Dałdałaga̲mł | Transformation Mask
Denis Finnin/AMNH Anthropology catalog 16/8942

Selected features from the Northwest Coast Hall.

Kwakwaka’wakw means “the people who speak Kwak̓wala.” After the devastation caused by colonialism, some 19 tribes survive of the 28 that once inhabited our territories on Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland coast. Each of our tribes has its own name and origins.

Pod of whales swim through peaceful waters, with a forest of evergreen trees in view behind them.
In our belief system, the world under the ocean is a powerful place, full of mysterious creatures and riches.
François Gohier/VW Pics/Alamy

The Story of Siwidi

Among the Gwawa’enuxw tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, a story is told of an Ancestor named Siwidi, a young man who disappoints his father and flees his village in shame. Grabbed by a giant octopus, Siwidi is taken to the copper house of K’umugwe’, Chief of the undersea kingdom. The Chief orders Siwidi to travel the underwater world accompanied by his killer whale attendants. When Siwidi returns home, he transforms into a series of sea animals. He is puzzled when his family doesn’t recognize him. That’s because Siwidi has been gone for four years, although to him it feels like four days. 

The story of Siwidi is told at potlatches through the dramatic choreography of dancers in expertly engineered masks like the one below.

Dałdałag̲a̲mł | Transformation Mask


Wearing this enormous mask, a dancer portrays Siwidi as three beings. First, he returns to his village, presenting himself to his brother as a sculpin fish, but his brother doesn’t recognize him. Next, the dancer portraying Siwidi transforms into a sea raven. Finally, the sea raven mask opens to reveal Siwidi’s human face.


AMNH Anthropology catalog 16/8942

P’asa | Potlatch

potlatch | to give - Potlatches feature lavish gift-giving to guests. The term “potlatch” came from the Chinook trade language, which was used among Indigenous groups and European settlers. 

In Kwakwaka’wakw communities, people celebrate major life events, such as births, deaths and passing on of chieftainships, with potlatches. These gatherings are also our traditional government: the presence of guests at an event verifies claims of inherited status and family history. Afterward, guests are presented with food and gifts, which demonstrate the generosity of the host. The potlatch is a shared tradition across the region, but has distinct names and practices along the entire Northwest Coast.

We migrated from potlatch to potlatch. All of the significant moments in life were reflected in these rituals. From the time you were born, to the time you were 10 months old, to the time when you are an adolescent, you’d be initiated into various stages of life. They were all rites of passage.

—Kwankwanxwaligedzi-Wakas | Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief, Gwawa’enuxw First Nation

Preparations for a potlatch begin months or even years before the important event. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw and our neighbors, it is imperative to thank guests as witnesses of the ceremonies conducted at a potlatch. These gifts, including food for hundreds of people, are often gathered by the host’s extended family. Prolific gift-giving at potlatches reinforces alliances and redistributes wealth. In times of need, our people know that they can rely on the help and cooperation of others.

Potlatch Gifts, Then and Now

Before the arrival of Europeans, a yag̲wam, or potlatch gift, included bentwood boxes, hides and eulachon fish oil. An important guest might even receive a canoe. In colonial times, blankets, silver bracelets and dishes gained favor. Today, household goods, such as towels or laundry baskets, are popular. So too are cash, jewelry, coffee and t-shirts with family crests. Bottled eulachon oil remains a cherished yag̲wam.

Potlatch Dances and Regalia

Potlatches lasted for weeks or often months in older times and would feature dances of either the ťseka (Winter Ceremonial) or the tła’sala (Chiefs' Dance or Peace Dance), but not both. Today, one- or two-day potlatches are more common and include dances of both the ťseka and tła’sala.

Łu’was | Feast Dish

The glossy surface on the wooden serving dish below speaks to many winters of use in a smoky Bighouse, serving salmon, cod, eulachon, seal blubber, and other oily foods to important guests. This dish, one of a set of two, represents the Ancestor Siwidi on his travels, accompanied by the killer whale attendants of K’umugwe’, Chief of the sea. The opening on the feast dish, which was used to dispense oil, echoes the blowhole of a whale.

Click on the 3D model below for a closer look.

The Potlatch Ban

In 1884, the Canadian government outlawed traditional Indigenous ceremonies following years of unofficial but deliberate suppression. Government agents and missionaries deemed potlatches to be wasteful and anti-Christian, even going as far as imprisoning members of our community in 1921 for participating in a potlatch. Their ceremonial regalia were confiscated and sold by the Canadian government to museums and private collections around the world. 

