First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia

Sisiutl motif painted over the entrance doors to Gukw'dzi. Kwakiutl bighouse at Tsaxis, Vancouver Island


Capt Jack, Chief of the Rupert Indians with his wife, c. 1868.
Photo: Archives Canada (Hannah Maynard)

Beaver Harbour (right) is a "Place of Origin" for the Kwakiutl. In 1849 to protect a nearby coal field, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) erected Fort Rupert here, at the site of Tsaxis, an old Kwakiutl village. Fort Rupert was the first permanent white settlement in Kwakwaka'wakw Territory. To engage in trade at the fort, the Kwakiutl reoccupied Tsaxis. Numerous and well armed, they asserted their right to mine the coal and sell it to the burgeoning steamship industry on the Northwest Coast. In 1850 the Kwakiutl took direct action to stop HBC miners from stealing their coal. In response to their demand for compensation and in fear of further native resistance, the colonial authorities negotiated treaties with the Kwakiutl, signed on 8 February 1851.

Treaties not withstanding, to punish the Kwakiutl for their resistance, Royal Navy gunboat attacked Tsaxis in December 1865. HMS Clio shelled the village and a landing party burned all the houses and canoes. The Victoria newspaper reported: "the [inhabitants] told piteous tales of losses of food, oil, blankets and some seventy canoes" (Daily Colonist 6 January 1866). This act of British brutality did not deter the Kwakiutl from rebuilding 26 houses on either side of the fort.



Walas Kwakiutl (Lakwilala), Kwakiutl (Kwágu7lh), Komkiutis, Kweeha (Komoyoi) and are known collectively as the Kwakiutl: "We have been called the Kwakiutl ever since 1849, when the white people came to stay in our territories. It was a term then applied to all the Kwakwaka'wakw - that is, all of the people who speak the language Kwakwala" (Kwakiutl Indian Band).

The Kwakiutl(pronounced Kwa-gyu-thl) were also known as the "Fort Rupert Indians." A photo from about 1868 (left) is inscribed: "Capt Jack, Chief of the Rupert Indians and his wife." Both individuals are well dressed in western clothes, he in a Royal Navy suit and cap. More information about this distinguished looking couple is not available, although it is one of the earliest studio portraits of First Nations people on the Northwest Coast, taken in Victoria by Hannah Maynard.

Tsaxis, c. 1866. (Click to enlarge)
R. Galois, Kwakwaka'wakw Settlements

 top of page

Tsaxis (left) and Fort Rupert, 8 May 1866.
BC Archives (Painting: E. A. Porcher)

Approx. territories of Kwakiutl tribes c. 1775.
Kwakwaka'wakw Settlements (text added)


A view of the stockaded Fort Rupert (left) painted in 1866 by a British naval officer shows the western half of Tsaxis. Located on the Inner Passage between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland (below), Tsaxis became the most spectacular ceremonial centre for potlatching on the Northwest Coast. In addition, Tsaxis was the principal site of Kwakwaka'wakw "acculturation" until the late 1900s when it was supplanted by 'Yalis (Alert Bay) in 'Namgis Territory.

Northwest Coast location of Tsaxis, 2006.
Government of BC (text added)

Most of the Places of Origin for the Kwakiutl tribes including the Komkiutis are located on Vancouver Island (left) between Port Hardy and Robson Bight. Following the building of the fort, the Kwakiutl population was decimated. By 1881 the decline had reached 83 per cent. By 1906 the total population was reduced to 104 people.

 top of page

"Fort Rupert Indians and Officers from HMS Scout," c. 1880.
Photo: BC Archives

  Fort Rupert was a hub for steamships serving HBC posts and other trade centres. In about 1880, a group of Kwakiutl (left) posed for a photograph with three visiting officers (standing in uniform) from the Royal Navy gunship HMS Scout. Many of the Kwakiutl are seen sitting on the ground, wrapped in HBC blankets, a primary object of trade. Several wear naval caps and other items of western clothing. The high walls of Fort Rupert are seen in the background adjacent to the equally imposing Kwakiutl tribal houses of Tsaxis.

In 1881, Canada established the Kwawkewlth Indian Agency at Fort Rupert, the same year that the first wave of ethnology collecting began with the arrival of J. A. Jacobsen, a Norwegian collector who was working for the director of the Royal Ethnology Museum in Berlin, Germany.

 top of page

During his 1881 - 1882 expedition for the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, J. Adrian Jacobsen collected more than 3,000 artifacts from the Northwest Coast, the majority from Kwakwaka'wakw territories. Some of the most spectacular masks were engraved in wood to illustrate his 1884 travel narrative "Reise an der Nordwestküste Amerikas," which was published in Leipzig. A transformation mask from Tsaxis was represented closed and open (right).

