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Updated: Oct 18, 2021

“When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are [Kwakwaka'wakw]. Everyone on earth is given something. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy." — Kwakwaka'wakw Elder Agnes Axu Alfred

The Kwakwaka'wakw (pronounced kwak-wak-ah-wak) of British Columbia have a very different concept of wealth than that held by most of the Western world. To them, along with other Native peoples around the Pacific Northwest, being rich is determined not by what one possesses, but rather by how much one gives away. When someone has an abundance of material possessions, they are expected to share their wealth with the family, clan and greater community. This belief is put into practice through the potlatch.

The word potlatch, derived from the Chinook language, means “to give,” and the potlatch ceremony revolves around the host giving gifts to guests in attendance. The more gifts a host gives, the higher their social status. These joyful occasions, which involve a lavish feast and performances, are practiced to mark such milestone occasions as:

  • Marriages

  • Naming of children

  • Passage of titles and names within a family

  • Transfer of the rights to land or property

  • Opening of a ceremonial bighouse or raising of a total pole

  • Passage of a loved one

Potlatching acknowledges more than one’s individual wealth, however; it celebrates Nature’s abundance, as well. A Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch includes songs, stories, dances, transformation masks, and other ceremonial objects that pay honor to the abundant Pacific Northwest environment – salmon, eagles, whales, cedar trees, rivers, mountains. In this way, the ceremony remains key to the Kwakwaka’wakw communal and cultural continuity.

In centuries past, potlatches would stretch out for weeks over the winter months. They were held in a ceremonial bighouse, the size of which indicated the host’s status in the village. Chiefs with the largest bighouses would often invite hundreds of guests from many Native nations, who would travel to a potlatch by canoe and arrive to an elaborate welcome.

Today’s potlatches still involve feasting, singing, dancing and speeches. Yet the most unique aspect of the ceremony is the distribution of gifts to all invited guests, who are “paid” for witnessing the event. These gifts have changed over time, although blankets, jewelry, flour, sugar and oolichan oil remain popular presents.

Potlatch hosts might take years to gather, make and prepare gifts to be given away at a potlatch, including what is needed for the feast. They dress in their finest regalia – cedar shawls and hats, button blankets, dance aprons – and may carry beautifully decorated rattles, drums, canoe paddles, and staffs, all elaborately carved and painted with their family’s animal clan crest designs.

The greatest symbol of wealth and power for the Kwakwaka’wakw were coppers or tlakwa (glack-wa), sheets of copper beaten in the shape of shields. These coppers – which could measure up to three feet long and were painted or engraved with the owner’s animal crest – were used to document significant events and transactions through the potlatch.

Yet even more valuable than a copper, a song is considered the most treasured gift one can receive. Songs are usually passed down within families to the oldest son, and to receive one raises a person's status in the community.

In 1885 the Canadian government enacted a law to shut down the ceremonial potlatch, believing such traditions kept Native peoples from becoming “civilized.” The ceremony remained outlawed for more than 60 years, and many Kwakwaka’wakw and others were arrested. (The charge? Dancing.) Still, potlatches continued – in secret – until the law was dropped in 1951, although it took decades for the practice to become a normal part of life again. Today many Kwakwaka’wakw families have revived their ways.

Excerpted from “The Kwakwaka’wakw: A Study of a North Pacific Coast People and the Potlatch,” a Native Knowledge 360° educational resource produced by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Reprinted with permission.


Potlatch feast dish, around the size of a coffee table, used to serve salmon and other foods. Ceremonial woman's hat woven from cedar bark and spruce root, which features images of a whale, a raven, and the sun. Kwakwaka’wakw Chief Willie Seaweed (1873–1967), holding a copper at Blunden Harbor, B.C. in 1951.

Additional photos of Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch circa 1980: Vickie Jensen/U'mista Cultural Society

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By Hayes Lewis

The Zuni People of New Mexico use the term A:shiwi (“the people”) to refer to themselves or their tribe. Here Hayes Lewis, a member of the A:shiwi Nation, shares his knowledge about the spiritual connection among the land, his people, and the crops that sustain their lives.

Agriculture has been an important and constant practice among the A:shiwi people for centuries. We either farm out in the fields or create gardens. Many started [to farm] as children, helping our parents create small gardens. The primary method we use is a waffle garden. If one looks at the garden from an elevated view, its layout resembles a waffle.

The purpose of the waffle garden is to provide the kind of produce that normally will not grow on a large scale. These plants require more water and constant tending. Waffle gardens are fairly small, and they are usually enclosed. Fences or other forms of protection are usually built around the gar­ dens to protect the plants from rabbits, prairie dogs, or rodents. The fence also provides protection from the wind.

The elevation at Zuni is approximately 6,800 feet above sea level. Since it is semi-arid, there is not much rainfall. Whenever there is rain, it needs to be captured, which is why berms — raised mounds of earth — are built up around each plant.

