Kwakwaka’wakw

by William Wasden Jr.
Introduction by Cle–alls (Dr. John Medicine Horse Kelly)

The potlatch is the traditional way that North America’s northwest Indigenous people have always celebrated important events.

Potlatches are the gatherings at which communities install chiefs, adopt new family members, make peace and more.  These lavish affairs include feasting, speeches, gift–giving, songs and dances.  But, between 1884 and 1951, the Canadian government outlawed our potlatches.  Since then, slowly, very slowly, we have begun anew to openly conduct these crucial celebrations and all that goes with them.

Non–Indigenous authorities also attempted to nullify our ability to identify ourselves in our own words.  Now, many of us are reviving our traditional names, both individuals and entire nations.  As a Haida, my Taas Laanaagaas clan (Sandy Beach People) gave me the name of my grandfather, the Rev. Minister Peter Kelly:  Cle–alls (Fireweed, or the Orator).  That name is an immense honour.  But it is an equally immense responsibility.  I use Cle–alls daily now and prefer it to my English name.  A growing number of people in our region do the same.

Years ago, the great Professor Franz Boas (1858–1942) and his eminent disciples laboured long and hard to document our languages and cultures.  I, for one, appreciate their efforts.  However, even those well–meaning people made mistakes.  For example, Professor Boas called one First Nation the Kwaguił.  But, the proper name that covers all those people is Kwakwaka’wakw.

Also, see how I have spelled Kwagu’Ł? The “ł” symbol refers to a special sound that is like a breathy ‘t’ and ‘l’ combined into one.  But, it does not occur in English, so Professor Boas chose to write the ł as “tl”.  It is as close as an English–only keyboard can get.

The ł sound suggests an important truth: Northwest coastal Indigenous languages, dances, songs, stories, sounds, words and meanings belong solely to our peoples.  We treat them as heirlooms, as other North Americans regard gold, silver, or diamonds.  Northwest cultures are unique to the Kwakwaka’wakw nation and its neighbors, the Salish, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nisga’a and my own people, the Haida.

That is one reason why not only we but the entire world must do everything possible to keep these languages, songs, dances and stories alive.  If they die, our people and our children – and the human race – will lose something that no one can ever recover.  Our languages, celebrations and traditions define who we are, and they keep our heritages alive.

They are our lifeblood.

How’a and How’a sta,
Cle–alls (Dr. John Medicine Horse Kelly)

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Native Dance