Kwakwakaʼwakw mythology

This article is about the spiritual beliefs, histories and practices in Kwakwaka'wakw mythology. The Kwakwaka'wakw are a group of Indigenous nations, numbering about 5,500, who live in the central coast of British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the mainland. Kwakwaka'wakw translates into "Kwak'wala speaking tribes." However, the tribes are single autonomous nations and do not view themselves collectively as one group.

These people share many common cultural customs with neighboring nations. They share beliefs in many of the same spirits and deities, although speak different languages. Some spirits are however totally unique to one or two cultures and are not universally known throughout the Northwest Coast. Each tribe has its own history, practices, and stories. Some origin stories belong to only one specific tribe, while another tribe has its own stories. But many practices, rituals, and ceremonies occur throughout Kwakwaka'wakw culture, and in some cases, neighboring indigenous cultures also.

Kwakiutl house pole InvMH975-123-1
Kwakwaka'wakw house pole representing a female Dzunukwa, 19th century

Creation stories

The Kwakwaka'wakw creation narrative states the world was created by a raven flying over water, who, finding nowhere to land, decided to create islands by dropping small pebbles into the water. He then created trees and grass, and, after several failed attempts, he made the first man and woman out of wood and clay.


Main page: Deluge (mythology)

Like all Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, most of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes have stories about their people surviving the flood. With some of these nations, their history talks of their ancestors transforming into their natural form and disappearing while the waters rose then subsided. For others, they have stories of their people attaching their oceangoing canoes to tall peaking mountains. For the stories about supernatural powers, these figures tend to be the founding clans of some Kwakwaka'wakw nations.

Ancestors, crest, and clans

Tseiqami is a man who comes from the cedar tree and Thunderbird, lord of the winter dance season, a massive supernatural bird whose wing beats cause the thunder, and the flash of whose eyes causes lightning. Tseiqami hunts whales for its dinner out at sea, and sometimes helped heroic ancestors build houses by placing giant cedar beams for them. Thunderbird has a younger brother named Kolus.

Thunderbird's adversary is Qaniqilak, spirit of the summer season, who is often identified as the sea god, Kumugwe. Kumugwe or Komokwa is the name of "Undersea Chief." Many Kwakwaka'wakw families have been blessed by riches and supernatural treasures bestowed by this god of the tides and maker of coppers.

Sisiutl mask
Kwakwaka'wakw Cedar sisiutl mask.

Sisiutl is a giant three-headed sea serpent whose glance can turn an adversary into stone. Cross beams of clan houses sometimes are carved with his appearance. Blessed ancestors have sometimes received sisiutl's help when he transforms himself into an invincible war canoe, and sometimes into a magic belt with which to gird oneself against all dangers.

Dzunukwa (Tsonokwa) is a type of cannibal giant (called sasquatch by other Northwest Coast tribes) and comes in both male and female forms. In most legends, the female form is the most commonly told; she eats children and cries "hu-hu!" to attract them, she imitates the child's grandmother's voice. Children frequently outwit her, sometimes killing her and taking her treasures without being eaten.

Bakwas is king of the ghosts. He is a small green spirit whose face looks emaciated like a skeleton, but has a long curving nose. He haunts the forests and tries to bring the living over to the world of the dead. In some myths Bakwas is the husband of Dzunukwa.

U'melth is the Raven, who brought the Kwakwaka'wakw people the moon, fire, salmon, the sun and the tides.

Pugwis is a sort of aquatic creature with fish-like face and large incisors.


Kwakwaka'wakw spirituality is transmitted at ceremonies, mostly during the winter season. These ceremonies are often referred to as potlatches. They are mostly designed for the transference, justification, and reaffirmation of family and spiritual status inherited from primeval ancestors who contacted the spirit world and were given privileges from beings of a supernatural nature. These beings prefer honor, power, and magic through the gift of Tlugwe, which are supernatural treasures, often taking the physical form of masks and regalia, but also comprising stories, songs, recitations, dances, and other intangible performances.

Kwakwaka'wakw spirits, like those of other Northwest Coast peoples, can be divided into four separate spirit realms, including sky spirits, sea spirits, earth spirits, and otherworldly spirits. All four realms interact with one another, and human beings attempt to contact all four worlds and often channel their spirits at sacred ceremonies wherein dancers go into trances while wearing masks and other regalia associated with the spiritworld.

Of particular importance in Kwakwaka'wakw culture is the secret society called Hamatsa. During the winter, there is a four-day, complex dance that serves to initiate new members of Hamatsa. The Hamatsa dancer represents the spirit of Baxbaxwalanuksiwe ("Man-Eater at the North End of the World"[1]); who can transform into various man-eating birds and has mouths all over his body. Hamatsa initiates are possessed by Baxwbakwalanuksiwe'. On the first day of the Hamatsa ceremonies the initiate is lured out of the woods and brought into the Big House to be tamed. When the initiate returns, he enacts his cannibalistic possession symbolically. Gwaxwgwakwalanuksiwe' is the most prestigious role in the Supernatural Man-Eater Birds ceremony; he is a man-eating raven. Galuxwadzuwus ("Crooked-Beak of Heaven") and Huxhukw (supernatural Crane-Like Bird who cracks skulls of men to suck out their brains) are other participants.

See also


  1. ^ "Hi'hamsiwe' Hamat̕sa Supernatural Man-Eater Birds". U'mista Cultural Society. Retrieved 2009-02-25. The Hi’hamsiwe’ represent the fabulous supernatural birds that were servants of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’ "Man-Eater at the North End of the World".


  • Kwakiutl Art by Audrey Hawthorn
  • Chief James Wallas. Kwakiutl Legends. ISBN 0-88839-230-3.
  • Hamatsa: The Enigma of Cannibalism on the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim McDowell
  • Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch by Aldona Jonaitis
  • Aldona Jonaitis (1998). From the Land of the Totem Poles. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-97022-7.
  • The Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia by Ronald Rohner and Evelyn Bettauer
  • The mouth of heaven: An introduction to Kwakiutl religious thought by Irving Goldman
  • Franz Boas (1910). Kwakiutl Tales. ISBN 0-295-97022-7.
List of religions and spiritual traditions

While religion is hard to define, one standard model of religion, used in religious studies courses, was proposed by Clifford Geertz, who defined it as a

[…] system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

A critique of Geertz's model by Talal Asad categorized religion as "an anthropological category." Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws, or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system", but religion differs from private belief in that it has a public aspect. Most religions have organized behaviours, including clerical hierarchies, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural) or religious texts. Certain religions also have a sacred language often used in liturgical services. The practice of a religion may also include sermons, commemoration of the activities of a god or gods, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, rituals, rites, ceremonies, worship, initiations, funerals, marriages, meditation, invocation, mediumship, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religious beliefs have also been used to explain parapsychological phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and reincarnation, along with many other paranormal and supernatural experiences.Some academics studying the subject have divided religions into three broad categories: world religions, a term which refers to transcultural, international faiths; indigenous religions, which refers to smaller, culture-specific or nation-specific religious groups; and new religious movements, which refers to recently developed faiths. One modern academic theory of religion, social constructionism, says that religion is a modern concept that suggests all spiritual practice and worship follows a model similar to the Abrahamic religions as an orientation system that helps to interpret reality and define human beings, and thus religion, as a concept, has been applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures that are not based upon such systems, or in which these systems are a substantially simpler construct.

Tribes or Nations
First Nations
Culture & Society

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.