Kwakwaka’wakw: Masks of Our Ancestors
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Kwakwaka’wakw: Masks of Our Ancestors
“At the beginning of the world, a bird flew down from the sky and sat on the beach near Tsaxis (Fort Rupert). The bird took off its mask and became a man. His name was ‘Namugwis, and he became the founder of an important family of the Kwagu╪” (Umista, n.d., Ṫseka Animal Masks: Xisiwe’ Wolf). If there is one recurring element of Kwakwaka’wakw myth, it is the ability to transform animals to men and men to animals by removing and donning masks. The stylized appearance of the masks is also used in family totem poles, describing the animal ancestor that founded the family. This everyday appearance of the supernatural is not relegated to the artwork of the Kwakwaka’wakw. They live in a world filled with spirituality as demonstrated by the way they treat their food, the structure of their families and government, and the ceremonies and rituals they take part in.
Known as the Kwakkewlths by Indian Affairs, the Kwakiutl by anthropologists, and rarely by their individual tribal names like Kwagu’ł, Mamalilikala, and ‘Namᶃis, the Kwakwaka’wakw name literally means “people who speak Kwak’wala,” and is the chosen name for the group of tribes living on the northeastern part of Vancouver Island and the mainland directly opposite (U’mista, n.d., The Kwak’wala Speaking Tribes). As is common with many people on the coast, whether Maryland’s crabs, Louisiana’s crawfish, or Maine’s lobster, the Kwakwaka’wakw rely mostly on seafood, specifically fish for their diet. The year is broken up into two distinct parts: the summer months of intensive food collection and the winter, which is set aside for spiritual and social activities (Berman, 2000). Food collection is ritualized, and always proceeds in order from the oolichan, herring, and king salmon to the halibut, sockeye, coho, humpback, and dog salmon (Berman, 2000).
The importance of the first fish, especially to the nineteenth century Kwakwaka’wakw, cannot be overstated. The birthright of the chief of the Qәmqәmtalał descent group of the Dәŉaxdaˀʬ was to fill his dipnet with oolichan at the exact position where his ancestor had first fished, and pray to the fish, welcoming them “for [they] were trying to come to [him]” emphasizing the reciprocal nature of the relationship between man and spirit (Berman, 2000, p 60). The other fishermen would wait for the chief to fill and empty his net four times before beginning, each praying to his first catch as well (Berman, 2000). Each species of fish also had different rituals involved with the catching, preparing, and eating of the first catch. After eating the first coho, the fat is not washed or wiped from the hands, dogs and menstruating women were not permitted to eat fresh fish, and some parts of the fish, such as the intestines, were taboo as well (Berman, 2000). Finally, once the first fish is finished being cleaned, all the remains are placed into a basket, then poured back into the mouth of the river (Berman, 2000).
Inherent in each of these taboos and rituals is the sense that the fish have chosen to bless men with their flesh to use as food for their sustenance, and the proper treatment of their bodies and remains will ensure the spirits decide to bless the men again (Berman, 2000). By placing the first fish in the water, all the fish would be reincarnated for the next harvest, thanks to the concept of the Water of Life. In Kwakwaka’wakw myth, many spirits have the Water of Life, which is a liquid that grants the power of resurrection and is usually associated with the urine of the chief of Ghosts, but never the salmon (Berman, 2000). Salmon have this power in their very skin, activated when they reach water (Berman, 2000). Many of their spirits, and “deities” if a poor correlation can be made, emphasize their reverence for fish, such as Fish Maker and Oolichan Woman (Berman, 2000). Their two season cycle and the underlying reciprocal nature of their relationship with the spirits is summed up as “in the summer, man hunts for fish (spirits), and in the winter, spirits hunt for man.” All creatures must eat to survive, including the spirits who are sustained by the ceremonies, rituals, and belief of the Kwakwaka’wakw.
As is common with many smaller groupings of people, political structure and kinship among the Kwakwaka’wakw are closely related. The Kwakwaka’wakw as a whole were a collection of different tribes that all spoke the Kwak’wala language (Kwakiutl, n.d.). The tribes were composed of groups called ‘na’mima, each of which had a head chief, lesser chiefs, commoners, and their families (Kwakiutl, n.d.). The members of a ‘na’mima, the ‘na’mima itself, as well as the tribes were all ranked against each other in terms of prestige (Codere, 1957). The Kwagiulth Museum itself has organized its collection into the ranked order of the owners at the time of the potlatch confiscation, emphasizing the view that the rankings and rights to privileges were the backbone of Kwakwaka’wakw society (Mauze, 2003). A chief gained prestige for his ‘na’mima or his tribe through the tradition of potlatch, discussed in greater detail later in this paper. Individuals are granted status and nobility by their peers, and the titles are generally passed on to someone else such that even chiefs die as commoners (Codere, 1957). In addition, warriors could claim the names, positions, family crests, and privileges of their victims as spoils of war, further emphasizing the fluid nature of the so-called “class” system (McLuckie, 2007).
