The Kwakiutl of the Northwest: Facts, Culture & Daily Life

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Several diverse cultures have inhabited the Pacific coast of North America. In this lesson, we'll explore the traditions and lives of the Kwakiutl and see what life looked life along the coast before the arrival of Europeans.

The Kwakiutl

The Pacific coast of Canada, roughly the area of British Columbia, is home to some great stuff, like the impressive Victorian gardens, numerous whale-watching opportunities, and according to some, a native population of sasquatch. It's also home to the Kwakiutl people, one of the indigenous populations of the region. The term Kwakiutl itself is actually something of a misnomer, being a term that Europeans used to identify a wider group of cultures that shared linguistic and social traits. They call themselves the Kwakwaka'wakw. Anyway, the Kwakiutl people were an incredibly successful cultural group of the Pacific coast for centuries, who lived on and with the ocean as much as the land.

Kwakiutl people in front of a long house
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History of the Kwakiutl

Where did the Kwakiutl people come from? Well, according to their own creation stories, the ancestors of the Kwakiutl were animals that traveled across the world, who upon arriving along the Pacific coast shed off their animal appearances and became human. This belief was very important to Kwakiutl beliefs, as animals like thunderbirds, seagulls, orcas, and grizzly bears were literally the ancestors of the people. The first Europeans to come into contact with the Kwakiutl arrived in the late 18th century, and as was the unfortunate experience of so many Amerindian people, this encounter was accompanied by the introduction of diseases that decimated the population. For the most part, however, European traders and the Kwakiutl coexisted peacefully at first, but as the area became more and more dominated by European culture, tensions rose. The Kwakiutl today live on reservations in British Columbia and are working to restore traditional languages, customs, and beliefs.

Kwakiutl Life

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Kwakiutl were part of some major trade networks across the western coast of North America. Their role? Fishers. The Kwakiutl were prolific fishers, catching and trading salmon, herring, halibut, seals, porpoises, and shellfish, amongst other things. They also participated in the fur trade of the region. With this much reliance on animals that followed seasonal migration patterns, being permanently settled was not a good option for the Kwakiutl. Instead, they maintained a series of settlements, generally featuring massive wooden houses made of thick planks, in between which they moved from season to season. The most substantial settlements were the winter homes, where they would spend the cold and harsh months and live on dried and preserved fish from that summer. Major settlements also existed near salmon runs, which were incredibly important to their subsistence and economy.

Kwakiutl sailing boats like these helped them become prolific fishers
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The various chores of daily life were divided by gender, with men constructing canoes and doing most of the fishing. Women gathered edible plants and other resources, maintained the homes, and were responsible for basket and blanket weaving, which was very time-consuming. The Kwakiutl also had slaves, who were traded from other Amerindian nations, who performed many of the menial daily tasks like gathering water. Kwakiutl society was organized around large kinship groups, which was the largest unit of social organization and based around one of the animal-human founding ancestors. One kinship group owned their own set of settlements while other kinship groups owned the others, but they did often interact and exchange marriages, supplies, and ideas.

Kwakiutl Arts

Like people all over the world, the Kwakiutl put a lot of time and effort into developing their own unique artistic culture, which for them was most often related to elaborate woodworking. From houses to spoons to canoes to totem poles decorated with the animal ancestors and other figures in that kinship group's history. Amongst the most important artistic products may have been their masks, which were carved to represent ancestors and other spiritual beings. According to Kwakiutl beliefs, these masks could actually be inhabited by the spirits of the world. Through wearing the masks and dancing or performing other rituals, the religious leaders of the Kwakiutl could channel the spirits dwelling in the mask, thus becoming vessels through which the spirits could communicate with the Kwakiutl people.

Kwakiutl dancers wearing elaborate masks
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