Traditional Dances

by William Wasden Jr.

The Kwakwaka’wakw have two sacred ceremonies. The first is known as the T’seka (Winter Ceremonies), the second is the Tła’sala (Peace Dances). The Peace Dances were originally called Dłuwalaxa (Returned from Heaven Ceremonies).

The T̕seka is the most sacred of all Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonies. In our culture, the hosting family will invite guests from neighbouring families and villages to come and witness the family’s history, which will be reenacted through songs, dances and stories. The family honours its guests through the feast and the giving of gifts.

The Hamat’sa
At the centre of the Winter Ceremonies is a dance we rank among the highest: the Hamat’sa (Cannibal Dance).  The dance comes from the spirit of Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ (The Man Eater from the North End of the World).  In ancient times, this supernatural being lived far in the mountains with his family. Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ would fly down into nearby villages, capture people and carry them back to his home to eat. Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ killed many people. Few saw him and lived.

Some lucky ancestors had spiritual gifts that protected them.  Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ was unable to harm these people. On these occasions, as a gift for discovering him, he was willing to give them some of the rights to his ceremonies.  In some legends, Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ was killed, and through his death the ancestors could claim his songs, dances and names.  From that time on, the spirit of Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ has dwelled in our forests and mountains. His spirit comes in the wintertime, which in this part of the world is moderate.  At that time, families that have the right will send their initiates into these forests.

Choosing the Initiate for the Secret Society
The Hamat’sa is more than a story, it forms the basis of our most sacred secret society.  Other Northwest nations once had secret societies, too.  Some, such as the Haida, once had one that was similar to the Hamat’sa.  But the Kwakwaka’wakw are the only people among all Northwest nations to have preserved their history and this amazing rite.

Usually, the Elders select a family’s eldest male to become the Hamat’sa. Sometimes he is a person who the people regard highly for the respect he shows to others and himself.  The initiation into the Hamat’sa takes place when the adolescent is ready to enter manhood. The Elders send him into the forest to cleanse himself. He fasts to clear his mind and bathes in icy-cold waters to purify his spirit.  This is necessary so he will lose his human scent.  Only a person who has properly prepared himself can get closer to the spirits, in particular, to Baxbakwalanuksiwe’.

A little later, when the Winter Ceremonies begin, the family brings the Hamat’sa back to the village. The Hamat’sa is in a state of wildness because the spirit of Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ has taken over his body. He is trembling with spiritual power. The Hamat’sa is crying, “Hap!” which means he wants to eat.  Spirit whistles are blowing and the people know that these are the sounds Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ makes.

The Hamat’sa has many mouths all over his body and they whistle as he moves. The old Hamat’sa dancers, the Solatłala, guide the new initiate to the ceremonial house. They know the ancient rituals to tame a Hamat’sa. They guard him closely so that he does not bite or hurt anyone, especially the guests the family has invited.

The Role of the Hiligaxste’
The Hamat’sa’s Hiligaxste’ is a special woman, a close relative the family has chosen to prepare the Hamat’sa’s food and accompany him.  She is important in his initiation and helps in his taming. She carries a copper, a shield-shaped metal sheet that represents a human body.

Facing backwards towards the Hamat’sa, she dances in front of him and lures him into the house where his taming will begin.

Both dancers enter dressed in hemlock branches that show they are wild and come from the forest. During this time the Hamat’sa continues to cry “Hap!” in his hunger.  He craves human flesh. His hands are reaching forward and shaking. Supernatural power has filled him. The dancers go around the dance floor in a counterclockwise direction.

The Initiate Returns With Supernatural Power
The speaker asks the singers to sing the sacred song of the supernatural being. The song has quick beats with a low bass sound from the box drum. The dancer now represents a spirit and enters the house backwards. He does this because spirits do everything backwards. They reverse even their language. The dancer slowly enters the house and imitates the supernatural being to which his family has rights. He imitates the creature in full drama and makes a quick circuit around the fire. The guests know exactly what he is portraying.  Then he disappears quickly behind the left side of the curtain, which is also the reverse of other ceremonies.

