotyping begins early but becomes particularly evident during adolescence. Missionary schools on many reserves and a Government residential school at Alert Bay were the main sources of instruction until the 1950s, after which time these were gradually replaced by secular instruction in provincial schools serving the region's Indian and non-Indian communities. Some in small remote villages rely on the province's correspondence program. Postsecondary enrollment has increased with recent establishment of nearby branch college campuses.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Major divisions of society separated free and slave castes and, within the free population, distinguished title-holders and their families from other people. Title-holders were ranked within and among numayms and were under continual obligation to maintain and, if possible, advance the status of their names. Relative rank was readily apparent at potlatches where seating arrangement, order of distribution of food and property, and size or worth of gift all reflected relative positions of the assembled guests. The host's display of affluence was an assertion of worth, but only the position assigned him when he was a guest at a subsequent potlatch could tell him if fellow title-holders agreed. There may also have been broad distinctions between the group holding the most important titles, those who had held these titles formerly but had given them up to their successors, and the group holding lesser titles. Numayms were ranked with respect to one another within and among local groups, and there was a ranked order for local groups, themselves. During the winter months, these social divisions were partly eclipsed by ones related to organization of the winter ceremonies. The uninitiated formed a segment of society distinct from the group managing the ceremonies ("sparrows") and the performers ("seals"). Sparrows were subdivided into several groups on the basis of gender and age and seals into ranked dancing societies, each of which contained several ranked categories of performers.

Political Organization. The largest politically autonomous units were the local groups, loosely governed by inFormal consultation and consensus among the highest ranking title-holders of each numaym. Numayms were more significant political units and were each led by the highest ranking title-holder. Present-day bands have elected councillors and a chief councillor, and all but the smallest, an appointed band manager.

Social Control. There were several sources of constraint on individual action. A shaman's magic was available to Control difficult members of society, and one shaman, a sorcerer, assisted the highest ranking title-holder of each numaym when his wishes were opposed. Mistakes or inappropriate behavior at potlatches, during winter ceremonies, or at any time for high-ranking people constituted shame that could be erased only by a formai distribution of property to those witnessing the embarrassing action. A killing called for revenge, which might be visited on any available member of the killer's numaym or local group, although properly it involved someone of similar rank.

Conflict. From early contact until the 1920s, numaym and local group rivalry was stimulated by and took the form of competitive potlatching, where the objective was to outdo opponents in the number and quality of possessions given away or destroyed. In earlier times, such competition may more commonly have been expressed by raids and fighting. Perceived excesses in potlatching and drinking led to a split among those gathered at Fort Rupert and withdrawal of many to Alert Bay.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There was general recognition that most natural phenomena and all spirit beings possessed supernatural power, and the existence of such power made many activities and contacts potentially dangerous. Prayers might be offered or rituals followed to enlist supernatural assistance and affect the outcome of various pursuits. At the same time, the Kwakiutl attitude toward much of the world in which they lived was pragmatic and secular. There were numerous unearthly beings, including some identified with specific numayms and others with dancing societies. None was seen as particularly active in affecting the outcome of human affairs. Normally invisible, they might assume forms humans could see. Since missionization, most Kwakiutl have been Anglican. Some are members of evangelical Protestant churches.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans, of which there were several categories, were called on to impel or express spirit-induced sickness and to foretell or affect the outcome of events, cure bodily ills, or work sorcery.

Ceremonies. Winter was a period of intensive religious activity when the various dancing societies initiated new Members and reenacted the first contact with their supernatural guardians. Performancesdramatizations of myth-time eventswere often staged with cleverly constructed props. Potlatching accompanied the initiations and was in other seasons offered as a ceremony in its own right. It involved host and guest groups, lavish feasting, formal speeches, and distribution of gifts to guests. Life-cycle events (including bestowal of names, marriage, assumption of titles, and commemoration of the dead), launching of a large canoe, or Construction of a new house were all occasions for potlatches.

Arts. The most intensely developed arts were those of sculpture, painting, dance, theater, and oratory. Prevalent themes and contexts were religious, including a distinctive and largely religious-based heraldry. Sculpture and painting conformed to conventionalized representations of animals and supernatural beings. Art was an applied form, richly decorating house fronts, mortuary and other commemorative monuments, boxes, seat backs, canoes, paddles, feast dishes, household utensils, tools, and personal possessions. Elaborate masks, robes, and other costume parts and complicated mechanical devices were important accompaniments of dance and theatrical performances. After a long period of languor, the arts have been revived in modified form, with sculpture holding most closely to tradition. Limited edition prints are the basis of a lively art especially popular with collectors. At least one Kwakiutl dance troupe offers costumed performances incorporating traditional themes and movements.

Medicine. Illness caused by soul loss or magic was treated by a shaman. Many ailments were attended to by specialized curers who might use plant, animal, or mineral compounds or decoctions or might prescribe bathing, sweating, or cauterization.

Death and Afterlife. The body, in a decorated bentwood box, was placed in the branches of a tree, in a rectangular plank gravehouse, or a sheltered rock cleft or cave. The soul of the departed, at first a threat to the well-being of survivors, was after about a year content in its new home and no longer dangerous. The afterworld resembled the earthly one, with people living in villages and harvesting the abundant animals, fish, and berries.


Boas, Franz (1897). The Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. United States National Museum Annual Report, 1895, 311-738. Washington, D.C.

Boas, Franz (1909). The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. American Museum of Natural History, Memoir no. 8, 307-515. New York.

Boas, Franz (1966). Kwakiutl Ethnography. Edited by Helen Codere. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Curtis, Edward S. (1915). The North American Indian. Vol. 10. Norwood, Mass. Reprint. Johnson Reprint Corp., 1970.

Rohner, Ronald P. (1967). The People of Gilford: A Contem-porary Village. National Museum of Canada Bulletin no. 225. Ottawa.


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"Kwakiutl." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Kwakiutl (kwä´kēōō´təl), group of closely related Native North Americans who inhabit N Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland of British Columbia, Canada. They, together with the Nootka, their southern neighbors, make up the Wakashan branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). Kwakiutl culture was typical of the Northwest Coast area (including the custom of potlatch). The ethnographer Franz Boas produced a significant number of ethnographic studies on the Kwakiutl. Numbering c.15,000 before European contact, they are now reduced to around 4,000 and are mainly engaged in fishing and farming.

See F. Boas, Kwakiutl Ethnography, ed. by H. F. Codere (1966); R. P. Rohner and E. C. Rohner, The Kwakiutl (1970).

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"Kwakiutl." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Kwakiutl Tribe of Native Americans on the nw coast speaking the Wakashan language, and closely related to the Bella Bella. They number c.2,000 and occupy n Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.

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