The Kwakwaka’wakw are located on the North East of Vancouver Island as well as part of the adjacent mainland. The traditional Kwakwaka’wakw diet includes salmon, herring, eulachon, halibut, berries and to a lesser extent, goats, seals, and porpoises. The Kwakwaka’wakw social structure was organized into extended family units or ‘na’mima, which means “of one kind”. Each ‘na’mima had ranked positions or offices that came with many responsibilities and privileges. There were approximately four ‘na’mima to each of the seventeen tribes. The Kwakwaka’wakw had a comprehensive and stable governing process prior to the Indian Act, in which they successfully managed limited resources, settled legal matters and disputes within a constantly evolving traditional culture. Despite the focused legislative campaign against the core of their identity, the Kwakwaka’wakw continue to thrive and practice the traditional ceremonies given to them by their ancestors.
The Kwakwaka’wakw trace their origins back to their ancestral creation. The lower ranked chiefs within a ‘na’mima owe their creation to the ancestral chief. A head chief gave roles and responsibilities to the families within his ‘na’mima in which no two people were of equal rank. These positions were filled according to primogeniture, with the eldest son of the line to a particular rank assuming the title. His younger brothers stood as his potential successors, in case the heir died without a son. The brothers of chiefs were considered secondary nobility and were given respect for the possibility of being given the chief’s title. Each ‘na’mima had several sub-chiefs ranked second, third and fourth, who also received their title through their own family group primogeniture. These chiefs mobilized their family to harvest the lands given to them by the head chief. ‘Na’mima chiefs had three main administrative responsibilities which included economic organization, management of his territory and directing ceremonial obligations.
The Creation of Kwakwaka’wakw:
"The Kwakwaka’wakw creation story is that the ancestor of a ‘na’mima appeared at a specific location by coming down from the sky, out of the sea, or from underground. Generally in the form of an animal, it would take off its animal mask and become a person. The Thunderbird or his brother Kolus, the Gull, the Killer Whale (Orca), a sea monster, a grizzly bear, and a chief ghost would appear in this role. In a few cases, two such beings arrived, and both would become ancestors. There are a few ‘na’mima that do not have the traditional origin, but are said to have come as human beings from distant places. To this group belong the Si’santla’, at one place, their ancestor is called “Son of the Sun” who traveled to as far north as Bella Bella. These ancestors are called “fathers” or “grandfathers,” and the myth is called the “myth at the end of world.”[i]
Surplus from harvests were given to the chief to perform these ceremonial obligations, which were made up of potlatches and feasts. All elements of Kwakwaka’wakw life culminated in the potlatch. Spiritual, economic, judicial, social and political organization, performing arts and the major events of an individual’s life were all integral parts of the potlatch. External disputes that were beyond a chief’s singular authority were settled at potlatches. Potlatches were also a means of ensuring all members of the larger Kwakwaka’wakw society were living well under their chief.
The potlatch was a public view into the legal transactions of a ‘na’mima. The people that witnessed these transactions were paid through gifts of food and material wealth. Reasons to potlatch included naming, marriages, births, initiation into secret societies and other ceremonial transfers. By accepting the payment and witnessing these events the guests gave assent to the claims. Traditionally, the ‘na’mima could only potlatch through the office of the chief because he owned all of the wealth within his territories.
Another important reason for the giving of property during potlatches was to ensure that the “Kwakwaka’wakw noble showed himself to be a worthy vehicle for the soul of an ancestor-spirit and thereby validated both his social status and his claim on supernatural powers believed to be essential for the regeneration of the natural realm.”[ii] Due to wealth restraints, traditional potlatches tended to be limited to the head chief with the assistance of the entire ‘na’mima. The giving of gifts was reserved for the high ranking chiefs in attendance to honour them for witnessing and validating the family’s claims.
