Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly known as Kwakiutl)
The Kwakwaka'wakw are a Northwest Coast People on the northern side of Vancouver Island and mainland coastal region across from it. There were 17 tribes that spoke the language, which number about 6000 people today. Their oral history states their ancestors came by land, sea, or underground in the form of animals. When an animal arrived at a certain place, it shed its animal appearance, transforming into a human. The term Kwakiutl was created by anthropologist Franz Boas, incorrectly applied and used by Westerners for 100 years, and actually comes from the name of the tribe, Kwagu'ł, that he worked with at Fort Rupert.
Kwakwaka'wakw society was and still is highly stratified, with several classes, which now are mostly based upon birth and birthplace within a family. Their life was dependent on fishing and hunting, done by the men, and gathering, done by the women. As long as it is remembered, woodwork has been critically important in their lives as it is used in carving totem poles, ceremonial masks, long houses, and canoes. Wealth, which today means material goods but in the former times also meant slaves, is prominently displayed and exchanged at potlatch ceremonies.
Contact with outsiders drastically reduced their population due to disease; additionally, their culture was heavily intruded upon through the efforts of missionaries and the government to convert and civilize them. The potlatch was banned for decades. Masks were appropriated, many disappeared and never returned. However, the people never let go of their identity. Now, in current times, the Kwakwaka'wakw have undergone a revitalization of their culture and language, and their artwork—masks and totem poles especially—are sought out by art collectors and museums, galleries and both regional & local governments.
Historically, each tribe had its own clans, chiefs, history, and culture, but remained similar to other Kwaka'wala speaking tribes. Kwakwa'wakw society formed into four classes—the nobility, attained through birthright; the aristocracy, who gained status through wealth, resources, or spiritual powers made available in the potlatch; the commoners; and slaves. Further, the tribes had a tribal chief, who was the head chief of the entire tribe, and then below him were clan or family chiefs.
The Kwakwaka'wakw are a bilineal culture. Traditionally, the rights are passed down through the paternal side, but, in rare instances, individuals can take the maternal side of their family and the rights that go with it. The Kwakwaka'wakw traditionally were, and still are, particularly prominent in the potlatch culture of the Northwest Coastal Peoples. Potlatch, a ceremonial feast, commemorates an important event— the death of a high-status person (most often), the birth of a child, the start of a daughter's menstrual cycle, the establishment of chieftain claims, and marriage. Through the potlatch, hierarchical relations within and between groups are observed and reinforced through the exchange of gifts, dance performances, and Big House ceremonies. The host family demonstrates their wealth and prominence by giving away their possessions, which prompts other individuals of statue to reciprocate, when they will hold their own potlatches.