Facts About the Kwakiutl Tribe
Franz Boas's conducted fieldwork among the Kwakiutl during the19th century, observing the Winter Ceremonial in 1895 and subsequently publishing on it and other topics in 1897. Boas' work gives us a glimpse into Kwakiutl culture in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Boas believed “the whole problem of cultural history appears to us as an historical problem. In order to understand history, it is necessary to know not only how things are, but how they have come to be”. However, by the time of Boas's first visit to the Kwakiutl, they had experienced almost a century of contact with Europeans. Therefore his descriptions were not in line with the evolutionary social changes that occurred since his last visit.
The Kwakiutl live on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada and the neighboring mainland of British Columbia. The name Kwakiutl is native and variously interpreted as "smoke of the world," "smoke from their fires," and "beach at north side."
The Hudson Bay Company, which had contact with the Kwakiutl in 1835, before Franz Boas had contact, estimated the Kwakiutl population at around 8,575. Their population had then started to decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to disease with a population of about 2,000, and half of that by 1929. Today, there is an estimated 4,000 Kwakiutl living in the area of Vancouver Island, the shores of Queen Charlotte and Johnstone straits and adjoining fjords and channels.
The Kwakiutl divide their year into two distinctive and contrastive periods. The summertime, called baxus, is the period when people are involved in economic activities and when potlatches are held. Boas glosses the term baxus as 'profane', but we characterize it as the secular period. Tsetsequa, which means 'secrets', is the winter period . During the Winter Ceremonial, the Kwakiutl believe that a supernatural power (spirits or spirit helpers) is present in and around the villages, which sanctifies all activities.
Social Organization of the Kwakiutl
Kwakiutl tribes are subdivided into numayms (clans), descent groups, during the summer for food collecting and winter (November) the sacred season. These descent groups are organized according to basic principles of kinship. The kinship in Kwakiutl tribes is stratified and based on matrilineal descent. During the summer, people lived in numayms based on resources, therefore we see clan based camps and clans for royalty. During the winter, the social organization was a bit different. Royalty don’t do any work during the winter. Commoners or slaves had clan membership in Kwakiutl society, but essentially it meant nothing.
Access to spirit helpers was based on what?
Among the Kwakiutl, individuals inherited the equivalent of guardian spirits, spirits of animals or mythical animals that you can contact and they will become your spirit helper. Access to these spirit helpers was based upon the numayms, or clan, you resided in. Some numayms had the same helper, but within each clan there was a limited amount of spirit helpers that could be accessed. You are born into a clan and placed in that clan. You are accorded your spirit helper, and that animal will become your helper when you are initiated. It’s based on clan membership.
The Kwakiutl are developing a renewed interest in their traditional art and other indigenous customs such as carving, painting, dancing and perhaps competitive podlatching ( a very large feast where exchanges occur). Some of this revitalization is due to the enthusiastic amount of White consumers. Regardless of where the art is placed and in what context it is used, the meaning behind it is the same. Kwakiutl art reflects the notion that animals and humans are interchangeable. The Kwakiutl believe that in mythic times the ancestors of men were animals. When these animal-ancestors removed their masks, they became human beings and ancestors of particular numayms .
The Kwakiutl envision a world of living beings in which humans, animals and forces of nature exist on a single continuum. Alongside this world is another, consisting of supernatural, spiritual beings, which are seen only when humans are in contact with the supernatural .
- Boas 1897: 418
- In the mythology of some South American societies, such as the Ge, all creatures were originally human until the divinity turned some of them into animals (Wilbert & Simoneau 1984). This represents a different point of view of animal-human relations from that of the Kwakiutl.
- Abraham Rosman and Paula G. Rubel, Structural Patterning in Kwakiutl Art and Ritual (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1990).