Waffle gardens are specific to families. Different kinds of spices, such as coriander, green onions, garlic, chilies, and sometimes tomatoes, are grown. Several crops of such plants are grown and harvested each season. For example, if coriander and other spices are planted early, in a month or so, when the first crop is harvested, the growing season will allow another crop of spices to be grown and harvested. Some people plant corn in waffle gardens, but corn, melons, and squash are better suited to be grown in the fields.

When we were growing up, we saw many waffle gardens along the banks of the Zuni River. People quit using this method because the water available from the river was reduced by the Black Rock Dam. Currently, there is a revival in gardening — primarily due to the improved water system and renewed interest.

Seeds are significant in all our cultural practices throughout the year. Two of the most important religious/cultural ceremonies occur during the summer and winter solstices. During the winter, the clans honor the seeds. Representative samplings of seeds are taken to family gatherings and honored along with our ancestors with an offering of sacred cornmeal, songs, and prayer.

There is a direct, reciprocal connection between the corn and the spiritual practice of the A:shiwi people. Corn is used in the preparation of the sacred cornmeal used by the A:shiwi people for daily prayer and as spiritual offerings to sustain the deities and ancestors. The corn is ground and prepared with special prayers for daily use and for each ceremonial/religious event held throughout the year. Each household maintains a supply of sacred cornmeal for such purposes. During the winter Sha’lako Ceremony, solstice fasting period, and other ceremonies held during the winter period, the seeds are blessed and honored as part of these ceremonies.

During our ancestors’ search for the Middle Place [a physical and symbolic center], they brought with them seeds to sustain life and spiritual practice. Seeds such as corn and those used for sustenance are special because they have the spiritual and collective personal energy and power of our people. Seeds are symbolic of the life cycle; they are symbolic of the ways we must live; and they must be protected and cared for.

Plants (especially corn) used to sustain life are seen as people and are representative of us. They are honored in prayer songs used during the summer rain dances and described in ways that strengthen the connections between spiritual practice, beliefs, and life.”

From the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s education poster, “Native People and the Land – The A:shiwi (Zuni) People: A Study in Environment, Adaption, and Agricultural Practices.” Reprinted with permission.

Images: Zuni waffle gardens; Zunis tending waffle gardens in 1920s.

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Genetic studies have revealed a DNA link between the Indigenous peoples of Australia and those of the Americas. It seems some 15,000 years ago, humans began crossing Beringia, a land bridge that once connected Eurasia to modern-day Alaska. Theories differ as to whether these early migrants arrived all at once or in waves. What is clear, however, is that Native Americans from Anchorage to the Amazon share distant ancestry with the Aboriginal people of Australia.

In fact, these two geographically distant groups share much more than genomes:

Wide Diversity – The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs currently recognizes 574 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages, while nearly as many Aboriginal clan groups or nations can be found Down Under. Nearly all of them claim their own languages, cultures, and beliefs. Geographic location, natural resources, and climate have influenced this rich diversity for both Indigenous groups.

Oral Traditions – Neither Native Americans nor Australian Aboriginals have written creeds. Rather, they both pass along knowledge, cultural values, and other important ideas orally from one generation to another. Storytelling, song, dance, and symbolic artwork (see below) are all used to communicate these traditions.

Rock Art – Ancient Indigenous peoples in both Australia and the Americas conveyed information through rock art, namely pictographs (painted images) and petroglyphs (etchings). Rock art discovered in Nevada is estimated to be more than 10,000 years old, while images found in Australia are upwards of 30,000 years old. (See blogpost, “Why Ancient Rock Art Totally Rocks.”)

Complex Family Structures – The cultures of both Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians revolve around complex relational structures that extend far beyond the typical nuclear family. Kinship units commonly include not only spouses and their children, but also grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and even non-blood relations. These extended family members often interact daily, sharing meals, chores and other activities. Elders are revered in both cultures, and often play a significant role in child rearing and group decision making.

Belief of “Oneness” – Indigenous societies in Australia and the Americas are rooted in the concept of “oneness,” that all things in the universe – both animate and inanimate – are interconnected. Even more, this belief holds that all things are interdependent on each other, as well. So when one aspect of life is out of balance – be it the environment or our individual psyche – the rest of life is as well.

Reverence for Nature – This sense of a universal oneness cultivates an intimate relationship with the land and a deep respect for the natural order of life. The traditional lifestyles of Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians work in balance with their respective environments; both groups consider nature to be sacred, and express gratitude for her many gifts. They are Mother Earth’s greatest stewards and fiercest defenders, tirelessly working to combat land exploitation, water pollution, and climate change.

Images: Aboriginal girl: Leigh Harris/; Native American girl:

#NativeAmerican #AboriginalAustralians #Aboriginal #Indigenous

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