Kwakiutl Mythology

The beliefs of the Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) people feature heavily in the cosmology of the Umbra of Victoria, and the importance of Kwakiutl spirits is central to local events. In the 20th and 21st centuries, many of the Kwakiutl have also converted to Christianity, but elements of their traditional beliefs are still a vibrant part of life.

The Kwakiutl are traditionally polytheistic, but not exactly in the way that concept is usually understood in European pantheons. There are blurred lines between supernatural animals or spirits, the heroes of humanity, gods, and actual living priestly dancers, who perform as these beings during ritual events. Many of the spirits can also act as symbols of clans (like the O’Briens, only with Salmon) and thus also potentially stand in for a metaphor of family relationships/kinship and correct behavior for a group; something like the way “Uncle Sam” stands in for the American way of life, only more serious.

The supernatural beings of the Kwakiutl are traditionally celebrated in stories, songs, and dances. Kwakiutl narratives have been shown to have poetic features, and are regarded by academics (and Kwakiutl) as a form of high art.

The categories below should be understood to not be discrete, totally separate categories, but rather overlapping categories. In other words, some of the Supernatural Animals are effectively honored as gods, and Raven, for example, is also sometimes described as a human hero of ancient days. Likewise the “monsters” could also be a source of gifts and power, and could be gentle and kind if approached correctly – they are also effectively gods. There is no clear-cut figure of good or evil by Western standards.

One important concept is that of Tlugwe (sometimes Tlokwe), ‘supernatural treasure’. They include songs, clan stories, dances, masks, and regalia used in ceremonies to connect the world of the living with the world of the spirits. Tlugwe must be guarded carefully. The material objects are stored in boxes and hidden away in Kwakwaka’wakw clan houses, and only taken out on solemn occasions when they will be animated and used to bring the spirit world into the presence of mortals in ceremonial fashion. Intangible Tlugwe are taught only the legitimate heirs who bear the appropriate clan insignia and hereditary or spiritual title to sing, recite, or dance them. Tlugwe belong to persons who have been granted secret initiatory names representing a limited number of ancestors from the mythical, primeval days. They must be inherited by blood ties, given in payment by their previous owners to honor a marriage or other historical occasion of importance to the clan, moiety, or tribe, or won in battle from a subjugated clan or tribe.

Deities

Corn Woman – although not a particularly agricultural society, the Kwakiutl respect the Corn Mother, an nationally-shared Native American belief in a fertility/agriculture mother figure – vaguely similar to Dana, although sharing distinct cultural roots.

Winalagalis – A tall, thin, black war god with bat-like eyes, Winalagalis travels the world, making war. His voice is that of the whistle and the bull-roarer, which are used to announce him. In the winter, Winalagilis comes from the North (metaphorically the underworld) and stays among the Kwakiutl. Winalagalis is the master of the Tseka Winter Ceremonial, and grants supernatural power to the sacred red cedar bark. He sails and is permanently fused with a magical war canoe made of copper, in the shape of a (living!) sisiutl, sometimes invisible and able to travel underground. The Tuxwid and Hawinalal warrior invincibility dances and the ma’maka Disease Thrower dance are in honor of him. In the Hawinalal, dancers don sisiutl girdles, are pierced through back & thigh skin with skewers, and suspended from the rafters of the plank house to demonstrate invincibility & immunity from pain.

Kanekelak – a Transformer deity who created the world in its current form.

Kumugwe (Copper Maker) – the sea god, often described as being in octopus form, held to be the enemy of The Hamatsa in his role as Qaniqilak, the god of the summer fishing season, and thus opposed to Winter.

Haida beliefs respected by some Kwakiutl: Ta’xet and Tia are death gods among the Haida. Ta’xet rules violent death, while Tia rules peaceful death. Dzalarhons, a woman associated with frogs and volcanoes, and her husband, Kaiti (bear god), arrived at the homeland of the Haida from the Pacific Ocean along with six canoes full of people. Gyhldeptis is a kindly forest goddess. Lagua is an invisible spirit who helped the Haida discover the uses of iron. Shamans could speak with Lagua’s voice by clenching their teeth. Sin (“day”) is the sky god and chief deity.

Supernatural Monsters

Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’ – “Man-Eater at the North End of the World” is a giant cannibalistic monster, covered in hundreds of gnashing and whistling mouths, often invisible and so only detectable by the whistling. Baxbaxwalanuksiwe is usually described as having four giant cannibal birds as companions, The Hamatsa, but is sometimes described as being one of them himself (specifically, Great Raven). He is also sometimes assisted by a horrible giant woman, presumably Dzunuḵʼwa.

Dzunuḵʼwa (Wild Women Dance) – The Basket Ogress, who carries off children to eat. Dzunuḵʼwa is a member of the large family of giants who live in the far away mountains and woods. In most legends she is female in character and black in colour, with bushy, unkempt hair and a pursed mouth through which she utters the cry, “Huuu! Huuu!” She is a terrifying and threatening creature. She usually carries a huge basket on her back in which she puts disobedient children that she has captured, taking them to her home deep in the mountains to eat them. In some stories fortunate children outwit her, as she is vain, dim-witted and clumsy. In another aspect of Dzunuḵʼwa, she is the possessor of the “Water-of-Life”, a gift she can bestow on people lucky enough to encounter and overcome her. Her most important role is that of the bringer of wealth and good fortune.

Noohlmahl or Nulamal – (“Fool”) masks depict violent buffoons sent by the Hamatsa. They are easily distinguished by an exaggerated nose flowing with mucus, and a humorous twisted expression.

Pugwis or Bakwas – the Wild Man of the Woods, fish spirits associated with drowning deaths, who eat Ghost Food out of cockleshells and try to trick humans into eating it and becoming a Pugwis as well. Sometimes described as married to Dzunuḵʼwa.

Thunderbird (Kwankwanxwalige) – a common Native American belief in the thundering sky birds, both terrible enemies yet also great allies.

Sisiutl – Two headed sea serpent or snake with an anthropomorphic head (and hands) in the middle of the body. All three heads are surmounted by “horns of power” (also seen on Thunderbirds). The Sisiutl is one of the most powerful crests and mythological creatures, and figures prominently in art, dances and songs. They are especially called upon by female warriors. Sisiutl is the guardian of the house of the sky people. Their only predator is the Thunderbird.

Supernatural Animals/Totems

Grizzly Bear
Land Otter
Mink (Tlisalag’lakw), said by many to have created humanity
Raven (U’melth or Kewkwaxa’we), a Trickster who gave us the moon, fire, salmon, the sun and the tides.
Red Snapper (Xwixwi), Earthquakes and healing. The Xwixwi is the “red cod” or “red snapper”. It has two protruding eyes. When the red cod is pulled out of the water its stomach comes out of his mouth and this is reason the tongue of the mask is protruding. When this fish is thrown into the canoe it beats violently with its tail, this action is imitated by the shaking of the scallop shell rattles.
Salal
Salmon
Seagull
Whale

Famous Culture Heroes

Tseiqami, man who came from the cedar tree
Kolus, younger brother of Thunderbird

Kwakiutl Mythology

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