Transformation mask collected at Tsaxis, 1881.
Photo: Berlin Museum of Ethnology


Engraving of mask collected at Tsaxis, 1881.
J. Adrian Jacobsen

The transformation mask (left and above) collected by Jacobsen is described in the Berlin Museum of Ethnology catalogue as a sculptural masterpiece that embodies the rivalry between Kwakiutl chiefs at potlatch ceremonies: "This mask, from a potlatch in Fort Rupert, shows the rivalry in two phases: the closed mask shows a spiritual ancestor of a Kwakiutl tribe who is angry and wants revenge on a rival. When opened, the mask shows the opposite: a friendly ancestral spirit who gives away gifts with open arms to his guests." When the Jacobsen collection arrived in Berlin at the Museum of Ethnology to be catalogued, it inspired the young Franz Boas to depart on a collecting trip to Vancouver Island and take up his lifelong passion for the Kwakwaka'wakw people and their cultures.

 top of page

Xwamdasbe', 1881. (E. Dossetter).
Photo: American Museum of Natural History

Three decades earlier (1850 and 1851), the Royal Navy had shelled the Nahwitti who retreated as the Brits barbarically destroyed and burned their villages. This was the first use of colonial military force against an aboriginal community on Vancouver Island. Several Nahwitti were killed including Chief Nancy who had earlier been favourably described as "a grave, pensive, and handsome man" by the British governor of the Indian Territories, Sir George Simpson. He also remarked on the generous hospitality of the Kwakiutl, on their ingenuity, healthy life style and "exceedingly pretty" girls in his 2 vol. book published in London in 1847; "Journey Round the World During the Years 1841 and 1842."


Departing from Tsaxis in October 1881, Jacobsen sailed north to Xwamdasbe' (Humdaspe), meaning "place where there is otter." Almost untouched by white influence, this conservative village on Hope Island (right) was the principal home of the people known as the Nahwitti (the Yutlinuk, Tlatlasikwala and Nakomgilisala tribes) during the second half of the 19th century. Jacobsen reported that the Nahwitti were not keen to part with their ceremonial masks and required much persuasion. Xwamdasbe' was inspected in 1881 by the Superintendent of Indian Affairs during his maritime tour of coastal villages conducted from the safety of a British naval gunboat.

Xwamdasbe'. (Click to enlarge)
F. Boas, 1895

 top of page

Wa'tsuxuioa house facade, Xwamdasbe'.
F. Boas, 1895


When Franz Boas arrived in Tsaxis in 1886 on a collecting expedition for the Royal Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, he made Xwamdasbe' his first destination. Boas illustrated four of the named houses in the village (above) in his first major scholarly book, published in 1895. See Franz Boas, Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. He also recorded the ancestral story of the Wa'tsuxuioa house and drew its painted facade (left). Over its entrance was a sign saying: "Boston - he is the head chief of the Newette (He is true and honest and he dont give no trouble to whiteman)."


Engraving of masks collected at Xwamdasbe', 1881.
Jacobsen's Reise, 1884

The Raven mask (above and right) in Berlin is described in the Museum of Ethnology's catalogue as an important part of the Hamatsa Dance: "With its long beak Raven picks out the eyes of its victims and eats them." Franz Boas recorded some of the Raven legends of the Nahwitti during his 1886 visit and later published them in his classic book Indianische Sagen von der Nord - Pacifischen Küste Amerikas (1895). See the 2002 English translation: Indian Myths & Legends.

Ethnologists are only just beginning to understand the profound spiritual and ecological relationship to nature that is expressed in Kwakwaka'wakw culture and rituals. Raven, for example, initiates the first salmon run of the season.


Kwakwaka'wakw masks collected at Xwamdasbe' for the Ethnology Museum in Berlin by J. Adrian Jacobsen were illustrated in his 1884 narrative. Two masks, representing Raven and Sea Monster in the Hamatsa Dance, are among the oldest and finest of this form of Northwest Coast art in any collection worldwide (left).

The display of such unique and striking objects in European museums and books communicates not only their aesthetic qualities and ethnological signficance but also the power and authority of colonial elites over the indigenous peoples. In this light, the masks can be seen playing the reprehensible role as trophies of victory, mastery, ownership, control and domination. Ironically, these illustrations and texts today form a rare and valuable aid in the survival of First Nations culture.

