Kwakwaka’wakw

The Kwakwaka’wakw people, also known as the Kwakiutl, are the indigenous people of northern Vancouver Island. In the U.S.A., we would call these people “Indians” or “Native Americans,” but in Canada, they are collectively referred to as the people of the First Nations. The term Indian here (according to the Canadian Encyclopedia) is “considered outdated and offensive,” notwithstanding the fact that the Canadian law on the subject is officially titled the “Indian Act.” There are currently around 1.3 million Canadians that identify as First Nation and there are 634 First Nations (there’s an oxymoron for you) speaking, collectively, more than 50 distinct languages.

For the rest of this post, I’m going to be using American terminology; I mean no disrespect, but for me, political correctness must yield to clarity and having just read most of the entries in the Canadian Encyclopedia relating to the Indians of Canada, I can tell you that this is a very confusing topic.

So far as I am able to figure out, those 634 First Nations are, essentially, 634 different tribes and there are about 100 of them along the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada today, comprising about 74,000 natives. Those 100 tribes can be broken down into 19 different language groupings, one of which is Kwakwaka. There are 15 different tribes that descend from the original 28 communities that spoke Kwakwaka with a total population today of around 8,000 people. “Kwakwaka’wakw” translated means “one who speaks Kwakwaka.” Today, there are only 150 fluent Kwakwaka’wakw.

On Monday, we took the ferry from Port McNeill to Alert Bay, the Kwakwaka’wakw settlement on Cormorant Island. More than half of the island’s 1,200 or so residents are Indians and the island is mostly a reservation, owned by the Canadian government in trust for the tribes, the dominant one on Cormorant Island being the ‘Namgis.

I know exactly one Kwakwaka word. Perhaps it derives from French, voilà:


We spent two hours driving and walking around the island. Unfortunately, the museum at the U’mista Cultural Center was closed, but we were able to see the totem poles for which the settlement here is known. The big collection is on the shoreline at the ‘Namgis traditional burial grounds:


The totems are carved from red cedar logs and depict spirit animals (such as eagles, bears and killer whales) and family histories. They normally face the water and are painted. But, according to the placards, the totems are not maintained and are left to fade and decay, supposedly based on the philosophy that all things are temporal and die. Many of the Indians in Alert Bay seem to extend this philosophy to their homes, as well.


We continued our drive to the north side of the island to the big house, or main lodge, where the “World’s Tallest Totem Pole” is located:




Down the hill, we passed a house with an impressive totem and working canoe:


… then past the cemetary that is still in use, today, also adorned with totems of a more modern and subdued nature:


Back down on the waterfront, we walked the boardwalk in front of all that remains of the missionary effort, the old Anglican Church:



Here we found our own spirit animal…


… a juvenile bald eagle.

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