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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Wakash Indians

A linguistic family inhabiting the western coast of British Columbia

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Wakash Indians, a linguistic family inhabiting the western coast of British Columbia from 50o 30' to Garden Channel, and the west and northwest of Vancouver Island, as well as a small region around Cape Flattery, Washington. They comprise several tribes, speaking separate dialects, of which the three most important are the Hailtzuk, Kwakiutl, and Nootka. The Indian name Wakesh (Waukash, good) was given by one of the early explorers who believed it to be the tribal appellation. In culture the Wakash closely resemble their neighbors the Salishan on the south and the Tsimshian on the north; physically and linguistically they are akin to the former. Juan de Fuca was probably the first white man to meet the tribe, and Juan Perez visited the Nootka in 1774. After 1786 English mariners frequently sailed to Nootka Sound; in 1803 the crew of the American ship "Boston" were almost all killed by these Indians. In 1843 the Hudson's Bay Company established a trading post at Victoria, and since then there has been constant communication with the natives, but with the usual result that the immorality of the whites, in conjunction with the ravages of smallpox, has brought about a gradual decrease in the Indian population. In 1903 they numbered about 5200, of whom 2600 were in the West Coast Agency, 1300 in the Kwakewlth Agency, 900 in the North West Coast Agency, and 410 at Neah Bay Company, Cape Flattery. In 1909 they numbered 4584, including 2070 Kwakiutl and 2494 Nootka. The latter have embraced Catholicism; though the missions have been successful among the northern Kwakiutl, the southern branch cling to their Shamanistic practices.

The Wakashan were excellent mariners, and went out on the ocean to hunt for whales. Their diet was mainly fish, varied with berries and roots. They were good wood-carvers, though not so skillful as the Haida and Thingit. Their dwellings were large cedarwood structures, erected near the shore, each accommodating several families. The Kwakiutl, who lived on both sides of Queen Charlotte Island, consisted of twenty tribes, the Kwakiutl proper dwelling near Fort Rupert. They are conservative, and are respected by the neighboring Indians as the guardians of the priestly rites. The Heiltruk Kwakiutl reckon descent by the female line. Head-flattening was common on Vancouver Island. Secret societies flourished among the tribes, initiation being accompanied by feasting, torture, vigils, and making presents to all who attended the ceremony. The highest society, the hamatsa or cannibal society, was composed solely of those who had passed eight years in a lower organization. The Nootka, consisting of twenty-three tribes, dwell on the shores between Cape Cook on the north and Port San Juan on the south, and include the Makah Indians at Cape Flattery. The latter call themselves Kive-net-che-chat, or Cape people; they are of medium stature, and well proportioned. Formerly they lived in villages consisting merely of seven or eight cedarwood houses, and excelled only in fishing. Marriage was a very slender bond, but was not allowed within the fourth degree. Both sexes had their noses pierced, and generally had shells suspended therefrom. They adored a chief deity, "Chabatta-Hatartstl", the great-chief-who-lives-above, and believed in spirits and the transmigration of souls. They held frequent representations, called tamanwas, depicting their mythological legends. The Makah women were clever basket-makers. The tribe still shows traces of an admixture of European blood, accounted for by the shipwreck of a Russian boat many years ago.

A. A. MACERLEAN


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