The potlatch was a “process of winning names through inheritance, marriage, and warfare, divesting them over the course of his life to his heir and, finally, having preserved all his names for another generation, dying as a commoner.”[iii] The class distinctions were hereditary, but nobility still ended their office by joining the rest of society as a commoner. It was a spiritual journey devoted to ensuring the regeneration of the physical world for the survival of his people. There existed a reciprocal dependence between noble and commoner. The commoner needed a good harvest to survive and “the noble was recognized as the literal conduit between the social and spiritual domains, birth right alone was not enough to secure rank: only individuals displaying the correct moral behavior throughout their life course could maintain ranking status.”[iv] Social status and ranking proved to be effective mechanisms within Kwakwaka’wakw society.
Social rank of the ‘na’mima and its chief played a large role in accountability and stability of Kwakwaka’wakw society. If a chief had poor governing skills members would move to another family’s ‘na’mima and contribute their labour to that group. This gave incentive to continually maintain a ‘na’mima’s social rank and favour within society. It was therefore very important to improve living conditions and to consult with council, the sub-chiefs, on management issues within the ‘na’mima. If the chief lost support of the heads of the families within his ‘na’mima, they could withhold their payments and paralyze the ‘na’mima’s governing ability. This would then threaten the rank of the chief and ‘na’mima within the larger Kwakwaka’wakw society, making the ranking system an effective means of resource management.
A loss of rank was a threat that hung over the heads of chiefs and commoners alike. A council of head chiefs would decide the loss of rank in a ‘na’mima, which occurred infrequently and would mean that one or two other ‘na’mima would increase their rank within the tribe. The social and economic organization was a means to balance the conflicts within human nature and a way to have law and order prevail. Kwakwaka’wakw traditions are “based on a philosophy of there being two opposing forces in human relations: self-interest, greed/hunger and desire, on the one hand, and social cooperation and good-will, on the other.[v] The system of governance tied together the ranking system and potlatch system to harness this self-interest and produced a peaceful, managed life for its people. A chief’s power was counterbalanced by the freedom of choice in ‘na’mima and the competitive nature of the ranking system unified the clans of a tribe to cooperate in maintaining their tribal status. This traditional structure would change drastically upon European contact.
Part of the assimilation agenda of the government officials and missionaries was to make the natives more European and the potlatch was viewed as a hindrance to these efforts. Missionary William Duncan wrote in 1875 that the potlatch was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized.”[vi] As time passed the Kwakwaka’wakw utilized western wage labour to further potlatching practices and instead of becoming more western, the potlatching increased. In 1885 the first piece of legislation would be introduced to make the potlatch illegal. The legislation read:
“Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the "Potlatch" or the Indian dance known as the "Tamanawas" is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not more than six nor less than two months in a jail or other place of confinement; and, any Indian or other person who encourages, either directly or indirectly an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, or who shall assist in the celebration of same is guilty of a like offence, and shall be liable to the same punishment.”
This was later amended to become more inclusive as the earlier prosecutions brought to court were dismissed on technicalities. The legislation was extended to include guests who participated in the ceremony were also subject to up to six months in jail. The Kwakwaka’wakw were too numerous and the agency too large for effective enforcement. Duncan Campbell Scott convinced Parliament to change the offense from criminal to summary, which meant ‘the agents, as justice of the peace, could try a case, convict, and sentence.”[vii] This provided agents enough power to enforce the potlatch law.
Up until 1919 the Kwakwaka’wakw openly and defiantly practiced the potlatch. Between 1919 and 1927 there was an increase in prosecutions. A famous example is Dan Cranmer’s potlatch which sent 26 people to prison and propelled the confiscation of sacred potlatch artifacts that saw over four hundred items taken. The renewed prosecutions forced the potlatch underground. In 1927, when Jimmy Sewid married Flora Alfred his grandfather gave a potlatch, but instead of gathering in a bighouse “he just went around to the houses and gave money and other things to the people to honor” Jimmy, while his mother gave the ladies of Alert Bay various small gifts at her home.[viii] Some families would go to inaccessible winter villages to do their potlatching. Another method was called the “disjointed potlatch,” which split the potlatch ceremony in two. One part was just the dancing and at a later date the other allowed for the distribution of gifts, usually around Christmas time. This made it difficult for the Indian agents to prove the potlatch law had been broken.
