B. Burger/Flickr


"Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw” means “the people who speak Kwak̓wala,” a group comprised of 17 distinct nations that hail from the north side of Vancouver Island, adjacent islands, and coastal mainland to the east. Formerly, the entire group was mistakenly called Kwakiutl.

Population: 7,718 (as of 2014)  Language: Kwak̓wala, five dialects

Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Voices

Nine smiling children stand in front of a totem and other art.
Kwak̓wala, the language of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people, unites them as a group. Fewer than 150 people speak it fluently today. Some speakers are teaching the next generations to sustain Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture. Here, Donna Cranmer (T̕łisalagi’lakw, right) and the speaking club she holds at the T̕łisalagi’lakw Elementary School wear shirts that say ḵ̓a̱s’a̱ne’, which means “shirt.”
U’mista Cultural Centre. Voices: Lorraine Hunt/Violet Bracic/Pewi Alfred



From the Collections: Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw head ring

Head ring

During a sacred series of dances called the t'set'seḵa, Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people wear items made of red-dyed bark from cedar trees. In this ceremony youth are initiated into a society called hamat’sa based on contact with supernatural beings. They can call themselves hamat’sas thereafter. This striking head ring may have been worn by a hamat'sa during the final stage of his initiation rite—an inherited privilege. The abalone shell ornaments depict a face—notice the eyes or eyebrows, nose, and mouth.

This head ring is from the Ḵwikwa̱sutinux̱ community in Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw territory off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.

AMNH 16/6864, acquired 1899

Man wearing head ring walks on a path along the shoreline.
Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw chief Henry Seaweed (Kwax̱itola), a hamat’sa himself, wears a head ring woven of fishing twine and cedar bark after a ceremony at Ba’as (Blunden Harbour), B.C.
H. Alonso/© AMNH

Ongoing Traditions

From the Collections: Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Transformation Mask


Masks can reveal spiritual and personal transformation, important concepts for Native communities. A dancer wearing this mask relates the story of Siwidi, a young man altered by his encounters with supernatural sea creatures. See Siwidi’s change, beginning as a bullhead fish (sculpin), then a sea raven, and lastly as Born-to-Be-Head-of-the-World, a hero.

This mask is from the Gwawaʼenux̱w community in Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw territory off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.

AMNH 16/8942, acquired 1902

George Hunt and Franz Boas

From the Collections: Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Dance Apron

Rectangular textile with dangling puffin beaks.
Worn by a dancer at ceremonies, this apron is distinctive in that it incorporates strips of fabric from a flour sack printed with advertisements—both an act of upcycling and artmaking. The dangling triangles are the outer beaks of puffins, which are naturally shed and were collected on rocks in breeding zones. When an apron like this is danced, the beaks rattle softly. This dance apron is from Fort Rupert (Tsax̱is) in Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw territory on Vancouver Island, Canada.
AMNH 16/2356, acquired 1897

Then and Now

Canoes and people crowd the waterside in Alert Bay. Houses and roadway lines the edge of Alert Bay.
(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 Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw community today with a busy commercial waterfront. Potlatches are now held in a traditional-style big house on a hill above the bay, not visible here.
 (left) © AMNH Library 104471; (right) H. Alonso/© AMNH