The Namgis Community of British Columbia

History/Origins of the Namgis: Those-Who-Are-One-When-They-Come-Together

Long ago, a man named Gwa’ nalalis asked his Creator God to turn him into a river. Creator God complied and the Gwa’ni River was born. At the mouth of this river, the Namgis community thrived before being discovered by General George Vancouver in 1792. He was exploring what is now Vancouver Island. The Namgis was one tribe among the Kwakwak’waka Nations, occupying lands along the Nimpkish River Valley.

In the 1700’s, the population neared 19,000, but, with European influence, their numbers declined, largely due to outbreaks of smallpox. By 1880, they totalled a mere 3,000 members. Europeans brought industry to the area in the form of a fishing saltery and persuaded the Namgis to relocate to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island to work and live.

Community/Daily Life:

Namgis families lived together as extended family units, as many as 50 in one “Big House”. These families were called na’ mima, or “of one kind”.

The Kwakwaka’wakw community, of which the Namgis was part, was organized into four specific classes: nobility, aristocracy, commoners and slaves.

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Many Namgis were notable artists. Ornate weavings, carvings and artwork have always been hallmarks of their culture. Surrounded by cedar forests, this wood figures largely in their crafts and homes. “Big Houses” were made of cedar and usually had an ornate totem pole by the entrance, representing the family within. The Namgis fashioned clothes from softened cedar, but for battles, strong cedar armor and helmets were made.

In summer, Namgis men wore tattoos, jewelry and little else. In winter, fat was rubbed over the skin for warmth; clothing and blankets were woven from cedar fibers.

Being an ocean/coastal community, travel was by dug-out cedar canoes, which could transport a single individual or an entire tribe. Ocean-going canoes were used for trade missions.
The ocean yielded much of the Namgis’ diet with salmon being most plentiful. Whales were stalked. Shellfish and other seafood was routinely consumed. Namgis men hunted rabbits and caribou; women gathered forest fauna. Seals, otter and walrus were hunted for their fur. Sea birds provided eggs and tender, oily meat.


Because no written language existed, the Namgis needed ways to acknowledge important events such as marriages, births and deaths. Legal/political disputes required a forum and because of their devotion to all things in the natural world, a venue for worship and giving thanks to the elements that sustained them was needed. Even a baby’s first haircut was noteworthy.

Thus, the potlatch was born. This ceremony was at the heart of their society and the most important event on the Namgis calendar. It was usually held in the ‘Big House’ of the most affluent family, as gift-giving featured heavily in the festivities. A potlatch could take years to organize and attendance was by invitation only. Dance was vital to tribal life, and rehearsals began months in advance. Costumes, scenery, artwork, catering, seating arrangements- everything was planned to the smallest detail.

Grievances were profusely aired by the host, but recipients of complaints weren’t allowed to respond…until they hosted a potlatch of their own.

The Namgis selected specific people to remember every detail of a potlatch. These individuals were painstakingly chosen and generously paid.

Despite being a seemingly innocent celebration, missionaries believed that by celebrating the potlatch, the “Indians” were being inhibited from becoming “civilized”. In 1913, the government banned the potlatch and seized countless ceremonial masks, artwork, costumes and regalia.

Decades later, the government rescinded their decision and returned the artifacts. Many can be seen at the U-mista Cultural Center. U-mista appropriately translates to “a returning; a coming back”.

Copyright John Lowe 2010 All Rights Reserved