Our Culture

Kwakiutl in Fort Rupert: A Short History

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 Kwakwaka'wakw have their own names and villages. For example, the Gwawa'enuxw live at Hopetown. Collectively, we call ourselves the Kwakwaka'wakw—that is, all of the people who speak the language Kwakwala.

Archaeological evidence indicates that our people have occupied Vancouver Island, the adjacent mainland, and the islands between for about nine thousand years. Before the Canadian government contracted our traditional boundaries to enclose small reserves, each tribal group owned its territory, through which it moved seasonally. 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. The Kwakiutl proper were descended from an old Kwakiutl tribe that split because of a dispute. A warrior named Yakodlas murdered Chief ‘Makwala (or T’tak’wagila) and his faction became the Kwaixa or “murderers”, the others became known as the Kwixamut, “fellows of the Kwixa” but they kept the Kwakiutl name. Both factions also took on other names to glorify their status. The Kwakiutl were the Gweetala or “northern people” and the Kwixa were K’umuyoyi or “the rich ones”.

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.

Petroglyphs, one of which dates back to 1864, are not easy to find, but they do exist on sandstone formations in the upper tidal in front of the old fort site.

Our Language

Our Kwakiutl language or Kwak'wala is a Wakashan language of the Northwest Coast, traditionally spoken in our territory. Kwak'wala is the term used for the language, and Kwakwaka'wakw for the ethnic group. The Kwakwaka'wakw, or Kwak'wala speakers are the original inhabitants of the Northern Vancouver Island area. A region in mainland British Columbia was also occupied by them. The ethnic population is now 5.517 (1996) but there are only some 200 Kwak'wala speakers which account for less than 4% of the Kwakwaka'wakw population. While the language has been in decline, we are working hard to keep our ancestral language alive.

The term "Kwakwaka'wakw" was only recently coined, because there is no historic name or even a strong sense of Kwakwaka'wakw identity, though the people are joined by language, culture, and economy.

At the time of European contact in 1786, the Kwakwaka'wakw formed between 23 and 27 tribes or family groups, each allied to one chief. There was always intermarriage between groups and considerable movement for economic reasons. For example, if the chief of one group acquired a reputation for giving lavish potlatches, his group would likely increase. Each group had its own places to dig clams, fish, and so forth. Originally they were restricted nomads, moving from winter clamming beds, to spring eulichan (smelt) runs up the rivers, to summer fishing grounds. Sometimes two or more tribes shared the same village site, and group boundaries were constantly shifting owing to splits, mergers, and wars.

The coming of Europeans sped up the pace of change. Conflicts became bloodier with the introduction of guns, and new diseases decimated the population. The estimated pre-contact Kwakwaka'wakw population of 19,125 fell to just 1,039 in 1924 (Galois, 1994). Change accelerated in 1849 when the Hudson Bay Company built Fort Rupert. All the tribes came here to trade, and conflicts increased with more contact.

The lack of strong Kwakwaka'wakw identity has hindered efforts to revive the language. There is little interest in learning a dialect different from one's own, and there are five dialects. Fort Rupert was built on the Kwakiutl land, and the famous anthropologist Franz Boas further increased the prestige of the Kwakiutl through his lifelong study of them at the end of the nineteenth century, resulting in two shelves of ethnographic and linguistic materials. For these reasons, the terms Kwagiulth or Kwakiutl and the concomitant Kwak'wala became the general term for all 12 surviving groups.

The most commonly expressed reason for the decline of Kwak'wala by the Kwakwaka'wakw is that they were forbidden to speak it at St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay, which operated from the 1920s to the 1970s. Most Kwakwaka'wakw children, as well as children from non-Kwak'wala speaking villages to the north, attended and boarded at St. Michael's. Further study shows other reasons for the decline. Kwak'wala usage declined in lockstep with the Kwakwaka'wakw culture. Kwak'wala speakers are being attacked on many fronts. The Kwakwaka'wakw have been colonized and marginalized, and their language suffered in prestige by its association with their disadvantaged culture.


Although the emphasis for the Kwakwaka'wakw is primarily on spoken Kwak'wala, it is also desirable for all Kwakwaka'wakw to be able to read and write the language as well. In particular, it is important that adult Kwak'wala literacy go hand in hand with school programs providing Kwak'wala literacy for children. (see the description and Contact info for the Wagalus School on the Member Services page) In this way, the generations can be united through Kwak'wala literacy, rather than separated. Adult and child literacy can be a good way to strengthen the crucial intergenerational link. In order for adult literacy to take place, we will work toward easy-reading literacy materials and a dictionary.


Throughout native North America, gift giving is a central feature of social life. In the Pacific Northwest of the United States and British Columbia in Canada, this tradition is known as the potlatch. Within the tribal groups of these areas, individuals hosting a potlatch give away most, if not all, of their wealth and material goods to show goodwill to the rest of the tribal members and to maintain their social status. Tribes that traditionally practice the potlatch include the Haidas, Kwakiutls, Makahs, Nootkas, Tlingits, and Tsimshians. Gifts often included blankets, pelts, furs, weapons, and slaves during the nineteenth century, and jewelry, money, and appliances in the twentieth.

The potlatch was central to the maintenance of tribal hierarchy, even as it allowed a certain social fluidity for individuals who could amass enough material wealth to take part in the ritual. The potlatch probably originated in marriage gift exchanges, inheritance rites, and death rituals and grew into a system of redistribution that maintained social harmony within and between tribes.

When Canadian law prohibited the potlatch in 1884, tribes in British Columbia lost a central and unifying ceremony. Their despair was mirrored by the tribes of the Pacific Northwest when the U.S. government outlawed the potlatch in the early part of the twentieth century. With the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 in the United States and the Canadian Indian Act of 1951, the potlatch was resumed legally. It remains a central feature of Pacific Northwest Indian life today.


A ranking Kwakiutl was concerned that others should recognize his claims and status. This concern was expressed in the potlatch, which provided a channel for claims of status to be made publicly, privileges to be displayed, and ceremonial hospitality to be offered. By accepting suitable gifts, guests in effect received payment as witnesses. The claims thus established by the host would be accepted at future potlatches.


The basic procedure of the potlatch was always the same. The lineage chief would consult with the older members of his household group, for the potlatch involved the entire household or kin group. When it was agreed that a potlatch should be held, a date was set, and preparations began.

Enough food to feed the expected guests was gathered, prepared and stored. Gifts for all were produced, and the needed goods bearing the family crest were amassed. The carver of the chief often lived in the chief's household, and since he knew all of the inheritances he cold carve any item with appropriate designs.

Often loans had to be called in in order to make enough gifts available. A system of loans and interest was an elaborate aspect of Kwakiutl life. Most public actions were financed by loans of white wool blankets, valued at one dollar each, which had been brought in by the Hudson's Bay Company early in the nineteenth century.

Emissaries of the chief set off to invite the guests, and when it came time for the event, these same emissaries, wearing formal costumes, went back to act as guides for the visitors. The family of the host with the song leader and speaker, in their finest robes and headdresses, stood upon the beach singing and dancing to greet the visitors as they approached by canoe.

Since the potlatch was tied in with many social occasions great and small, it varied in length. Food dishes were brought in, as the herald explained the ancestral names of the dishes and their history. One or more major events would be offered as a feature of each day. Family dances and dramas were enacted, and sometimes members of the family were initiated into dancing societies.

If the potlatch was successful, all of the family shared in the glory and pleasure of the social effort.