Approximate early 19th-century territory of the Kwakwaka'wakw. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of the Handbook of North American Indians.


The centre of Kwakwaka’wakw territory is Queen Charlotte Strait on the Central Coast of British Columbia (between Northern Vancouver Island and the Mainland). The Kwakwaka'wakw live along the outer coast from Smith Sound to Cape Cook, on the shores of Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets leading into it. By the middle of the 19th century Kwakwaka'wakw groups lived as far south as the northern end of the Georgia Strait. At the time of contact with Europeans, the Kwakwaka’wakw consisted of roughly 30 self-governing groups often referred to as “tribes”. Each of these groups had its own territory, winter village and several other sites that were occupied seasonally.


The Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly known as the Kwakiutl) are the Northernmost speakers members of a language group known as the Wakashan family. Other Northern Wakashan languages include Haisla, Heiltsuk and Oowekyala. Southern Wakashan languages include Makah, Ditidaht and Nuu-chah-nulth.

Kwakwaka’wakw literally translates as “those who speak Kwak’wala”. The former name “Kwakiutl” is actually the name of one specific Kwak’wala speaking tribe, the name of which was used as a generalization to describe the cultural group as a whole. There are two groups of Kwakwaka’wakw dialects, one spoken on the outer coast of the northern region of Vancouver Island, the other within the Queen Charlotte Strait and to the east.

In 1792 Captain Vancouver became one of the first Europeans to encounter the 'Namgis when he anchored near the mouth of Gwa'ni River and the village of Xwalkw. The scene was recorded by expedition artist J. Sykes. Titled "Cheslakee's Village" after the 'Namgis chief, the engraving shows houses made of cedar planks and painted with geometric designs.


Kwakwaka’wakw residences varied from the time of first contact until the early twentieth-century. At the time of contact, in the 1790s, the Kwakwaka’wakw were reported as living in shed-roofed houses. By the middle of the 19th century, there were houses with low two-pitched roofs and walls of huge planks held horizontally between pairs of upright poles. By the late 19th, century many houses exhibited vertical plank walls or horizontal milled siding, painted facades and external carvings.

Houses were reported to be inhabited by four families, each occupying a partly partitioned off corner section. Each of these partitions had its own fireplace on the floor. Smokeholes were made by raising a roof plank.

Alert Bay, © Adelaide de Menil, ca. 1967.


Kwakwaka’wakw art is a distinctive variant of Northwest Coast art in its style, forms, and cultural functions. In contrast to the graphic and flatter styles of the Haida and Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw carvings were deeply sculpted. Unlike the northern groups, they added protruding elements to their monumental works in the form of beaks, fins and wing.

Textual information for this page: Codere, 1990.