Raven mask collected at Xwamdasbe', 1881.
Photo: Berlin Museum of Ethnology

 top of page

Hereditary Chief Harry Humchitt, 2006.
Photo: John Morris

  Some survivors of the catastrophic decline of the Nahwitti population moved to Tsaxis, others joined the Quatsino. Franz Boas observed in 1896 that the same owners of heraldic columns at Xwamdasbe' also owned columns at Tsaxis. The great grandfather of Hereditary Chief Harry Humchitt (left) of Tsaxis is the legendary Chief Hamdzidi from Xwamdasbe', who married Lucy Omhid, a Kwakiutl. Hamdzidi died tragically at sea with other Nahwitti warriors when their canoe was attacked by a killer whale they had wounded.

Chief Humchitt is a fisherman and logger who follows traditional practices when possible, but on occasion wistfully remarks that he was born a hundred years too late. During the 1950s, the 32 remaining Nawhitti at Xwamdasbe' were forcibly removed and relocated on the Quatsino Indian Reserve. Today Tlatlasikwala Chief Tom Wallace Sr. and others are reoccupying Xwamdasbe'.

 top of page

Geologist George M. Dawson was a founder of ethnology in Canada. Employed by the Canadian Geological Survey, in 1884 Dawson produced the first linguistic First Nations map of BC and he published: Customs and Arts of the Kwakiool (1887). Dawson's photo (right) of a Kwakiutl house at Tsaxis in 1885 shows a traditional structure made of huge cedar planks on which is painted a circular thunderbird motif. See: Franz Boas, Houses of the Kwakiutl Indians (1888).

According to the influential British Association for the Advancement of Science, British Columbia was the best place in North America to conduct research in ethnography and anthropology: "[here] the tribes have suffered less displacement and change from foreign influences than those of any other region. They still for the most part occupy their original seats and they retain to a large extent their primitive customs and beliefs" 1889 Report.


"Indian House," Tsaxis, 10 August 1885.
Photo: Archives Canada (G. M. Dawson)

 top of page

Approach to Tsakhees, 1890. Painting by Bill Holm, 1991.
Photo: Canadian Museum of Civilization


The way that Tsaxis might have appeared in 1890 to a group of Kwakwaka'wakw arriving for a ceremonial in canoes from the sea is the subject of a painting (left) by ethnologist Bill Holm.

International enthusiasm for the indigenous peoples and cultures of the Northwest Coast resulted in a commission given to Franz Boas to provide a colonialist victory display of native people living in a simulation of a house at Tsaxis for the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. World attention did nothing to prevent the Canadian government from engaging in ever more restrictive and retaliatory measures against the natives in their homelands, such as the notorious "Fisheries Act" of 1888 which prohibited aboriginal access to the salmon fishery.

 top of page

"Idols of the British Columbian Indians." (B. W. Kilburn)
Stereoscopic Views

A second view (right) shows the painted facade of the Kwakwaka'wakw house which came from Tsaxis. A huge collection of ethnographic artifacts was sent to Chicago along with 15 Kwakiutl adults and two children; "Here the groups of Native American peoples were to be arranged geographically, and to live under normal conditions in their natural habitations during the six months of the Exposition" (A History of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1898). Following the Exposition, the artifacts were purchased by the Field Museum of Chicago for its exhibition halls.


A stereoscopic postcard derogatorily entitled "Idols of the British Columbia Indians" (left) shows a Kwakwaka'wakw exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The guide stated it was "a real camp or village of the Quackuhl Indians, with these same totem poles in their actual condition, as brought from the Northwest" Totem Poles, The Dream City (1894).

Kwakiutl house and totem poles, Chicago, 1893.
Photo: World's Columbia Exposition

 top of page

HBC potlatch blankets, Tsaxis, 1894. (O. C. Hastings).
Photo: American Museum of Natural History

Franz Boas was part of the scramble for artifacts that took place during the great age of museum building in the US and Europe from c. 1875 to 1930. The visual representation of ethnological artifacts was an important part of early academic research. To illustrate the artifacts he had acquired for the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin and the American Museum of Natural History, Boas included 173 figures and 26 plates in his book: The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island (1909).

Most were wood engravings by an anonymous artist. Of the 26 plates, four were published in colour, each with six to eight dramatic masks illustrated by the German artist Rudolf Cronau (right). The illustrated masks originated in the villages of many of the 30 some Kwakwala speaking tribes described by Boas as the "Kwakiutl" (now refered to as the Kwakwaka'wakw). The enormous research by Boas made the Kwakwaka'wakw a much admired world culture and stimulated the founding of Boasian and neo Boasian intellectual traditions in physical and social anthropology.


In 1894, the Kwakiutl invited Franz Boas to witness their Winter Ceremonial at Tsaxis. Boas hired a photographer to document the event. One photo shows a pile of HBC blankets surrounded by a group of nine aboriginal men, six of whom are sitting on the ground wrapped in blankets (left). Blankets were an important potlatch gift for determining wealth and prestige. See the seminal study by F. Boas: The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians (1895).

