Forgotten economies

Kwakwaka'wakw Mungo Martin house and totemWealth was not determined by how much you had,
but by how much you had to give away.

The Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) are an Indigenous nation, numbering about 5,500, who live in British Columbia on northern Vancouver Island and the mainland.

The picture is Wawadit’la, also known as Mungo Martin House, a Kwakwaka’wakw “big house” with a totem, used for ceremonies known as potlatch.

Within the potlatch, hierarchical relations within and between clans, villages, and nations, are observed and reinforced through the distribution of wealth, dance performances, and other ceremonies. Status of families are raised by those who do not have the most resources, but distribute the resources. The host demonstrates their wealth and prominence through giving away the resources gathered for the event, which in turn prominent participants reciprocate when they hold their own potlatches.

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. European diseases drastically reduced the population during the late nineteenth-early twentieth century.