Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw)


The Block

Blockmaker Diane Bell has stitched her grandfather’s Frog design (symbol of renewal and rebirth) in red melton cloth on black in the traditional style of a Button Blanket. These blankets were made after the Hudson’s Bay Company began to trade wool blankets to the natives. Originally abalone or other shells were fashioned into buttons, but trading also brought beads and pearl buttons to work with, such as those used to highlight the design. The red colour (symbol of life) of the appliqué and the inner border represents the cedar tree dyed with salmon eggs to give it vivid colour. Each family drew its unique crests from the sky, land and sea. Button blankets decorated with the family crest are considered the Robes of Power.

Copper was the symbol of wealth to the Kwakwaka’wakw, and the Frog is known as Copper Maker. The legend of the Frog describes how he dared any man to look at him without blinking. If a man succeeded in not blinking, the Frog would die, and he could reach into the water to take the copper. It is a kind and gentle entity that Diane felt was appropriate to share in the quilt. She has dedicated this block to her late uncle, and mentor.

Kwakiutl Weaving - Museum of Anthropology UBC - Vancouver BC - Canada
Kwakiutl Weaving
WTMTL Organisateur Mât totémique Kwakiutl (milieu)
Kwakiutl Totem Pole
The Vancouver Island community. (postcard) - NARA - 297252
Men from the Kwakiutl Tribe
Kwakiutl Indians in a Boat
Wawadit'la(Mungo Martin House) a Kwakwaka'wakw big house
Kwakwaka’wakw big house
"Sun's Mask"
Sun’s Mask
Kwakiutl carver Ellen Neel carving totem pole
Kwakiutl carver
Kwakwaka'wakw House Ornaments
Kwakwaka’wakw House Ornaments

Cultural Profile

The Kwakwaka’wakw, known as Kwakiutl by anthropologists, are made up of 17 tribes. Each tribe has a different name and lives in their own area along the northwest coast of British Columbia. Today, children are taught a “universal” Kwak’wala language in schools. Historically each tribe spoke their own dialect containing subtleties and nuances, now known only to a few Elders. Originally an unwritten language, storytelling became a practised art that instilled cultural values in Kwakwaka’wakw youth.

The first encounters with Europeans are believed to have been in 1775, with Spaniards Bodega and Maurelle. Many others followed, having an irreversibe impact on the Aboriginals’ way of life. These events were recorded in coppers, masks, totem poles and other enduring art forms.

The Kwakwaka’wakw depended largely on marine life for food; while the forest provided materials to build houses, canoes and tools. They had a complex social structure based on status and wealth. Potlatch feasts, marking important life transitions, were elaborate events often taking many months to a year to plan.

Historically, the potlatch was a formal ‘registration’ of the event, with guests acting as witnesses. The federal government outlawed such feasts from 1884 to 1951, but the tradition moved underground and was passed on. The practice has been revived and today potlatches are openly held, much-anticipated events. The Kwakwaka’wakw are considered masters of stage craft and dramatic art, adding spectacular fantasy and sophistications to all their symbolic activities.

Sponsor: U'Mista Cultural Centre | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Flickr