After the dancer leaves, his attendants shout “Wey, wey, wey, wey!” This announces the end of a powerful ceremony. To complete the dance, the family of the new initiate will wear Tła’sala headdresses and regalia.  They will dance to an old family song to celebrate the spiritual power of the new dancer. After the family members finish, they will repeat this pattern of Tła’sala dancing. The dances will continue further, depending on the number of treasures the family owns.
For example, a family may hold the right to the Sisiyutł.

The Sisiyutł “Double-Headed Serpent” is a powerful spiritual symbol to the Kwakwaka’wakw. Possessing supernatural powers, this serpent with a central human face could live on land or sea. To see this creature brought ill luck and to touch it meant death. But to those who were bestowed with its magical protection, it gave gifts of healing abilities and was the helper of warriors and medicine men. Sisiyutł has many magical properties including a canoe that is a Double-Headed Serpent as well. As related by Chief Henry Speck, the Sisiyutł is a powerful supernatural being that bestows its power on the initiates of the spirit Winalagalis (Making War Around the World). The canoe and paddles of Winalagalis are made of copper and when commanded by him, can magically disappear. This is why our ancestors say they could sometimes hear copper ringing out in the water in front of the village when they saw nothing passing by. His canoe is self-propelled and cannot be harmed by mortal weapons.

To eat, touch or even see a Sisiyutł can cause instant death by dislocating the joints of the unfortunate person and twisting the head completely backwards. If one were to encounter a Sisiyutł, they should back away and not take their eyes off this supernatural being, for if they do they could also faint or die by turning into stone from its supernatural power. The Sisiyutł is a crest used on headdresses for the Hawinalał “Warrior Dancer,” ceremonial belts, blankets and aprons, ceremonial weapons like bows, spears, clubs, feast dishes and many other ceremonial objects. Dant’si’kw “power boards” are treasures that are conjured up by Tuxw’id dancers who are bestowed with supernatural power by Winalagalis; the design on the boards represent Sisiyutł.

Here is part of a Kwikwasut’inuxw “Gilford Island Tribe” legend that refers to the power of the Sisiyutł:

Then T’sekame’ “Head Winter Dancer” spoke to his wife T’segiłi’lakw “Winter Dance Woman” and said, “Oh Mistress! What may be the sound coming from my salmon trap? It sounds like rocks avalanching down.” His wife said: “Oh, My Dear! Go up to our watch pole and see what it is.” Then T’sekame’ went up and when he reached the top he saw something like fire going from one end to the other in the salmon trap. T’sekame’ ran down from his watch pole and told his wife. He said to her: “Oh Mistress! What could it be, it looks like fire on its body, going from one end to the other in our salmon trap?” Then his wife replied: “Oh, My Dear! Can’t you guess what is the name of this salmon? It may be the salmon of your elder brother, Thunderbird. Now go back to it, but this time, draw some blood from your tongue.”

T’sekame’ went to his salmon trap and brought his fish club. Then he tried in vain to club this wonderful different kind of salmon, but the salmon broke down the salmon trap. Then T’sekame’ thought about what his wife said. He bit the sides of his tongue to draw blood. He spat some of the blood on the salmon, which was a Sisiyutł. The Sisiyutł calmed down. Then T’sekame’ spat on his club, and spat again on the salmon, and when he had spat four times on the salmon, he clubbed the Sisiyutł, killing it.

T’sekame’ carried the Sisiyutł and went to show it to his wife. T’segiłi’lakw said: “Oh, My Dear! I thank you on behalf of our son”. Then T’segiłi’lakw took a new cedar mat and spread it on the floor. She put their child on it. Early in the morning, T’segiłi’lakw arose and cut the Sisiyutł. As soon as she had cut it, she woke her husband up and said to him: “Oh, My Dear! Do not stay in bed long, but go and wash our son”. T’sekame’ arose and took a cooking box, for that is the washtub for newborn children. He poured water into it and added red-hot stones to heat it up. The water was luke-warm. Then he took his son and washed him. When he had finished, T’segiłi’lakw asked her husband to take some clotted blood from the backbone of the serpent and put it on the hands of their son. T’sekame’ did this, and then he put some of the blood into the cooking box. Then he washed his son in it. After he had washed him, he stepped on his son’s toes and pulled him. Now he became a full-grown man. Then T’sekame’ took the clotted blood of the Sisiyutł and rubbed it on his son’s hands. His hands immediately turned to stone. Then T’sekame’ told his wife: “Oh Mistress! Didn’t the hands of ‘Nalagitasu’ “Day on Body” turn to stone?” T’segiłi’lakw said: “Oh, My Dear! Thank you for your words, for I wish that he shall be a warrior.”

