Traditional Dances

by William Wasden Jr.

The Kwakwaka’wakw have two sacred ceremonies. The first is known as the T’seka (Winter Ceremonies), the second is the Tła’sala (Peace Dances). The Peace Dances were originally called Dłuwalaxa (Returned from Heaven Ceremonies).

The T̕seka is the most sacred of all Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonies. In our culture, the hosting family will invite guests from neighbouring families and villages to come and witness the family’s history, which will be reenacted through songs, dances and stories. The family honours its guests through the feast and the giving of gifts.

The Hamat’sa
At the centre of the Winter Ceremonies is a dance we rank among the highest: the Hamat’sa (Cannibal Dance).  The dance comes from the spirit of Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ (The Man Eater from the North End of the World).  In ancient times, this supernatural being lived far in the mountains with his family. Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ would fly down into nearby villages, capture people and carry them back to his home to eat. Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ killed many people. Few saw him and lived.

Some lucky ancestors had spiritual gifts that protected them.  Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ was unable to harm these people. On these occasions, as a gift for discovering him, he was willing to give them some of the rights to his ceremonies.  In some legends, Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ was killed, and through his death the ancestors could claim his songs, dances and names.  From that time on, the spirit of Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ has dwelled in our forests and mountains. His spirit comes in the wintertime, which in this part of the world is moderate.  At that time, families that have the right will send their initiates into these forests.

Choosing the Initiate for the Secret Society
The Hamat’sa is more than a story, it forms the basis of our most sacred secret society.  Other Northwest nations once had secret societies, too.  Some, such as the Haida, once had one that was similar to the Hamat’sa.  But the Kwakwaka’wakw are the only people among all Northwest nations to have preserved their history and this amazing rite.

Usually, the Elders select a family’s eldest male to become the Hamat’sa. Sometimes he is a person who the people regard highly for the respect he shows to others and himself.  The initiation into the Hamat’sa takes place when the adolescent is ready to enter manhood. The Elders send him into the forest to cleanse himself. He fasts to clear his mind and bathes in icy-cold waters to purify his spirit.  This is necessary so he will lose his human scent.  Only a person who has properly prepared himself can get closer to the spirits, in particular, to Baxbakwalanuksiwe’.

A little later, when the Winter Ceremonies begin, the family brings the Hamat’sa back to the village. The Hamat’sa is in a state of wildness because the spirit of Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ has taken over his body. He is trembling with spiritual power. The Hamat’sa is crying, “Hap!” which means he wants to eat.  Spirit whistles are blowing and the people know that these are the sounds Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ makes.

The Hamat’sa has many mouths all over his body and they whistle as he moves. The old Hamat’sa dancers, the Solatłala, guide the new initiate to the ceremonial house. They know the ancient rituals to tame a Hamat’sa. They guard him closely so that he does not bite or hurt anyone, especially the guests the family has invited.

The Role of the Hiligaxste’
The Hamat’sa’s Hiligaxste’ is a special woman, a close relative the family has chosen to prepare the Hamat’sa’s food and accompany him.  She is important in his initiation and helps in his taming. She carries a copper, a shield-shaped metal sheet that represents a human body.

Facing backwards towards the Hamat’sa, she dances in front of him and lures him into the house where his taming will begin.

Both dancers enter dressed in hemlock branches that show they are wild and come from the forest. During this time the Hamat’sa continues to cry “Hap!” in his hunger.  He craves human flesh. His hands are reaching forward and shaking. Supernatural power has filled him. The dancers go around the dance floor in a counterclockwise direction.

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