Kwakiutl - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There was general recognition that most natural phenomena and all spirit beings possessed supernatural power, and the existence of such power made many activities and contacts potentially dangerous. Prayers might be offered or rituals followed to enlist supernatural assistance and affect the outcome of various pursuits. At the same time, the Kwakiutl attitude toward much of the world in which they lived was pragmatic and secular. There were numerous unearthly beings, including some identified with specific numayms and others with dancing societies. None was seen as particularly active in affecting the outcome of human affairs. Normally invisible, they might assume forms humans could see. Since missionization, most Kwakiutl have been Anglican. Some are members of evangelical Protestant churches.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans, of which there were several categories, were called on to impel or express spirit-induced sickness and to foretell or affect the outcome of events, cure bodily ills, or work sorcery.

Ceremonies. Winter was a period of intensive religious activity when the various dancing societies initiated new Members and reenacted the first contact with their supernatural guardians. Performances—dramatizations of myth-time events—were often staged with cleverly constructed props. Potlatching accompanied the initiations and was in other seasons offered as a ceremony in its own right. It involved host and guest groups, lavish feasting, formal speeches, and distribution of gifts to guests. Life-cycle events (including bestowal of names, marriage, assumption of titles, and commemoration of the dead), launching of a large canoe, or Construction of a new house were all occasions for potlatches.

Arts. The most intensely developed arts were those of sculpture, painting, dance, theater, and oratory. Prevalent themes and contexts were religious, including a distinctive and largely religious-based heraldry. Sculpture and painting conformed to conventionalized representations of animals and supernatural beings. Art was an applied form, richly decorating house fronts, mortuary and other commemorative monuments, boxes, seat backs, canoes, paddles, feast dishes, household utensils, tools, and personal possessions. Elaborate masks, robes, and other costume parts and complicated mechanical devices were important accompaniments of dance and theatrical performances. After a long period of languor, the arts have been revived in modified form, with sculpture holding most closely to tradition. Limited edition prints are the basis of a lively art especially popular with collectors. At least one Kwakiutl dance troupe offers costumed performances incorporating traditional themes and movements.

Medicine. Illness caused by soul loss or magic was treated by a shaman. Many ailments were attended to by specialized curers who might use plant, animal, or mineral compounds or decoctions or might prescribe bathing, sweating, or cauterization.

Death and Afterlife. The body, in a decorated bentwood box, was placed in the branches of a tree, in a rectangular plank gravehouse, or a sheltered rock cleft or cave. The soul of the departed, at first a threat to the well-being of survivors, was after about a year content in its new home and no longer dangerous. The afterworld resembled the earthly one, with people living in villages and harvesting the abundant animals, fish, and berries.

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