Illustration by Rudolf Cronau.
The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island, 1906

 top of page

George Hunt Family with Franz Boas (right), Tsaxis, 1894.
Photo: Pennsylvania Museum (O. C. Hastings)

Born at Tsaxis, Charles James Nowell (1870 - 1956), was the first full blooded Kwakwaka'wakw to act as an interpretator and collector for outsiders. He was married to the daughter of Chief Lageuse of the 'Namgis First Nation. She is seen in ceremonial robes in a photo taken in 'Yalis in 1899 (right). Between 1899 and his death in 1924, Nowell was the assistant to Charles F. Newcombe, an Englishman who supplied ethnographic objects to the Field Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Peabody Museum at Harvard and others. Nowell and Bob Harris, also from Tsaxis, were part of the Kwakiutl and Nootka display at the 1904 St. Louis Universal Exposition. Nowell's life story was one of the earliest aboriginal biographies. See: Smoke From Their Fires; The Life of a Kwakiutl Chief (1941).


The collector of the majority of Kwakwaka'wakw artifacts in the world's museums (including those illustrated above) was George Hunt (1854 - 1933) Hunt (K'ixitasu') was the son of an English fur trader at Fort Rupert and his Tlingit wife, Mary Ebbetts (Ansnaq), daughter of Chief Tongas from Alaska. Hunt spoke Kwakwala and he learned how to render it in phonetic writing. For most of his life, Hunt worked as an informant, translator and collector for outsiders who came to Tsaxis including Israel Powell, Jacob Adrian Jacobsen, Franz Boas and Edward Curtis.

Lucy Homikanis, a high ranking woman from Hope Island, was the first wife of George Hunt. A photo of the Hunt Family (left) at Tsaxis shows Lucy standing between her husband and Boas (far right) during a visit by Boas in November 1894 to witness the Winter Ceremonial. Some time after the death of Lucy in 1908, Hunt married Tsukwani (Francine), a 'Nakwaxda'xw. Both women provided Hunt with a valuable Kwakwaka'wakw network of relatives, family privileges and knowledge.

Nowell, his wife and her mother,'Yalis, 1899.
Photo: BC Archives

 top of page

Tsukwani and George Hunt, Tsaxis, 1930. (J. B. Scott)
Photo: American Museum of Natural History

The ceremonial Kwakwaka'wakw masks (right) collected by George Hunt were part of a deplorable situation whereby artifacts "flowed irreversibly from native hands to Euro American ones until little was left in the possession of the descendants of the people who had invented, made and used them" (Douglas Cole, Captured Heritage: the Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, 1985).

The impact of this loss had a devastating impact on the Kwakwaka'wakw and contributed to the "Dark Age" of their culture from about 1920 to the early 1950s, when museum collecting and patronage stopped and Northwest Coast carving traditions became virtually extinct. This was the period of political prohibition during which assimulation of First Nations by "civilization" and "advancement" was the aim of the federal government. At the same time, Northwest Coast ethnographic artifacts in world wide collections were appropriated for their high aesthetic value as primitive art.

Tsukwani (left) was said to have given her husband much of the sacred material that he recorded with Franz Boas, as well as hundreds of Kwakwaka'wakw recipes. Women had a major and significant role in keeping their culture alive, yet most classical Kwakwaka'wakw ethnographic accounts were conducted by male researchers and focus exclusively on the activities of male individuals, especially chiefs. By contrast, the names and actions of women are rarely recorded.

Wood engraving of masks.
F. Boas, The Kwakiutl, 1906

 top of page

Kwakiutl hamatsa diorama, US National Museum, 1895.
Photo: Smithsonian Instiution

The Kwakwaka'wakw dioramas enabled urban viewers to see indigenous people and their material culture displayed within an educational context at some of the great museums in the western world. It was hoped that the dioramas and the science of anthropology would "teach us a greater tolerance of forms of civilization different from our own, that we should learn to look on foreign races with greater sympathy and with a conviction that, as all races have contributed in the past to cultural progress in one way or another" Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (1911).


While he visited Tsaxis in 1894 - 95, Franz Boas collected material for a diorama (left) illustrating the Kwakwaka'wakw winter ceremonials at the US National Museum in Washington DC. A similar scene in which a hamatsa dancer comes through a painted screen had been performed by the Kwakiutl at the Chicago fair in 1893. During his employment at the American Museum of Natural History, Boas collected the material for another Kwakwaka'wakw diorama in c. 1900, illustrating the indigenous uses of red and yellow cedar.

