Our Land: In the Beginning


The Kwakiutl Chiefs were discussing the creation of their ancestors while waiting for the second course at a feast given by one of the chiefs at Tsaxis.  At first no one spoke for a while. Then Malid spoke, saying, “It is the Sun, our chief, who created our ancestors of all the tribes. And when the others asked him how this was possible, for the Sun never made even one man, the chief was silent. Others said, It is Mink, Tlisalagi’lakw, who make our first ancestors. Then spoke Great-Inviter, saying, “Listen Kwakiutl, and let me speak a really true word.  I see it altogether mistaken what the others say, for it was the Seagull who first became man by taking off his mask and turning into a man. This was the beginning of one of the groups of our tribe. And the others were caused when the Sun, and Grizzly Bear, and Thunderbird also took off their masks. That is the reason that we Kwakiutl are many groups, for each group had its own original ancestor.”

A chief visiting from Nawitti disagreed, and the Kwakiutl of all four groups became angry. For the Nawitti believe that the Transformer (or Creator) went about creating the first ancestors of all the tribes from people who already existed. But the chiefs of the Kwakiutl scoffed at this, saying, “Do not say that the Transformer was the creator of all the tribes. Indeed, he just came and did mischief to men, when he made him into raccoon, and land otter, and deer, for he only transformed them into animals. We of the Kwakiutl know that our ancestors were the Seagull, Sun, Grizzly Bear, and Thunderbird.


The Kwakwaka’wakw inhabited many different villages, separate units called tribes. These tribes are further divided into groups called ‘na’mima meaning “of one kind”, individuals belonging to a single ‘na’mima are call ‘na‘mimut or ‘na’mima fellows. These were the ultimate units binding its members together by strict social obligations. Individuals were ranked within the ‘na’mima, consisting of the head chief, a direct descendent of the founding ancestor, lesser chiefs, commoners and their families. Head chiefs are responsible for the conservation and management of the resources in his ‘na’mima’s territory, in return he receives a share of the goods harvested. Not only were the positions within a ‘na’mima ranked but each ‘na’mima had a ranking within the tribe. 

Kwakiutl is very old name, Boas was told it meant “smoke of the world’ but he believed that it meant “beach at the north side of the river’.  The four tribes, which collectively made up the Kwakiutl were the Kwakiutl, the K’umk’utis, the Kwixa and the Walas Kwakiutl. 

In 1953 Wilson Duff recorded various sites utilized by Kwakwaka’wakw tribes. His informant was Mungo Martin, a well-known carver, singer and historian from Fort Rupert.  Among the tribes recorded were the Kwakiutl, K’umk’utis, Kwaixa and Walas Kwakiutl. Mungo states that the Kwakiutl lived at Kalugwis before 1849. When they moved to Fort Rupert the village site was 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”. The K’umk’utis, were descended from a small tribe that lived at Robson Bight called the Tlitlekit, who later amalgamated with the Walas Kwakiutl, formerly the Lakwi’lala, in 1885. According to Mungo the Kwixa lived at Mound Island but Boas recorded the Kwixa living with a small group of Walas Kwakiutl at K’abilis, the remainder of the Walas Kwakiutl lived at Adap’e on Turnour Island. 

Among the Kwakwaka’wakw the Kwakiutl are the only tribes covered by treaties. In 1850 the Kwixa and Kwakiutl worked out agreements with the HBC commonly known as the Douglas Treaties. The treaty allotted them eight reserves. Most were located in and around Beaver Harbour with two more at the mouth of Keogh River and the mouth of the Cluxewe River and the final one a larger timber reserve on Malcolm Island.

Today the Kwakiutl First Nation still have the eight reserves on 295 hectares of land and is a thriving community actively pursuing Land Claims and maintaining Kwakwaka’wakw culture through potlatches and feasts.  In 1988 construction began on their Gukwdzi.  The design consists of a Sisiytl and Frog, common crests within the Kwakiutl Nation.  Their Band Office called U’gwamalis and was constructed in 1991 followed by the day care centre in 1999. The Daycare Center opened in 2000 and includes a Cultural component and a hot lunch program. The Kwakiutl are a nation that is alive and prospering, far from the dying race they were thought to be at the beginning of the last century.


Our Land: Traditional Territory

We are in the land; the land is in us.

Since the beginning of time, the Kwakwaka’wakx people have occupied these lands that they call home and they have a connection with that land and all the things that are within their Territories.  Our ancestors hunted, fished and trapped throughout this vast land and through time came to know the uses of the places that they applied names to. Within the wide range of habitats in our territories are diverse biological communities, a living world that has provided for generations the physical and spiritual foundations of our culture [see Traditional Use].

