“We are the Kwakiutl. We have lived here, on the northeastern shores of Vancouver Island, since time immemorial. Our ancestors hunted and fished on these lands and waters, and developed a rich culture through which they celebrated the diversity of life around them. We continue to be strong by honouring all that our ancestors have taught us.”~Kwakiutl Indian Band Greeting-Homepage~
We have been called the Kwakiutl ever since 1849, when the white people came to stay in our territories. It was a term then applied to all the Kwakwaka’wakw—that is, all of the people who speak the language Kwakwala. Today, the name Kwakiutl only refers to those from our village of Fort Rupert. Other groups have their own names and villages.
Archaeological evidence shows that our people have occupied Vancouver Island, the adjacent mainland, and the islands between for about nine thousand years. Before the Canadian government contracted traditional boundaries to enclose small reserves, each tribal group owned its territory. During the winter, each occupied a more permanent site, where the people engaged in intensive ceremonial activities while enjoying the abundant supply of foods from the sea and land that they had gathered earlier in the year.
With the introduction of European technology and food, much of the traditional subsistence cycle was altered. A variety of salmon and shellfish are still gathered and preserved by freezing, canning, or smoking, and the spring runs of eulachon (candlefish) in Knight and Kingcome Inlets are still harvested and rendered into oil. According to Mungo Martin, the Kwakiutl lived at Kalugwis before 1849, when the Hudson’s Bay company built a fort at Fort Rupert. When they moved to Fort Rupert the village site was at times occupied by the Lawit’sis. Before the middle of the 19th century, the present area of Fort Rupert village had very little permanent settlement, but was the site of an enormous bank of clamshells, two miles long, half a mile wide and fifty feet high. The shells were the last vestiges of enormous feasts held here for generations and they came to play a part in local history in World War II when they were used to level the nearby Port Hardy airport. Other visible aspects of Fort Rupert’s cultural fabric include a historical graveyard, the old chimney which marks the site of a former Hudson’s Bay Company fort and an impressive Big House.
Tribalpedia’s Questions for Comprehension and Discussion
1. Who gave the people the name Kwakiutl? Why?
2. The Kwakiutl can trace their ancestry back nine thousand years. Explain how.
3. How did the people survive during the winter months?
4. How were salmon preserved?
The Kwakiutl Band operates under a set of custom election regulations. Where the regulations are silent on a particular topic or issue, the relevant Indian Act regulations are used. At present, the Band is in the process of developing a more detailed and comprehensive set of regulations that will ensure the integrity and transparency of Kwakiutl Band Council elections.
There are schools and literacy programs that teach the native language to children and to adults.
Many Kwakiutl were employed in the commercial fishing industry until the early 1990s. The local Kwakiutl communities are being challenged by the salmon aquaculture industry for their local food source, which is fish. The industries are creating fish farms. Studies have shown a connection between these fish farms and a rising sea lice population which is decimating the wild salmon stocks, belonging to the Indians. The result is that there is a high unemployment rate among the Kwakiutl, who now must rely on government assistance. In addition, changes in local aquatic ecology will have an impact on the residents living on reserves, because the mainstay of their diet is local fish, seal, seaweed and barnacles.
The Significance of Totems
The Kwakiutl Clans would construct totem poles, which showed family legends, events, or symbols. Made of wood and carved with figures of animals or people, totem poles became family identification symbols. A totem can be the symbol of a tribe, clan, family or individual. There are different animals that will accompany each person through life, acting as guides. Different animal guides come in and out of our lives depending on the direction that we are headed and the tasks that need to be completed along our journey. Native beliefs further explain that a totem animal is one that is with you for life, both in the physical and spiritual world. Though people may identify with different animal guides throughout their lifetimes, it is this one totem animal that acts as the main guardian spirit. With this one animal a connection is shared, either through interest in the animal, characteristics, dreams, or other interaction. This Animal Guide offers power and wisdom to the individual when they “communicate” with it, conveying their respect and trust. This does not necessarily mean that you actually pet or spend time with this animal, more that you are open to learning its lessons. For some, knowing what is their totem animal is almost an innate process. It’s as if they’ve always known, inexplicably drawn to the animal or having a special feeling for the animal’s energy. For others, they wonder how to tell what their animal totem is.
A Kwakiutl Myth: The Raven and the Moon
One day Raven learned of a strange box which belonged to an old fisherman and his daughter. The box was filled with a very bright light called the moon. Raven wanted that moon, and he vowed to get it. He changed himself into a leaf on the berry bush that grew near the fisherman’s house. When the fisherman’s daughter passed by, Raven fell into her body. In time, the daughter gave birth to a baby with dark hair and a long hooked nose. As soon as he could crawl, the child knocked on the strange box and cried, “Moon, shinning moon.” Finally the fisherman said, “We may as well give him the ball of light to play with.” His daughter opened the strange box; inside it were many boxes, one nested in the other. When she opened the last box, the room was filled with light. The mother gave the ball of light to her son, who smiled happily. The next night the child cried, “Stars, stars.” “ He wants to see the night stars through the smoke hole, but it is covered by the roof board,” said the girl to her father. “Open the smoke hole,” said her father. No sooner had she opened it than the child changed back into the raven he really was and flew off with the moon in his beak. He threw the moon up into the night sky, where it remains today.