"Cla-lish," Tsaxis, c. 1899.
Photo: Washington Univ. (O. P. Anderson)

 top of page

Edward Curtis filming at Tsaxis, c. 1914.
A. Makepeace


Another visitor to Tsaxis assisted by George Hunt was the American photographer Edward Curtis. The largest volume of The North American Indian (1907 - 1930) by Curtis was The Kwakiutl (1914). Curtis also took motion picture footage (left) at Tsaxis for a film aimed to "give a glimpse of the primitive Americans as they lived in the Stone Age and as they still were living when ... explorers ... touched the shores of the Pacific between 1774 and 1791" (from the book by Curtis, In the Land of the Head Hunters, 1915). The film by Curtis was one of the earliest ethnographic reconstructions. See 18 video clips from the film: In the Land of the Head - Hunters (1914). See also the video clips of 'Namgis member Gloria Webster Cranmer discussing the Curtis legacy: 1) Stealing the Soul; 2) Dressing Up; and 3) Did He Show Us.

 top of page

Ravens (right), killer whales, salmon, seals, porpoises, halibut, squid, mink, bears, beavers, mountain goats and wolves are some of the many wild creatures featured in Kwakwaka'wakw mythology and art. Full of magical, supernatural power, Raven is seen as the Creator as well as the Trickster who perpetrates practical jokes. Raven is a transformer, teacher, catalyst and chief spirit whose legendary antics were often motivated by insatiable greed.

Raven mask collected at Tsaxis by George Hunt, 1901.
Photo: American Museum of Natural History


Raven (Corvus corax), Port Hardy, 24 May 2006.
Photo: Poecile

The raven mask (left) collected at Tsaxis in 1901 by George Hunt was used to perform the Hamatsa dance, an important part of the Winter Ceremonial described in detail by Franz Boas. Due primarily to Hunt and Boas, the American Museum of Natural History in New York has the world's largest and finest collection of Kwakwaka'wakw objects. These objects (and their illustrations) form the basis of Primitive Art (1927), the pathbreaking book by Boas in which his analysis of symbolism and style shatters the colonialist racism of his age.

 top of page

D'sonoquo pole, Tsaxis, June, 1914.
Photo: BC Archives

The bottom section of the D'sonoquo totem pole at Tsaxis was sketched by the artist Emily Carr (right) when she visited during a tour by boat of the Northwest Coast Indian villages in 1928. She wrote: "I tried to be plain, straight, simple and Indian. I wanted to be true to the places as well as to the people. I put my whole soul into them and tried to avoid sentimentality" Klee Wyck (1941).

The frightening legend of D'sonoquo (the wild woman of the woods who abducts and eats children) is often depicted on totem poles. Crests that represent the origins and history of extended families are also displayed on monumental carved columns. Other poles might serve as memorials to deceased chiefs or as support beams for ceremonial houses.


Although Tsaxis had early on provided museums around the world with some of their most exceptional Kwakwaka'wakw objects, it did not continue to flourish as a community. In 1881 the Church Missionary Society of London transfered its mission from Fort Rupert to 'Yalis and the Kwawkewlth Indian Agency followed in 1896. Tsaxis lost its position as the largest First Nations community in Kwakwaka'wakw Territory. A devastating fire in 1900 further reduced its inhabitants. By 1914, only a few of the original houses and poles were still standing in Tsaxis, among them the D'sonoquo pole (left and below)

"D'sonoquo." Drawing by Emily Carr, 1928.
Photo: BC Archives

 top of page

Kwakiutl Chief Mungo Martin, c. 1955.
Photo: BC Archives (Jim Ryan)


The resurgence of Northwest Coast art in the 1950s was largely due to the distinguished Tsaxis born Kwakiutl carver Mungo Martin (1879 - 1962). Mungo was called the "Carver of the Century" in 1959 by ethnologist Wilson Duff. He observed that Mungo lived two lives: in one, among whites, he was regarded as an uneducated native fisherman; and in the other, among the Kwakwaka'wakw, he had high hereditary status.

Mungo spoke limited English, having never been imprisoned in a residential school. He was one of the first natives to own a power driven boat and the first (in 1925) to use a diesel engine. Mungo remained in Tsaxis carving and working as a commercial fisherman until 1947, when he moved to Vancouver at age 68 to restore totem poles at the Museum of Anthropology. In 1952, Mungo moved to Victoria where he was appointed chief carver at Thunderbird Park.

 top of page

Mungo Martin greatly contributed to the preservation of traditional Kwakwaka'wakw culture and its resurgence. He replicated and carved totem poles and other traditional objects, reviving the market for Northwest Coast art. Crutially, Mungo was Kwakwala speaking informant who provided ethnologists with recordings of important oral histories and the some 400 songs he knew by memory. As well he provided detailed ecological knowledge about the places and names in Kwakwaka'wakw territories.