Agnes Alfred, a Qwiqwasutinuxw noblewoman upon learning that her husband, Moses Alfred, had been picked up by the police for questioning responded in the following way:
“I just snatched my shawl and ran out. They had brought him to Indian Agent Halliday’s office. I did not bother to knock. I just walked into Halliday’s office and there stood Moses, at the front. They were questioning him. ‘What are you doing here?’ I said. “We are accused by Ganao. She said you are responsible for all the arrests,” I said. I grabbed him and dragged him out. They said it really shocked Dave Shaughnessy [a police officer]. He was standing by the door when I dragged Moses out. He did not try to stop me. I brought Moses home. I literally dragged him out when they were questioning him at the Indian Agent’s office.”[ix]
This was a classic case of resistance in the face of police force with little regard for the possible consequences. It also shows the resolve of Kwakwaka’wakw women, countering the passive nature the Indian Agents portrayed them to hold.
The dramatic population losses made the Kwakwaka’wakw increasingly vulnerable to outside influences. Increased pressure came “when the sudden economic power of commoners required a new distribution of ritual authority, when missionaries were actively pursuing converts, and when capitalism was dislocating villages and threatening to destroy traditional community ties.”[x] Kwakwaka’wakw population dropped by 75% between 1830-1880.[xi] This threatened the very survival of the Kwakwaka’wakw as a people. With more vacancies in the potlatch system and with the increased wealth from the wage economy, competition for prestige increased potlatches both in number and size.
Indian agents began pressuring Parliament again to further amend the potlatch law, but soon after this amendment was introduced in the House of Commons it had to be withdrawn because it came under heavy opposition from all sectors of society. Enforcement as a policy was effectively stopped, but much damage had been done. Even with “the end of enforcement, the potlatch declined, victim to alterations of the structure of the fishing industry, to the Depression, to the Anglican persuasion and Pentecostal evangelization, and to the lack of interest among the young people.”[xii] The Kwakwaka’wakw were faced with a tough choice: join Canadian society and forget about their history or rebuild and work to save the precious knowledge that remained with the few elders still alive in the communities.
The Potlatch law split families, expropriated sacred cultural possessions, criminalized traditional leaders and undermined Kwakwaka’wakw self-governance. Add to this the residential schools and its abuse or ‘civilizing’ as it claimed for so long. These institutions were made to make the Indian in the white man’s own image. No Kwak’wala could be spoken and children were alienated from family which heavily impacted the ability of traditional transmission of potlatch knowledge to the next generation.
The steady commoditization of art forms through their sale to art collectors has changed the way of the pre-colonial religious order drastically. The art was viewed by the ancestors as spiritual property that “symbolized the essential consanguinity of all living beings beneath the mask of their particular species.”[xiii] To sell a mask is to sell the soul that it embodies, a soul that comes alive during potlatch ceremonies.
Without the respect of the spiritual connection with the natural world and the secularization of every day Kwakwaka’wakw life the chief’s role has changed from the “explicit demonstration of the spiritual and economic strength of the entire ‘na’mima” to being based on the “noble’s personal productive ability [which] was now on display, and commodity-capitalism was now the means of achieving social success.”[xiv] The means of securing wealth for distribution went from “a religious covenant with nature to the capitalist free market, an evolution with profound cosmological impact.”[xv] It was a response to the changing times and the evolution of the potlatch during the ban was a way of ensuring the survival of the Kwakwaka’wakw way of life.
The potlatch law had taken its toll and the political will for the repeal of the potlatch was “overshadowed by questions about land, enfranchisement, education, taxation, welfare, fisheries and trapping.”[xvi] Regardless, In 1951 the law was dropped from the Indian Act and it was once again legal to potlatch.