Franz Boas reported that there were four classes of members, chiefs, nobility, commoners, and slaves in 1906, but refused to classify them as such in later work, saying in 1920 that while the ranking system existed, the Kwakwaka’wakw exist as a classless society (Codere, 1957). The head chiefs were direct descendants of the founding ancestor, usually thought to be animals that removed their masks, like the Thunderbird, the seagull, orca, or grizzly, but may also be descended from humans from distant places (Berman, 2000). These ancestors were displayed prominently on the totem poles, giving visitors an easy way to tell where they may find kin in a new village by simply looking for their common ancestor (Berman, 2000). Chiefs were responsible for organizing the management of resources, and were given a portion of the harvest in return, in a sort of government taxation analogy (Kwakiutl, n.d.). The somewhat misleading term “commoner” in the Kwakwaka’wakw culture refers to a person who, at that very moment, does not hold a “potlach [sic] position, chief’s position, or standing place” or to a person who has a low ranking but still holds a “standing place” or position (Codere, 1957, p. 474). Slaves were generally prisoners of war, but were not segregated from the family in any way that can be observed except, perhaps, through burial practices (Ames, 2001). Typically, the slaves would be held for ransom, but even if the expensive ransom were paid, the former slave would have that shame follow throughout his life (Ames, 2001).
In the winter months, when spirits were believed to visit the villages, everything changed, from individuals’ names to the classes of society. The uninitiated were simply the audience to the ceremonies and dances (Berman, 2000). The “Seals” were high ranking members that were under the influence of spirits, and the “Sparrows” were hereditary officials that managed the proceedings (Berman, 2000).
CEREMONY AND RITUAL
The Kwakwaka’wakw may embody spirituality and ritual in everyday life, but they also have intricate ceremonies and celebrations. In the nineteenth century, when First Nations people were still being discovered and the thrill of finding “savages” still motivated whites, the Hamat’sa, a dance featured in the Winter Ceremonial, was everything those “civilized people” had hoped for. There still exists quite a bit of controversy over whether the Hamat’sa ever included actual cannibalism, or if it was ceremonial and dramatized, and simply misunderstood by the non-native audience. Ruth Benedict, a well-known anthropologist, certainly believed that “the Cannibal ate the bodies of slaves who had been killed for the purpose” as late as 1959 (McLuckie, 2007, p. 150). Other sources state that the “bites” were actually created by use of knife, and every piece of flesh “consumed” was either hidden using sleight-of-hand or was regurgitated after the performance, each piece closely tracked to ensure that none was actually ingested (McLuckie, 2007). The dance is a reenactment of the origin story of Baxbakualanuxsiwae, the Man-Eater-at-the-Mouth-of-the-River, who was killed by the sons of a chief, Nanwaqawe, with help from a long-lost sister, the qominoqa (McLuckie, 2007). In the ceremony, one initiate is abducted after being “sacrificed” to the Man-Eater, in reality sequestered away learning the rites and rituals associated with the dance (McLuckie, 2007). The initiate is always male and has earned the right to participate, either through inheritance, as dowry, or as spoils of war (McLuckie, 2007). When he enters society again, it is as a wild creature who must be tamed by other members in a ritual dance, providing a metaphor for the effects of a strong society against the unpredictable, often dangerous forces of the spirits (McLuckie, 2007). McLuckie points out that it is akin to the Greeks dramatizing violence as a way to confirm cultural values and transfer them to the next generation (McLuckie, 2007). In all, the dance is representative of a common theme- the introduction to the supernatural causes frenzy that is once again tamed by society (McLuckie, 2007).
The Winter Ceremonial itself, of which the Hamat’sa is a part, is part of series of myths about Raven, his friend and possibly younger brother, Mink, and the Wolves. Raven is seen as a great benefactor for the Kwakwaka’wakw, traveling among the spirits striving for balance and cycles in all things, like the weather, high and low tides, and light and darkness (Berman, 2000). After a great deal of trickery, insults, and threats between members of both parties, the wolves decided to hold a winter dance, complete with the red-dyed, shredded cedar bark regalia that is worn during the Winter Ceremonial by the Kwakwaka’wakw (Berman, 2000). They try to keep the dance a secret, especially from their enemy, Raven, but he has already been listening in (Berman, 2000). Wolf’s children continue to trick Mink, who retaliates by killing the wolves and then dances in the ceremony wearing the eldest son’s head as a mask (Berman, 2000). Coupled with a two-headed serpent he had captured and used, the wolves ran away in shame, becoming true wolves forever, leaving the dance with Raven and Mink (McLuckie, 2007). This action brought about the permanent separation between humans and animals in many different versions of the mythology (McLuckie, 2007).