Like all high ranking Kwakwaka'wakw, Mungo had many traditional names. From his father, a Kwicksutaineuk from Gwa'yasdams, he inherited the title Chief Nakap'ankam ("ten times chief"). Mungo was related by marriage to the Hunt Family of Tsaxis. His second wife was Abayah (Sarah Smith), widow of George Hunt's son David. Abayah appeared as Nunalalahl - Qagyuhl in the Kwakiutl photographs by Edward Curtis, dressed as the "Weather Dancer" (right). Abayah was also portrayed later in her life making string figures. See the painting by ethnologist Bill Holm: Sun, Moon, and Star. See also the explanatory book: Kwakiutl String Figures.

Coppers are highly valued ceremonial objects that record crutial social and economic transactions in Kwakwaka'wakw society. One of the few coppers preserved in ethnological collections that retains its history belonged to Mungo Martin. Read the history by Wilson Duff: The Killer Whale Copper. See a photo: Mungo Martin's Max'inuxwakzi.


Abayah, wife of Chief Mungo Martin.
E. Curtis, 1914

 top of page

"Wa'waditla," Mungo Martin's bighouse, Victoria, BC.
Photo: Karen Wonders

The new generation of Kwakwaka'wakw artists inspired by Mungo Martin included Henry Hunt (1923-1985), who was married to his adopted daughter Helen Nelson, and his grandsons Tony and Richard Hunt. The Hunts recreated the original House of Chief Kwakwabalasami (Jonathan Hunt) at Tsaxis as an exhibit at the Provincial Museum. Another artist to apprentice with Mungo was 'Namgis carver Doug Cranmer. See Cranmer's account: Five Weeks With Mungo.


At Thunderbird Park in Victoria, Mungo Martin directed the construction of a replica of the Nakap'ankam tribal house at Tsaxis in which he had been born. In 1953, to dedicate "Wa'waditla," he held the first public potlatch since the potlatch ban had been dropped from the Indian Act in 1951. A family copper was used at the opening ceremonies of this landmark event. Following the tragic death of his assistant and only son, David (who was to inherit the copper), Mungo Martin graciously donated it to the Provincial Museum.

"Raven and Susiut." Print by Richard Hunt.
Photo: Richard Hunt

 top of page

In 1956 Mungo Martin carved a 38.8 meter high totem pole from a huge cedar tree. Erected by the City of Victoria in Beacon Hill Park, it was proclaimed to be "the world's tallest history book." In 1958 the Canadian government gave a totem pole carved by Mungo Martin (right) to the Queen of England. Ironically, the pole was planned to mark the centenary of Queen Victoria's naming of BC a Crown colony; it was 100 feet high, one foot marking each year of colonization. The monumental pole was carved from a single western red cedar tree about 600 years old that had been felled on Haida Qwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). It was erected in the Royal Windsor Park where it towers over the English trees and landscape. Also in 1958 a duplicate cedar column carved by Mungo, the "Centennial Totem Pole," was erected at the Maritime Museum in Vancouver.

During Mungo Martin's lifetime, the clearcut logging of Kwakiutl Territory was so extreme that no ancient cedars remain today from which to carve monumental poles or traditional canoes. As ethnologists worldwide celebrated the revival of Kwakwaka'wakw carving traditions, the logging companies with full government complicity were stripping the land of the red and yellow cedars necessary to produce the art forms that are unique to this part of the world and considered by French anthropologist Claude Lévi - Strauss to be equal in significance to those of Greece and Rome. His classic book The Way of the Masks (1982), was largely based on the expressions of Kwakwaka'wakw culture.


Pole erected by Mungo Martin in 1950.
Windsor Park, Great Britain, 2006

 top of page


Wazulis (Deer Island) was a place of confrontation in 1986 when the Kwakiutl blockaded the giant logging company MacMillan Bloedel. The company and government knew that Wazulis was "hot land" (contested First Nations land). The logging was subcontracted to a small local company that got a court ordered injunction to enable it to proceed. A counter injunction by the Kwakiutl claimed Aboriginal Title of Wazulis as part of their 1851 Douglas Treaty. Wazulis appears on government maps as part of the "Quakeolth" Treaty Areas in Canada's Directory of Federal Real Property (right).