Many of the names that were applied to the geographic location are of great social and spiritual meaning to our people.  The names that were used were often connected to the origin story of a tribe or clan or they could be used to describe some activity that took place at that point such as the “Hunwatti” river, the very name Hunwatti means the place to fish hump back or the name of one of our most important rivers, the Klina Klini which refers to the river of Tlina or eulachon grease, a great staple and trade commodity for the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

The place names often were specific to a certain tribe and would signify that a person was within the Territory of that specific tribe.  A person of knowledge was able to identify that they we within a tribes Territory simply by recognizing the names and the origins of them. 

Since contact, some of those names have remained but for the most part, the European settlers have taken the liberty, without consultation with the First Nations to renames all of the significant geographical landmarks for themselves as self-proclaimed explores and discovers of this land.  The First Nations people paid no attention to the theory of discovering the part of the world because they were not aware that it had been lost.  If one was to look at a map of the Territories of the Winalagalis tribes, they might draw the conclusion that prior to contact, that there was very little use or occupancy by the First Nations.  This is not the case; the members of the Winalagalis tribes occupied or used the extremes of their Territories and had names for all of the locations in their Territories.  They had names for bays, points, mountains, lakes, islands, rivers, and all other geographic landmarks.

We have always had and will always have the original place names of our Territories and it is important that those names be identified and we once again call them by their Kwakwaka’wakw names.  It is also equally important that theses names be registered with the appropriate agencies and we can have our place names once again grace the beautiful locations that they were meant for. 


The member tribes of the Winalagalis Treaty Group share a strong interest in reinstating Kwakwala place names within their respective Territories.  These original place names should be registered with the proper authorities and references to the current names should be removed. See the Treaty page.


Traditional Uses of Our Land

We are people of the temperate rain forest and Pacific Ocean. Within our territories are diverse and productive biological communities. These include plants such as algae, mosses, lichens, fungi, ferns, conifers and flowering plants, and animals such as cnidarians (jellyfish and their relatives), mollusks, arthropods, echinoderms, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. This living world has provided for generations the physical and spiritual foundations — the foods, medicines and materials we cherish — of our culture. Beginning in early 1995, the U'mista Cultural Society (umista.ca) initiated a program of research to document information on the plants and animals known to and used by the Kwakwaka'wakw. Some of the results — 101 plants and animals — were gathered together and published in a book, The Living World. Use the thumbnails on the left to explore a small sampling from the book.



ROCKWEED - tlastlakw

What it looks like

Rockweed is found attached to rocks on the beach. It is dark brown where it attaches to the rocks and a light golden brown on the ends. The tiny, egg-shaped ends have small lumps on the surface giving it a bumpy texture. The swollen ends make a "popping" noise when crushed.

What it was used for

Rockweed is an alga, another name for seaweed or sea vegetable. Rockweed was used mainly for healing people, as a dressing to treat sores and swollen feet, or fresh, rubbed on legs and feet to treat aches, pains and paralysis of the legs. Rockweed was mixed with yellow cedar boughs in steam baths to treat rheumatism. It was sometimes used for steaming butter or littleneck clams in a steam pit (a big hole in the ground with hot coals and rocks). Rockweed was also used with eel-grass for steaming wood to make it soft and flexible; the wood might then be used for boxes and halibut hooks.


BULL KELP - wawadi


What it looks like

Bull kelp is found in groups in a "kelp patch". The kelp patch is 6 to 8 meters from shore. Bull kelp is also found washed up on the beach. It has a large, hollow head, shaped like a ball, which makes the kelp float. The head of the kelp has long, flat, leaf-like strands that look like hair. These strands are called the blades of the kelp. The stem (or stipe) of the kelp tapers down from the hollow tubular shape to a fine solid rope where it attaches itself to rocks at the bottom of the ocean. Bull kelp is a dark golden brown with blades that are lighter yellow-brown.

What it was used for

A long time ago the Kwakwaka'wakw used fresh kelp in food. It was added to stews and other meals that were boiled in a pot. The head was used to store eulachon oil. The stipes were used to make ropes, fishing lines, nets and harpoon lines. Sometimes the hollow stipes were buried under the dance floor of the Big House. this was done so that the dancer could make sounds which seemed to come from the middle of the Big House fire.




