Kwakwaka’wakw is a term used to describe a group of Canadian First Nations people, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the mainland. The term they prefer to describe themselves is Kwakwaka’wakw, with their indigenous language, part of the Wakashan family, being termed Kwak’wala (Kwakwaka’wakw meaning speakers of Kwak’wala). The language is now spoken by less than 5% of the population – about 250 people. They speak the same tongue as the Kwagyuilh of Fort Rupert and the Laich-kwil-tach or Southern Kwakiutl of northern Georgia Strait but have different political histories and lineages of title and kin.
Traditionally, the Kwakwaka’wakw were organized into about thirty independent tribes. Their society was highly stratified, with three main classes, determined by heredity: nobles, commoners, and slaves. Their economy was based primarily on fishing, with the men also engaging in some hunting, and the women gathering wild fruits and berries. Ornate weaving and woodwork were important crafts, and wealth, defined by slaves and material goods, was prominently displayed and traded at potlatch ceremonies. These customs were the subject of extensive study by the anthropologist Franz Boas. In contrast to European societies, wealth was not determined by how much you had, but by how much you had to give away. This act of giving away your wealth was one of the main acts in a potlatch.
The potlatch culture of the Northwest is famous and widely-studied and remains alive in Kwakwaka’wakw and the other Kwakiutl societies today, as does the lavish artwork for which their people and their neighbours are so renowned.
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