"Fort Rupert Indian Reserves."
Indian Affairs Canada (text added)

 top of page

"In Kwakiutl Waters." (Click to enlarge)
E. Curtis, The Kwakiutl, 1914

While occupying Wazilus to protect it from logging in 1986, Dave Jacobson found a bent wood box coffin with ancestral bones in a hidden cave facing the sunset on the beach. The corpse was broken at the spine, a traditional burial practice banned by the 1888 Indian Act. At Tsaxis, neither government agents or missionaries succeeded in eradicating Kwakiutl traditions. By using photographs of the grave site on Wazulis as evidence of Aboriginal Title, the Kwakiutl won their counter injunction against the subcontractor of MacMillan Bloedel and successfully repatriated Wazulis, saving it from clearcut logging and industrial desecration.


Wazulis was used by Edward Curtis as the location of his classic 1914 ethnographic film and reconstruction: In the Land of the Head - Hunters. The waters around Wazulis in Beaver Harbour also provided the setting for many of the most famous photographs such as In Kwakiutl Waters (left) published in The Kwakiutl (1914).

Leading the fight to stop the clearcut logging of Wazilus in 1986 were Coreen Wilson and Dave Jacobson, both Kwakiutl from Tsaxis. Coreen's grandfather, Robert Wilson, was the sundancer in the original Curtis film and his sister Helen (Noo Noo) Knox was the Kwakiutl princess. Dave Jacobson (below) is an artist and carver who learned about traditional values and respect from his maternal grandmother Lucy (Martin) Nelson. See: Dave Jacobson: Mask Carvings.

Kwakiutl carver Dave Jacobson.
Tsaxis, 2006

 top of page

Kwakwala place names refer to specific locations: "The geographical terminology of the Kwakiutl is that of a sea faring people to whom the forms of land and water and the dangers of the sea are all important and who obtain their subsistance both from the sea and from the land. Instead of the points of the compass they orientate themselves according to the direction of the coastline and rivers" Franz Boas, "Geographical Names of the Kwakiutl Indians" (1934).

Kwakwala names (right) for 55 ecological features at Tsaxis (Fort Rupert) and Beaver Harbour are mapped by Boas. Archaeological evidence for sites of Kwakiutl occupation include: an old fort, six resource sites, five old villages, two graveyards and one winter village. On Wazulis (Deer Island) there was a resource site, an old village and a grave site.


"Fort Rupert and Beaver Harbor." (Click to enlarge)
F. Boas, Geographical Names, 1934

 top of page

Kwakiutl Albert Wilson, Tsaxis, 2005.
Photo: John Morris


The Kwakiutl (Smoke of the World) are the highest ranked of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes. Among the few surviving original families of Tsaxis are the Wilson Family. Chief Charlie Mountain Wilson married Emily Hunt, the daughter of George Hunt. His son, Robert Wilson (1895 - 1988), married Annie Martin, daughter of Chief Spruce Martin (d. 1947), the highest rank and name and the older brother of Mungo Martin. Annie gave birth to 14 children, three of whom died as babies. She was a Christian and for many years played the piano in the church at Tsaxis. One of her nine boys was Albert Spruce Wilson (1939 - 2005), also known as Madzilas. At the opening ceremony on 4 March 2005 of the new Kwakiutl Health Centre in Tsaxis, Albert (left) delivered a Kwakiutl prayer in Kwakwala. See galleries of contemporary photos: Tsakis Village and The Wilson Family.

Chief Robert Wilson was a commercial fisherman. At age 19 he became the first Kwakwaka'wakw owner of a gillnet boat. He also supported his large family by trapping wild mink, a livelihood crushed to death by industrial mink farming. All nine of Chief Robert Wilson's sons worked as commercial fishers despite diminishing stocks and repressive regulations against aboriginal fishing. Today the wild salmon fishery has collapsed and is being squeezed out by farmed Atlantic salmon. Chief Rupert Wilson (b. 1944) spoke out against the industry at a public hearing at Port Hardy:

"The federal and provincial governments are the ones that authorize these companies to carry on to pollute my territory. They're responsible for it. If it's proven that they are harming my life and my kids, we're going to have to take them to court ... put an injunction on Pan Fish ... We don't want any more fish farms" Chief Rupert Wilson, 28 June 2006, Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture.

 top of page

Hardy Bay is a Place of Origin for the Kwakiutl (right). The Norwegian owned company Pan Fish has a fish processing plant here and several fish farms in the vicinity, including one on Lake Georgie. When the plant burned down in 2003, it was rebuilt on a larger scale. The Kwakiutl oppose the fish farm industry both on environmental grounds and because Pan Fish (and its predecessor Omega) are in breach of contract with them. The Kwakiutl Band Council is currently suing Pan Fish for failing to provide an agreed upon monthly percentage of the fish farm profits as a royalty fee for using and polluting Kwakiutl territorial waters.