The potlatch has been viewed in many different ways by outsiders, but remains a sort of social contract for the Kwakwaka’wakw. It was banned by Canada in 1884, partially for economic reasons, but also because of the threat of religious implication in the ceremony (Mauze, 2003). Many natives continued the tradition, not only because it was a part of their culture, but it was also a part of their record-keeping (Umista, n.d.). In 1921, Dan Cranmer, a Nimpkish chief of Village Island, organized a large potlatch to repay his wife’s bride-price (Mauze, 2003). To clarify, while there was a payment made for marriage, it was not the woman who was purchased, but the hereditary rights of the future children created from the union that were purchased from the bride’s family (McLuckie, 2007). There were between three and four hundred people attending Cranmer’s potlatch, which Indian agent William Halliday heard about, despite the attempts at secrecy (Mauze, 2003). Thirty-four people were charged with such terrible crimes as “distributing gifts, delivering speeches, singing songs, and so forth,” with all pleading guilty and required to surrender their potlatch “coppers, masks, head dresses [sic], potlach [sic]blankets and boxes and other paraphernalia used solely for potlatch purposes” (Mauze, 2003, p. 505). Those who agreed were given a suspended sentence, while the others were sent to jail in Vancouver (Mauze, 2003). While the anti-potlatching law was never officially repealed, it was deleted from the legal codes in 1951, and the Kwakwaka’wakw still potlatch to the present day, and have been mostly successful at repatriating their confiscated potlatch goods (Umista, n.d.).
The potlatch ceremony itself is social, religious, legal, and cultural all in one event. “[F]amilies gather and names are given, births are announced, marriages are conducted, and … families mourn the loss of a loved one,” (Umista, n.d., The Potlatch). In addition, the potlatch is where, as mentioned earlier, a chief will pass on his rights, titles, and privileges to his eldest son (Umista, n.d.). The events occur in a specified order, from the ~seka (or t’seka) dance, which includes the Hamat’sa, the T’╪asala or Peace Dance, the sa╪a mourning ceremony, and the sale or transfer of the ceremonial coppers to marriage ceremonies and feasts and a grand gift-giving (Umista, n.d.). The gift-giving is often likened to a redistribution of wealth, since the chief receives a portion of all harvests for his management of the resources, which he uses to throw potlatches, but the gifts are given for witnessing, recording, and passing on the events as a sort of social contract (Umista, n.d.). A chief, and thus his tribe or ‘na’mima, will gain status based on how much they can afford to give away at these gatherings, and it is indeed a wealthy and enviable chief who can afford to have several of these in a relatively short time (Umista, n.d.).
As is common with Native American and First Nations people, the separation between sacred and profane in the world of the Kwak’wala speakers is nonexistent. Spirituality infuses their entire lives, from the food they eat, to the structure of their tribes, to the ceremonies they take part in. Attempting to cut a “pagan” religion from the culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw is to cut the culture itself. The band is currently thriving and committed to bringing their heritage with them into the technological future, updating and upgrading where necessary to ensure their culture and beliefs are still relevant in today’s ever-changing world.
Ames, K. (2001, June). Slaves, Chiefs and Labour on the Northern Northwest Coast. World Archaeology, 33(1), pp. 1-17. Retrieved June 8, 2012 from JSTOR.
Berman, J. (2000, May 1). Red Salmon and Red Cedar Bark: Another Look at the Nineteenth-century Kwakwaka’wakw Winter Ceremonial. BC Studies, (125/126), p. 53. Retrieved June 8, 2012 from EBSCOhost.
Codere, H. (1957, June). Kwakiutl Society: Rank without Class. American Anthropologist, 59(3), pp. 473-486. Retrieved June 8, 2012 from JSTOR.
Kwakiutl. (n.d.). Kwakiutl Indian Band homepage. Retrieved June 20, 2012 from http://www.kwakiutl.bc.ca
Lobo, S., Talbot, S., & Morris, T. (2010). Native American Voices: A Reader. Third Edition. Boston: Prentice Hall.
Mauze, M. (2003, June 1). Two Kwakwaka’wakw Museums: Heritage and Politics. Ethnohistory 50(3), pp. 503-522. Retrieved June 8, 2011 from EBSCOhost.
McLuckie, A. (2007). Reinterpreting the Kwakiutl Hamatsa Dance As an Expression of the Apollonian and Dionysian Synthesis. Religious Studies and Theology, 26(2), p. 149. Retrieved June 8, 2012 from ProQuest database.
U’mista (n.d.). U’Mista Cultural Society. Retrieved June 8, 2012 from http://www.umista.ca/kwakwakawakw/index/php
Umista. (n.d.). Virtual Museum Canada. The Story of the Masks. Retrieved June 24, 2012 from http://www.umista.org/masks_story/en/ht/index.html
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