Native History of Johnstone Strait
About Kwakwaka’wakw, the Johnstone Strait Region’s collective First Nations
The Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly known as the Kwakiutl) are an Indigenous group of First Nations, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the adjoining mainland and islands.
Kwakwaka’wakw translates as “Those who speak Kwak’wala,” describing the collective nations within the area that speak the language. However, even though the people share a common language, each nation considers itself a separate independent nation.
13 First Nations
Today the Kwakwaka’wakw are organized politically into 13 band governments. Their language, now spoken by less than 5% of the population (about 250 people), is Kwak’wala. The Kwakwaka’wakw are known for their history, culture and art. In recent years, the Kwakwaka’wakw have been active on the revitalization of their culture and language. Kwakwaka’wakw society was highly stratified, with three main classes, determined by heredity: nobles, commoners, and slaves.
Fishing and Hunting
Their economy was based primarily on fishing, with the men also engaging in some hunting, and the women gathering wild fruits and berries. Ornate weaving and woodwork were important crafts, and wealth, defined by slaves and material goods, was prominently displayed and traded at potlatch ceremonies. These customs were the subject of extensive study by the anthropologist Franz Boas.
Wealth and the Potlatch
In contrast to most other societies, wealth and status were not determined by how much you had, but by how much you had to give away. This act of giving away your wealth was one of the main acts in a potlatch. Our visit to Village Island puts us at the location in Kwakwaka’wakw history where the last potlatch for all native people occurred.
The Kwakwaka’wakw believe that their ancestors (‘na’mima) came in the forms of animals by way of land, sea or underground. When one of these ancestral animals arrived at the given spot, it would discard its animal appearance and become human. Some animals that figure in these origin myths include the Thunderbird, his brother Kolus, the seagull, orca, grizzly bear or chief ghost. Some ancestors have human origins and are said to come from distant places.