Bear Cove, Kwakiutl Territory. (Click for QuickTime)
Photo: Don Bain's Virtual Guidebooks


Port Hardy - Fort Rupert. (Click to enlarge)
Map: Google Earth

Port Hardy and Tsaxis remained remote marine communities until Highway 19 was built in 1978, connecting North and South Vancouver Island. Today Port Hardy is promoted as a strategic crossroads for air, ferry, highway and marine transportation networks serving North Island industries. Bear Cove (left) on Hardy Bay is one of the oldest archaeological sites on the Northwest Coast, dating back some 8,000 years. To prevent its desecration, the Kwakiutl tried unsuccessfully to stop the BC government from developing a ferry terminal here to serve the Northwest Coast.

 top of page

In his often cited book, The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island (1909), Franz Boas concludes with two chapters on fishing and hunting. The Kwakiutl shared salmon fishing rights on Gwa'ni and owned eulachon fishing stations at Dzawadi. Boas describes in detail the large number of types of traps, many of them feats of engineering skill specific to distinct places and tribes; an example he gives is the large fish basket used by the Da'naxda'xw Awaetlala (right).

Many aboriginal households continue to engage in the non commercial harvesting of fish, game and plants. Today aboriginal fishing rights are recognized under Canadian law as having priority over other resource uses. Yet most commercial and recreational uses occur at the same locations and on the same stocks and aboriginal priorities are routinely ignored by government management agencies.


Fig. 138. "Dam and Fish Basket."
F, Boas, Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island

 top of page

At the public hearings organized by the pro aquaculture BC government, Rupert Wilson asserted his Aboriginal Rights: "This is my territory. This is considered a Douglas Treaty area. My fishing rights are protected ... I don't want anybody breaching my fishing rights. My fishing rights come first." The Kwakiutl herediary and elected council chief has seen his livelihood as a fisherman disappear in the past couple of decades:

"Our jobs have been taken away, logging and fishing ... There are ghost towns up and town the coast. People are starving; people are on welfare." He blames the aquaculture industry for having destroyed the market for wild salmon and says the few jobs that it does offers do not compensate his people for the economic hardship caused by the loss of their traditional salmon fisheries and clam beds.

Beaver Harbour, Tsaxis, 27 April 2006.
Photo: Poecile


Kwakiutl Chief Rupert Wilson, Tsaxis, 2007.
Photo: Karen Wonders

Chief Rupert Wilson stands in front of his home overlooking Beaver Harbour (above). He once harvested and delivered 400 pounds of wild clams per week - 15 boxes, each weighing 60 pounds - to the Ocean Fish Company in Vancouver. With this work, he employed 45 people on the two Kwakiutl Indian Reserves at Tsaxis. Today, by contrast, he says: "There are no clams out there."

 top of page

Shell middens 5,000 years old exist in Kwakiutl Territory and are powerful evidence of aboriginal occupation. The beach at Tsaxis (above) is the site of an enormous two km long bank of clamshells left over from long ago Kwakiutl feasts. Shockingly, much of this midden was removed in the 1950s to use as landfill for the runway of the new airport built to serve the invading logging, mining and fishing industries centered at Port Hardy in the heart of Kwakiutl Territory.

The fish farm industry imperils not only Kwakiutl fishing rights but also their health: "The policy regarding farming needs to be way more stringent than it is ... Health and safety have never been addressed [such as] the pollutants that are coming from these fish farms and being dumped on our traditional territory, on our land ... contaminating our beaches to the extent where we can't even eat our own food" Kwakiutl Dave Jacobson, Port Hardy, 28 June 2006, BC Government Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture.

The Kwakiutl have initiated legal action against Canada for breaching their fishing rights and they plan a second legal suit against Canada for breaching the 1851 Douglas Treaty. Chief Wilson speaks with authority: "I'm the Kwakiutl in the Douglas Treaty area that is absolutely, 100 percent mine as a Kwakiutl" Chief Rupert Wilson, Port Hardy, 28 June 2006, Committee on Sustainable Aquaculture.

The Kwakiutl are represented by Louise Mandell, an Aboriginal Title and Rights expert known for her work on the successful 2004 court case initiated by the Council of the Haida Nation against BC and Weyerhaeuser. Today the Kwakiutl describe themselves as "a nation that is alive and prospering, far from the dying race they were thought to be at the beginning of the last century" Kwakiutl Indian Band.


Kwakiutl house pole, Gukw'dzi, Tsaxis, 2005.
Photo: John Morris

 top of page

Source:     Printed:

Copyright: All Rights Reserved. Researched, written, compiled, formatted, hyperlinked and encoded by Dr. Karen Wonders. Images and intellectual property rights reside with the credited owner. Commercial transmission and/or reproduction requires written permission. Use for educational and research purposes requires proper citation.