Gwa'yi (Kingcome)

Welcome figure at Kingcome Delta. Photo by Barrett 1915.

Gwa’yi village, also known as Kingcome, is the home of the Dzawada’enuxw People or “People of the oolichan place”. It is located approximately 290 kilometers northwest of Vancouver on the Kingcome River about 3 kilometers upstream from where the river meets Kingcome Inlet. It is the home to approximately 75 on-reserve residents, and 500 members that live off-reserve.

Gwa’yi village holds special significance to the Kwakwaka'wakw people because it became a refuge for the practice of potlatching during the Canadian government’s ban on the gift giving ceremony between 1885 and 1951. During the winter months when these ceremonials occurred, the village of Gwa’yi was especially difficult to access and was situated in such a way that the authorities could not approach by day or night without being seen or heard. These factors allowed potlatching to take place in the village virtually unimpeded.

As early as 1922, the four Gilford Island groups (Dzawada’enuxw, Gwawa’enuxw, Haxwa’mis, and Kwikwasut’inuxw) who had previously wintered at Gwayasdums, began to conduct their winter ceremonies at Gwa’yi. Gwa’yi’s advantage as a safe place to hold potlatches led to others claiming a relationship to its villagers, no matter how distant, so that they could also benefit from its security.

Gwa'yi Village. Photo by Adelaide de Menil, 1968

Gwa’yi’s geographical location is also significant because of its location at the mouth of the Kingcome River. The Kingcome is one of the few rivers in North America where a small oily fish known as oolichan are known to spawn. Between mid-March and mid-May, oolichan re-enter their birth stream by the thousands. The fish are collected and through a rendering process an oil is extracted. Oolichan oil, also known as kleena, was a very valuable trading commodity along the coast and was also traded inland to the Gitxsan over 150 kilometers away. During the spawning season upwards of three thousand oolichan fishers from various Kwakwala speaking groups would congregate at Gwa’yi to share in this abundant resource.

Gwa'yi Village. Photo by Adelaide de Menil, 1968.

Textual information for this page: Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council; Williams, 2001; Cole and Douglas, 1990; Mitchel and Donald, 2001.