Older man with glasses wearing beaded robe and elaborate headdress holds a metal piece with designs on them in each hand.
Chief and artist, Kwaxitola, Willie Seaweed (1873-1967) holding his coppers, Blunden Harbour, 1955. Seaweed was a singer, storyteller, and great artist who kept the traditions of the potlatch alive through the years it was prohibited by law.
Image PN 2300 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

For our community, the knowledge that Chiefs and Elders were taken to jail caused lasting spiritual damage. The Potlatch Ban was not lifted until 1951. Barbara Cranmer, of the ’Namg̲is Nation, said decades after the ban was lifted, “it still took people a long time to feel comfortable about standing up and saying, ‘This is who we are.’”

Indian Residential Schools

Warning: This story contains details of Indian Residential Schools and the abuse that took place there.

Archival black and white photo of an imposing building from a distance. Dozens of children are lined up outside.
Throughout the United States and Canada, government and Christian-run schools subjected Indigenous children to forced assimilation in harsh and abusive environments away from the protection of their families. Children at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, British Columbia are seen here, c. 1932.
The General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada, P7538-62 MSCC - St. Michael's School, Alert Bay, B.C. - taken on the day of our closing exercises, June [ca. 1932]

In 1920, Canada’s Indian Act officially compelled Indigenous children to attend so-called residential schools, often run by Christian missionaries, sometimes hundreds of miles from their families. Forbidding the use of Native languages, these institutions brutally assimilated the children into Western ways, and persisted as late as the 1990s. An estimated 150,000 children attended such schools, suffering abuse, malnutrition and even death. In recent years, Indigenous researchers began investigating former school grounds in Canada and the U.S. to locate the unmarked graves of children who never came home.

Kwankwanxwaligedzi-Wakas | Chief Robert Joseph is an Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada and an Indian Residential School survivor. The following video is just a part of his story.

Chief Kwaxitola Henry Seaweed is a performer and cultural advisor. He is a survivor of Indian Residential Schools and recalls the following: “When I started residential school in 1948, I didn’t know a word of English. I spoke my language, Kwak̓wala, which most of us at school got in trouble for. But I really wanted to learn English. I felt left out when my friends were conversing in it. In 1954, I left school to start working. Before I left, my grandmother told me: Gwalag̲aliwe sa yak̓andas—Don’t ever forget your language. Maintain it.”

Chief Kwaxitola Henry Seaweed stands on a tree-lined shoreline.
Chief Kwaxitola Henry Seaweed
Hélène Alonso/© AMNH

I ended up living in Vancouver. It’s very difficult when you’ve been away from your people for so long. I’d grab a chair from the dining room, and I would talk Kwak̓wala to the wall. That’s how I was able to maintain my language. Now I advise the new generation as they try to grasp the language and the culture proper. I’ve been around the world spreading our culture. I never wanted to let it go.

—Chief Kwaxitola Henry Seaweed, Hereditary Chief of Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nation

First Nations children from northern Vancouver Island, as well as children from all over British Columbia’s North and South Coasts, and even the Interior attended the Anglican Church-run St. Michael’s Indian Residential School from the late 1800s to 1974. 

Crowds march past an old brick building.
Reconciliation Canada

In February 2015, First Nations leaders, Anglican church representatives, political officials, survivors and their families, non-Indigenous peoples, local residents, and people from far away gathered outside the red-bricked St. Michael’s to watch the school being torn down.

[The demolition of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School is] the tearing down of a bad chapter.

—Perry BellegardeNational Chief of the Assembly of First Nations
Little Black Bear First Nation

Then and Now: Alert Bay

Many people gather along edges of space near wooden buildings and structures and around eagle figure in background, with dinghies in the foreground.
Approximately 1903: Guests gather at a potlatch on the main street of Alert Bay. High-ranking families host these ceremonial feasts to proclaim their chiefly privileges and family history.
© AMNH Library 104471
Paved road along coastline with wooden walkway near water, buildings and lawn to the right and a dock and boats to the right.
2015: Alert Bay remains a strong Kwakwaka’wakw community today with a busy commercial waterfront. Potlatches are now held in a traditional-style Bighouse on a hill above the bay, not visible here.
Hélène Alonso/© AMNH
(left) Approximately 1903: Guests gather at a potlatch on the main street of Alert Bay. High-ranking families host these ceremonial feasts to proclaim their chiefly privileges and family history. (right) 2015: Alert Bay remains a strong Kwakwaka’wakw community today with a busy commercial waterfront. Potlatches are now held in a traditional-style Bighouse on a hill above the bay, not visible here.
© AMNH Library 104471; Hélène Alonso/© AMNH
Map highlighting Kwakwaka'wakw territories including Alert Bay and Vancouver Island in bright color against dark background.

Kwakwaka’wakw Consulting Curator

Chief Ga'lastawik  | Trevor Isaac, Haxwa'mis

The Museum thanks Pewi Alfred and Chief Bill Cranmer of the 'Namg̲is First Nation for the Kwak̓wala words included in this text.