The Kwakwaka'wakw peoples are traditional inhabitants of the coastal areas of northeastern Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Originally made up of about 28 communities speaking dialects of Kwak’wala, some groups died out or joined others, cutting the number of communities approximately in half. After sustained contact beginning in the late 18th century, Europeans applied the name of one band, the Kwakiutl, to the whole group, a tradition that persists. The name Kwakwaka’wakw means those who speak Kwak’wala, which itself includes five dialects. (See also Aboriginal People: Northwest Coast, Aboriginal People and Languages of Aboriginal People.)

Language and Culture

A member of the Wakashan language family, Kwak’wala is related to other British Columbia Aboriginal languages like Nuu-Chah-Nulth (Nootka), Heiltsuk (Bella Bella), Oowekyala and Haisla (Kitamaat).

The culture of the Kwakwaka'wakw is similar to that of their northern neighbours, the Heiltsuk and Oowekyala peoples. In addition, trails across Vancouver Island made trade possible with Nootka villages on the west coast of the island. Archaeological evidence shows habitation in the Kwak’wala-speaking area for at least 8,000 years. Before contact with Europeans, Kwakwaka'wakw fished, hunted and gathered according to the seasons, securing an abundance of preservable food. Consequently, this allowed them to return to their winter villages for several months of intensive ceremonial and artistic activity.

Contact with Europeans

In 1792 Spanish explorers Dionisio Alcalá-Galiano and Cayetano Valdés, and British Captain George Vancouver encountered most of the south Kwakwaka'wakw groups. Farther north, in 1849 the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Rupert, which operated until about 1877, when it was sold to Robert Hunt, the fort’s last factor (trader). George Hunt, Robert's son, worked with anthropologist Franz Boas, and together they recorded a large body of material on the language and culture of the Kwakwaka'wakw.

In 1884, a federal law prohibiting the potlatch threatened to destroy Kwakwaka'wakw culture. In 1921 a large potlatch at Village Island resulted in the arrest of 45 people. Twenty-two were imprisoned; their ceremonial goods confiscated. Knowing these masks and other ritual objects had been wrongfully taken, the Kwakwaka'wakw in 1967 initiated efforts to secure their return. The National Museums of Canada agreed to return that part of the collection held by the Canadian Museum of Civilization, on the condition that two museums be built, the Kwakiutl Museum, now the Nuymbalees Cultural Centre, in Cape Mudge and the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay (see Northwest Coast Aboriginal Art).

Contemporary Life

Today, most Kwakwaka'wakw children speak English as their first language, though many schools in the area sponsor programs in Kwak’wala as well as traditional dance and art. In 2014, the 15 Kwakwaka’wakw nations and bands counted a total membership of 7,718. While only about 150 fluent Kwak’wala speakers remain, over 1,200 people have some ability in the language or are in the process of learning.

Traditionally fishers, the Kwakwaka'wakw continue to fish commercially in a highly-competitive industry. Hereditary chiefs still pass on rights and privileges at potlatches, but band government is conducted by elected councillors.

A number of original villages have been abandoned as inhabitants have moved to communities such as Alert Bay, Campbell River and Port Hardy to be closer to schools and hospitals.