Kwakwaka'wakw Architecture

Historically, the typical village contained at least a dozen structures and a population ranging from fifty to one thousand people. The villages were located on ocean bays or freshwater rivers and lakes, and their houses lined the waterfront in rows two to three deep, with the highest-ranking families in the front row, and the chief’s house near the centre of it. Where the site sloped, the houses were built on earth embankments, with plank steps leading to the beach. Plank platforms raised on pilings with tilted, low sidewalls, parallel to the facades of the houses, served as outdoor gathering places.

Karlukwees (Kalugwis), Turnour Island. Photo by G.M. Dawson, 1885. Library and Archives Canada.

At the time of first contact with Europeans, in the 1790s, the Kwakwka’wakw are said to have been living in shed-roofed houses like those of some Nuu-chah-nulth and Coast Salish groups. By the middle and into the late nineteenth-century, Kwakwaka’wakw houses typically had low two-pitched roofs and walls of huge horizontal planks.

Cheslakees Village in Johnstone Strait. In 1792 Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy became one of the first whites to encounter the 'Namgis. The scene was recorded by the expedition artist and was later engraved back in London by the renowned English genre artist John Landseer.

Kwakwaka’wakw houses were laid out with a cedar bark rope from front door to back wall. This rope was then halved, and laid at right angles from the centre of the doorway to the side walls to establish the width of the house. The distance from the two front corners to the centre of the back wall was then measured and made equal, to triangulate and thus square the house.

These later structures were classic post and beam, made of roundwood posts with two central beams supporting the gable roof, and two smaller timbers supporting the eaves. The houses were essentially square, with each exterior wall being forty to sixty feet in length. Sometimes, mid-span posts were required to support the four main beams. The roof was constructed with a light framework of roundwood rafters and purlins lashed to the beams, covered with roof planks running from the ridge to the eaves and overlapping like tiles. Rather than construct a smoke hole in the roof of the house, planks were simply pushed aside from within by a pole to vent excess smoke.

House frame at 'Mimkwamlis (Village Island). Photo by Edward Curtis, 1914. Library of Congress,

After the framework was completed, four long, heavy planks, from four to five inches thick and two and a half to three feet wide, were set on edge at floor level at the front and back of the house to act as bottom wall plates. The exterior wall planks for the Southern Kwakwaka’wakw were then inserted vertically into the groove between these plates, and into the ground along the sides of the building. The Northern Kwakwaka’wakw used horizontal wall siding. Woven mats were then hung over the interior of these walls to cut the wind and snow, and provide insulation.

Retaining planks were set on edge parallel to the four exterior house walls, and the space between was filled with earth to create a raised platform all around the house interior. Most houses were occupied by four families, each in a corner, partly partitioned off, with its own fireplace on the earth floor.  In some houses some of the occupants had small house-like sleeping structures on the raised earth platform. Sometimes floor planks were also installed on this earth platform, although more often than not it was simply tamped flat. Finally, lighter poles were sunk in the earth and tied to the structural frame to cross-brace the exterior walls.

Kwakwaka'wakw houses with horizontal siding at Salmon River. Photo by E. Dossetter, 1881. American Museum of Natural History.

In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century houses, the central posts, beams and the retaining planks were usually carved and painted, and the front facades of more important houses often bore dramatic paintings of mythical crest animals and beings belonging to the lineage that owned the house. Related to the sacred ancestry of the house, these paintings portrayed mythical events in the lineage’s history and signified the transformation of the house into a symbolic “being” during the winter ceremonials. The central figure on a façade was usually a “displayed figure”, typically crouched in a frontal position over the house entrance. Death and re-birth were symbolized by passage through this portal, something which was often emphasized by the entrance being located within the crest figure’s devouring mouth to dramatize the house’s spiritual power and implying that only worthy people can enter without harm.

The façade figures were usually directly painted on the wall planks, with no preliminary bas-relief carving. The colours were primarily red and black, symbolizing death and re-birth respectively. Occasionally blue was used, as was whitewash for a background. After commercial paints became available, however, muralists became extravagant and their favourite colour became orange. The vertical planks on the front façade also often extended above the roofline of the house, creating a larger false front and more expansive background for crest paintings.

House front paintings and plank platforms with people gathering. Xwamdasbe' village (Hope Island). Photo by E. Dossetter, 1881. American Museum of National History.

The mural-like paintings on Kwakwaka’wakw facades sparked interest from the time of the earliest travelers in the late 18th Century, but details about their architectural artistry did not become available until a hundred years later when Franz Boas and his Kwakwaka’wakw collaborator George Hunt began recording and interpreting the culture for Europeans. Boas made his final field trip to the Northwest Coast in 1932 and, in the intervening half century, he documented the Kwakwaka’wakw’s traditional ways and watched the population centre of their society shift from Fort Rupert, where he first encountered them, to Alert Bay, which remains their capital today. 

Boas learned from his informants that the prominent, permanent winter houses were not considered the property of their occupants, but rather of family lines or lineages which the Kwakwaka’wakw called numema. A house was considered a living being and a “spiritual associate” of the current lineage chief. With each successive generation, ceremonial names, design motifs and crests became the property of the numema, to be carved and painted onto architectural elements. Occupants, each of whom had what was known as a “seat” in the house, were responsible for safeguarding and adding to their lineage’s wealth, which included crafted wood, textiles, and copper; slaves taken from other groups; and the supernatural properties and prestige embodied by the crests, legends, songs and dances of the family line.

Textual information for this page: Codere, 1990. Easton and Nabakov, 1989.