What it looks like

Licorice fern is an evergreen fern that grows along the ground or on mossy logs and trees. It grows to 70 cm tall. The fronds (fern leaves) are made up of a stiff central vein with several green, bladelike leaflets extending from it. The undersides of these leaflets produce reddish-brown circular sori, or spore-bearing regions. The fern got its English name from its licorice-flavoured rhizomes. the fern is common to the coastline of BC.

What it was used for

Licorice fern was used mainly for medicine. The juice from the rhizomes was used for treating people who vomited blood as well as in some diarrhea cures. Raw rhizomes were also held in the mouth by hunters or berry pickers to stave off hunger and thirst. These rhizomes were sometimes eaten at winter feasts, but only when no other food was available.


DEVIL’S CLUB – i’xw’mi


What it looks like

Devil's Club is a sprawling plant that grows to 3 metres tall with leaves that look like giant maple leaves and are prickly underneath. It has thick, woody stems covered with sharp spines. The bright red, shiny berries form a pyramid-shaped cluster. Devil's club is found in wet but well-drained forests and is common throughout BC.

What it was used for


Devil's Club was used for medicine. Four pieces of root were held in one's mouth and the juice swallowed as a cure for stomach pains. An extract of the bark was drunk to help get rid of tuberculosis. The bark was used in steam baths to help relieve general body pains. When collecting Devil's Club, deerskin gloves were worn to protect the hands from the sharp spines on the stems. These spines were thought to be magical and to have protective powers against evil forces. It was an important medicine often used in charms such as a charm for a halibut hook to ensure good fishing.





What it looks like

Trailing Blackberry is a vine that "trails" along the ground and grows to 5 metres long. The thin, flat branches have curved thorns. The dark green leaves have jagged edges and turn red in the fall before they drop off. Its flowers are white to light pink and the berries are black when ripe, edible and sweet. Trailing blackberry occurs in many locations throughout he Kwakwaka'wakw territories.

What it was used for

The fruits are eaten fresh or dried in cakes for later use. The vines and roots were often boiled with thimbleberry leaves to make a medicine that was used to help relieve vomiting and spitting up blood. The vines were also used in the treatment of diarrhea. The fruit is said to represent the dog salmon because the trailing blackberries are the last fruit to ripen and the dog salmon is the last salmon species to arrive to spawn.



danas (inner back)

danasmas (small tree)

kwaxtlu (large tree or cedar log)


What it looks like

Red cedars grow to 60 meters tall and the leaves are a lighter green than yellow cedars. The tips of the branches are not prickly when rubbed. The cones are oblong and turn from green to brown as they mature.

What it was used for

Known as the "tree of life", the Kwakwaka'wakw used every part of the tree for most of their tools and other items needed to survive.


The wood was used to make planks, houses, house posts, settees, totem poles, talking sticks, masks, tools, drums, canoes, bent boxes and cradles. Some of these items are still made of red cedar wood today.


The roots were used to make cooking baskets, clam baskets and berry picking baskets.


The bark was woven into baskets, mats and clothes as well as rope, dip nets and halibut line. The unprocessed cedar bark was used to make canoe bailers.


The withes (smaller branches that hang down from the main branch) were used for lashing and sewing. When used for sewing they were soaked in urine for four days to soften the fibres and make them resistant to rotting.





Edible Mussel – lais

What it looks like

Edible mussels grow to 7.5 cm long. They are found in protected areas like calm bays or rocky inshore areas. They attach to the rocks by byssal threads, which are like long, leathery strings that hold the mussel in place. The thin shell is almost triangular in shape. Adults are deep blue-black with a shiny surface. The young mussels are green to grey to brown.

What it was used for

This kind of mussel is edible and can be steamed, boiled or baked. Many Kwak'wak'wakw still eat edible mussels today.



Dungeness Crab


What it looks like

Dungeness crab is known as the edible crab. It is a large crab with ten tooth-like projections along the front edge of its shell. Dungeness crabs have four pairs of walking legs and one pair of pincers. Their eyes are on short stalks and can be pulled back into the shell if danger is near. The top of the crab's shell is purplish-brown and the bottom is brownish-white. The whole of the shell turns bright red when cooked. Dungeness crabs grow to 22.5 cm wide across thw idest part of the back and live on sandy bottoms near patches of eel-grass. Much time is spent half buried in the sand with only their eyes showing. The Dungeness crab eats cockles and other kinds of clams by chipping away at their shells with its powerful claws.

What it was used for

Dungeness crabs are boiled and broken apart to expose the tasty white meat which is eaten. Some people also like to eat the orange eggs inside the female crabs which resemble and are called kamdzakwekila, or salmonberry.