Soon after the potlatch Law was dropped from the Indian Act, Mungo Martin held a potlatch in Victoria in his newly built bighouse named Wawaditla. The Kwakwaka’wakw have since openly held potlatches to reaffirm their commitment to their ancestors and also to pass on positions to the next generation. The frequency of potlatches has also increased as more families are reclaiming their birthright and returning to the old ways.
The bighouse is a spiritual place that was built on ‘Namgis territory for the benefit of all Kwakwaka’wakw. The ancestors are calling their ‘na’mima to remember their place in this world. The increasing reincarnation of our ancestor spirits has brought higher participation rates among our youth and our future looks secure.
The potlatch is a celebration of the strength of my people in their identity, but we must realize the work that needs to be done in regaining a healthy balance of traditional concepts and the need for the evolution of outdated or no long applicable practices. There are many values entrenched into the traditional system of Kwakwaka’wakw governance that need to be relearned in many cases and reevaluated in others. Without interruption or external political interference, the Kwakwaka'wakw government would still be in existence today. Kwakwaka’wakw spiritual obligations to the land need to be remembered to ensure the protection of ‘na’mima territories and all of its inhabitants. Much has changed since contact, but it is important to remember our old ways now that the legislative attacks have abated. Although set back a generation because of the ban and other assimilation attempts like the residential school and Christian missionary pressures, the Kwakwaka’wakw are slowly finding their way home. The ultimate price has been paid through epidemic disease and ‘gun boat diplomacy,’ but potlatch is here to stay.
[i] U’Mista Cultural Centre,
[ii] Joseph Masco, “It is a Strict Law that Bids Us Dance”: Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch, 1849 to 1922”, University of California, San Diego.
[iii] Boas, Contributions to the Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, vol. 3, New York: Columbia University Press, 1925: 229-30;
Goldman, The Mouth of Heaven: an Introduction to Kwakiutl Religious Thought, 1975, 58-59.
[iv] Joseph Masco, “It is a Strict Law that Bids Us Dance”: Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch, 1849 to 1922, 48.
[v] Stanley Walens, “Review of the Mouth of Heaven by Irving Goldman,” American Anthropologist, 1981, 98.
[vi] Robin Fisher, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774-1890, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1977, 207.
[vii] Aldona Jonaitis, Chiefly Feasts: the Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1991, 159.
[viii] James Spradley, Guests Never Leave Hungry, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969, 71.
[ix] Martine Reid and Daisy Sewid-Smith, Paddling to Where I Stand, Vancouver, UBC Press, 2004, 205-6.
[x] Chiefly Feasts, 65.
[xi] Duff Wilson, The Indian History of British Columbia, 38-40; Sessional Papers, 1873-1880.
[xii] Chiefly Feasts, 165.
[xiii] Chiefly Feasts, 67.
[xiv] Chiefly Feasts, 70.
[xv] Chiefly Feasts, 70.
[xvi] Chiefly Feasts, 166.
Boas, Contributions to the Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, vol. 3, New York: Columbia University Press, 1925, 229-30.
Fisher, Robin. Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774-1890, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1977, 207.
Goldman, Irving. The Mouth of Heaven: an Introduction to Kwakiutl Religious Thought, New York: Joh Wiley and Sons, 1975, 58-59.
Jonaitis, Aldona. Chiefly Feasts: the Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991, 159.
Masco, Joseph. “It is a Strict Law that Bids Us Dance”: Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch, 1849 to 1922, San Diego: University of California.
Reid, Martine and Daisy Sewid-Smith. Paddling to Where I Stand, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004, 205-6.
Spradley, James. Guests Never Leave Hungry, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969, 71.
Umista Cultural Society. Creation myth of Kwakwaka’wakw
Walens, Stanley “Review of the Mouth of Heaven by Irving Goldman,” American Anthropologist, 1981, 98.
Wilson, Duff. The Indian History of British Columbia, 38-40; Sessional Papers, 1873-1880.