Kwakiutl is a term used to describe a group of Canadian First Nations, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island, Queen Charlotte Island, and the mainland. The term they prefer to describe themselves is Kwakwaka'wakw, with their indigenous language, part of the Wakashan family, being termed Kwak'wala. The language is now spoken by less than 5 percent of the population--about 250 people.
Traditionally, the Kwakiutl were organized into about thirty independent tribes. Their society was highly stratified, with three main classes, determined by heredity: nobles, commoners, and slaves. Their economy was based primarily on fishing, with the men also engaging in some hunting, and the women gathering wild fruits and berries. Ornate weaving and woodwork were important crafts, and wealth, defined by slaves and material goods, was prominently displayed and traded at potlatch ceremonies. These customs were the subject of extensive study by the anthropologist Franz Boas.
Disease, which developed as a result of direct contact with European settlers along the West Coast of Canada, drastically reduced the indigenous Kwakiutl population during the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Since the mid-twentieth century the population has begun to increase and there has been a revival of interest in Kwakiutl culture and art.
(see also: Kwakiutl mythology)