Kwakiutl Midwinter Ceremonies

Kwakiutl Midwinter Ceremonies

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Religious (Kwakiutl)
Date of Observation: February
Where Celebrated: Northwestern United States and Vancouver Island
Symbols and Customs: Hamatsa Dance, Raven, Salmon
Related Holidays: Iroquois Midwinter Ceremonies


The Kwakiutl Midwinter Ceremonies are part of the Native American religious traditions. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The Kwakiutl are one of the Indian tribes that inhabit the coastal region stretching from northern California to southeastern Alaska. They believe that long ago, before their people even existed, the world was ruled by animals-including bears, wolves, seals, ravens, bees, owls, and killer whale-with fantastic powers. These supernatural beings gave some of their power to humans, who were the ancestors of today's Kwakiutl.

During their winter ceremonial season, the Kwakiutl acknowledge and reaffirm their connection with the supernatural world by performing dramatic dances or tseka (see HAMATSA DANCE ). The performers dress in strips of cedar bark and wear ornately carved masks that are designed to evoke the spirits of their supernatural forebears. The dances themselves illustrate characters and incidents from Kwakiutl mythology. The midwinter ceremonies also include feasting. Favorite foods served during the ceremonies include SALMON , salal berries, cranberries, huckleberries, blackberries, crabapples, and soapberries that have been whipped up into a froth. Many of the elaborately carved dishes in which ceremonial foods were once served can now be seen in museum collections.


Hamatsa Dance

The most important dance performed during the midwinter ceremonies of the Kwakiutl is the Hamatsa Dance. It is performed by members of the Cannibal Society, the most prestigious of the secret societies for which initiation rites are held during this period. The members must undergo special training and long periods of withdrawal from normal society, in return for which they are bestowed with the power of the Cannibal Spirit.

The Hamatsa Dance is characterized by magical effects, ghostly calls, and wild behavior. The dancers wear stylized masks, the most outstanding being that of the black-and-red Fool dancer. With his huge nose, he threatens audience members and occasionally throws stones at them to make sure they behave.


The Kwakiutl believe that it was the supernatural being known as the Raven who was responsible for placing the sun, moon, and stars in the sky, the SALMON in the rivers, and the fish in the sea. According to the legends of Alaska's coastal natives, the Raven also gave the Kwakiutl people fire and water and the foods they eat. Because he could turn himself into anything he wanted, the Raven loved to trick people by changing shape and form. Folklorists have collected a long series of stories, known as the "Raven cycle," about this supernatural being. During the midwinter ceremonies, tribal leaders and shamans (who serve as intermediaries between the natural and supernatural worlds) often wear raven masks.

The raven is also important to other Northwest coastal tribes. It can be found on the crest of the Tlingit and Haida of southeastern Alaska.


The salmon was as important to the tribes of the Northwest coast as the buffalo was to the Plains Indians. It was in this region where salmon were caught in great numbers every year, and where they were a staple of the Native American diet. According to Kwakiutl legend, salmon were supernatural beings who lived in their own villages under the sea. They had their own rites and ceremonies, some of which were passed on to the Kwakiutl ancestors. Because they swim against the current when they make their annual "runs" up the inland waterways to spawn, salmon have often been regarded as a symbol of extraordinary power and perseverance.

The attitude of the Kwakiutl people to the salmon is best illustrated by the "first salmon" ceremony. When the first salmon is caught, it is ceremonially cleaned and placed on a mat or bed of fern leaves. It is welcomed with a prayer of thanks and promised good treatment. The bones and entrails are wrapped in a mat and thrown back into the river where it was caught, so that its soul can return to its village and tell the other supernaturals that the Kwakiutl remember them and have treated it well. Then the salmon is carried home by a select group-usually children, women only, or the family of the fisherman who caught it-and roasted for eating.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Kavasch, E. Barrie. Enduring Harvests: Native American Foods and Festivals for Every Season. Old Saybrook, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1995. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.


Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History