After four days, T’sekame’ washed his son again and did not step on his toes. He asked his wife to take some more of the clotted blood from the backbone of the Sisiyutł and rub it over the body of their son. T’sekame’ said to her: “You have wished that our son shall be a warrior.” Then T’sekame’ took some blood and rubbed it all over his son’s body. When T’sekame’ had finished, the body of ‘Nalagitasu’ changed. His whole body turned into stone. His body became black and his eyes became wide open, and his mouth was large and round just like a Dzunuk’wa “Sasquatch.” Then he grew twice the size of a normal man. As soon as ‘Nalagitasu’s body had changed, he cried like a Dzunuk’wa.

When T’sekame’ had finished working on his son, ‘Nalagitasu’ spoke: “Oh Father! Now I will cease to have the name ‘Nalagitasu’. My name shall now be, T’łat’łakwas T’i’samgid “Food Giver” “Stone Body”, for I am going to make war all over the world, I will rob the Chiefs of all the tribes of their crests, so that they will become our crests and that the Chiefs all round the world will become our slaves.” Now, T’i’samgid spoke to his mother and said: “Oh Mother! Don’t you have a canoe for me to travel in?” His mother replied: “Your father has a canoe, go and ask him”. So T’i’samgid asked his father and he responded: “Oh Son! Let us try my canoe.” As soon as the canoe was in the water T’i’samgid tried to get into it, but it sank at once, for his body was all of stone. After they hauled the canoe back ashore, T’i’samgid felt badly, for he had no canoe. Then T’sekame’ thought about what ‘Namugwis “Only One on the Beach” had said, when he had told him that he was going to give him a Sisiyutł canoe.

The next morning T’sekame’ went to see ‘Namugwis. T’sekame’ and asked him for his Sisiyutł canoe.  ‘Namugwis was glad that he had come to ask for it. Then T’sekame’ left the house of ‘Namugwis. As soon as he left, he saw both ends of the large Sisiyutł sticking their tongues out and in the middle was the head of a man. Then they got into the canoe and then ‘Namugwis told T’sekame’: “Oh Brother! Listen how I speak to the death bringing Sisiyutł Canoe.” Then he said: “Go, now, paddle!” The Sisiyutł Canoe sounded “Wo!” as if many men were shouting that way. Then all the paddles started at once going really fast, for it was not a normal thing. When T’i’samgid saw the canoe, he got right in the middle of it and said “Wo!” long and loud. The Sisiyutł canoe started. Then T’i’samgid said: “Oh ‘Namugwis! Thank you for your canoe. Now I will go and make war all over the world, so that you shall have the Chiefs of the world for slaves.

Today, the teachings of Sisiyutł are about balance. Each serpent with extended tongues facing in the opposite directions represents good and bad. The face in the center represents we humans who are given choices in life. It is up to us to choose our path and whatever direction we take, we determine our own fate. The serpents and human face are all adorned with spiral horns indicating the supernatural qualities of all three figures.

The Sea Monster ‘Namxiyalegiyu Dances During Tła’sala Ceremonies
The dancer comes in, walking on his hands and knees backwards through the front door.  The dancer keeps as low as possible, and when he turns and begins dancing, he weaves back and forth. As he moves, the dancer snaps his jaws together as if devouring people. Somewhere out in the bay or in front of the village, a deep-toned whistle, like that of a steamboat, blows.  When the people hear this sound, the ‘Namxiyalegiyu, which has a blowhole and supernatural horns, inflates his gills.  A dancer, who wears a black bearskin blanket, blows eagle down out the blowhole. He moves very slowly around the fire. As he gets near the right side of the singers, the dancer leaves quickly through the side opposite where other dancers exit. The singers yell, “Wey, wey, wey, wey!”.

© 2024 This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
Indigenous Dance