What it looks like

The eulachon is a small bluish-silver fish approximately 22.9 cm long. The eulachon is also known as the "candle fish" because it is so oily it can be burned like a candle.

What it was used for

Tsamdak is the term for smoked eulachons and wayu'tan is the term for half-smoked eulachons. Half-smoked eulachons are smoked for one or two days and have to be eaten right away. They won't keep like tsamdak. The eulachon was an important food source because the run came during late March or early April, when other preserved food sources eaten during the winter were depleted. Eulachons are also processed to extract their oil, or grease. This oil is edible and may be eaten with a variety of traditional foods.



Halibut – poyi


What it looks like

The halibut has a large, sturdy, oblong-shaped body. Both eyes are on the right side and the mouth is somewhat large with conical teeth. The halibut is dark brown or marbled grey with paler shades on the eye side and white on its blind side. Halibut spawn in the winter form November to January. A large female can grow to nearly 3 metres and can produce 2 to 3 million eggs a year. The longest recorded male reached 140 cm. The food of adult halibut consists of fish, crab, clams, squid and other invertebrates (animals with no backbone).

What it was used for

The halibut is one of the largest fish species caught by tribes along the coast. A long time ago special halibut hooks were made from steaming hemlock branches into a U shape and lashing the barb to one side of the hook. The halibut would suck the baited hook in and when it tried to blow it out the hook would be stuck in the halibut's cheek. The first halibut caught has to steamed right away. If not, then it is believed that the fisherman who caught the first halibut will never again get another bite.




Common Raven – gwawina


What it looks like

Ravens are entirely black and stay in one place year round. They eat anything nature has to offer, including bird eggs, insects, fruits and frogs. The wing span of the average raven is around 120 cm. The raven's tail is rounded and longer than a crow's tail.

What it was used for

The raven is believed to know many things and to have supernatural powers. The ashes of a burned raven beak, when rubbed on the chest and back of a child, were believed to impart the properties of the raven to the child. Because ravens were believed never to die of sickness, a raven was placed under the head or on the chest of a sickly infant to improve its condition. Ravens produce a variety of calls said to have many different meanings related to predicting or announcing war, sickness, death, weather and the arrival of strangers among other things.


Coho Salmon – dza’wan


What it looks like

Coho range from 4.5 to 6.5 kg in weight. They can be identified by the black spots on their back and upper half of the tail. The head is conical and the snout becomes hooked near spawning time. Cohos are bluish-green on the back and silver on the sides with white bellies. They feed on herring, sand lice, squid, shrimp and other invertebrates.

What it was used for

Like all five Pacific salmon species — the others are Pink, Dog, Sockeye and Spring — the Coho are a very important food source for the Kwak'waka'wakw people. Coho are sometimes called silver salmon. George Hunt recorded a ceremony for roasting the first silver salmon of the season to be caught. They roasted the eyes, head, backbone and tail of the salmon. After a man had caught four silver salmon, he gave them to his wife who prayed to the silver salmon and then butchered them for roasting. After they were roasted the man invited his numaym (family group) to eat. The eyes of the roasted silver salmon must not be kept in the house overnight. If they were kept overnight when they are first caught, then the silver salmon would disappear from the sea.




Canada Goose – naxak


What it looks like

The Canada goose has a black head and neck with white patches on the cheek and belly. The rest of the body is brown.

What it was used for

The Canada goose is a traditional Kwak'wak'wakw food species. Hunters formerly hunted geese at night from canoes with a small, controlled fire on board covered with clay. The steersman would hold a small mat to hide the flames, removing it several times until the geese became accustomed to the light. Then the hunters would paddle the canoe towards the geese, hiding behind the mat and flame which they kept towards the geese to prevent them from seeing the canoe anf hunters. Then the hunters would throw a framed net on top of the birds to trap them.



Beaver – tsawi


What it looks like

Beavers are brown with large front teeth and a flat oval tail. Beavers live in rivers, eat bark, leaves and stems, and build dams to control the water flow in streams.

What it was used for

Beavers were formerly caught in deadfall traps. Some Kwak'waka'wakw used to wear fur robes made from the skins of beavers and other animals. Dried castor, the strong-smelling gland found in beavers, was sometimes mixed with water for use as a laxitive. A Kwak'waka'wakw man wishing to cause a rainfall would squeeze a beaver castor in one hand while placing his other hand in water and saying a prayer for rain. After this, he would place the castor where it could be eaten by birds. After contact, beaver skins became a valuable item within the fur trade.