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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T40


The Growth of the Secret Societies
of the Kwakiutl 11

The secret societies of the Kwakiutl, as we know them nowadays, are
undoubtedly a complex growth. The history of their development
may be elucidated, in part at least, by means of a study of the present
organization, its geographical distribution, and the component elements
of the rituals and their explanatory myths.

A comparison of the ceremonials of the various tribes of the North
Pacific Coast does not leave any doubt that they are in the main derived
from the same source. Not only are the ceremonials much alike; even
their names are identical. Among all the tribes the badges of the ceremonials
are made of cedar bark, which is dyed red in the juice of the
alder. Head rings, neck rings, and masks are worn by the dancers. The
performances themselves are essentially the same from Alaska to Juan
de Fuca Strait. But the most certain proof of their common origin lies
in the identity of name among the various tribes. Among the Haida,
Tlingit, and Tsimshian we find the names ōlala, mē'ila, and nō'nłem,
which belong to the ceremonial of the Kwakiutl as well. Among the
Bella Coola the names cannot be derived from the same words as among
the other tribes, but there the ceremonial itself is almost identical with
that of the Kwakiutl. It certainly does not differ more from the ceremonial
as described here than that of other tribes of Kwakiutl lineage
differs from the ceremonial of the Kwakiutl proper. Besides this, the
names of the dancers, if not those of their dances, are often borrowed
from the Kwakiutl. Turning to the south, we find the Nootka as well
as the Salishan tribes who practice the ceremonial, terming it by the
two names Ḷō'gwala and nō'nłem, both of which are names used for
portions of the ceremonial of the Kwakiutl.

The following table exhibits the terms that are used to designate parts
of the ceremonial among various tribes:379

tableau kwakiutl | Haida and Tsimshian | Nootka | Salish

As all the words here enumerated belong to the Kwakiutl language,
there can be no doubt that the ceremonial of the Kwakiutl has influenced
to a very great extent those of the neighboring tribes. It does not follow
necessarily that no secret societies existed before the Kwakiutl exerted
their influence over the people of the coast, for the wide distribution of
secret societies and the general similarity of the underlying principle all
over North America make it probable that such societies did exist. But
there can be no doubt that their present character was attained among
the Kwakiutl, from whom the societies in their present form spread over
a vast territory. 12

The question then arises, How did the societies acquire their peculiar
characteristics among the Kwakiutl? I may refer at this place to the
growth of the clan system of the Kwakiutl tribes. This system probably
attained its present development under the impetus of the clan system
of the northern tribes. The social distinction connected with the possession
of a clan legend gave a sufficient suggestion to the mind of the
Indian to turn his imagination in this direction.

The close similarity between the clan legends and those of the acquisition
of spirits presiding over secret societies, as well as the intimate
relation between these and the social organization of the tribes, allow
us to apply the same argument to the consideration of the growth of the
secret societies. This leads us to the conclusion that the same psychical
factor that molded the clans into their present shape molded the secret

If this argument is correct, we must expect that the legends of the
secret societies, although belonging to the most sacred myths of the
tribes, show indications of foreign influences, as these must have offered
the material for the suggestions which gave rise to the myths. I will not
at this place enter into a detailed discussion of these traditions as I have
done so in another publication. 23 I have shown that all legends of this
380region are of complex origin, and that they must have been carried over
enormous distances from tribe to tribe. This is true of the more insignificant
tales as well as of the most important myths, such as creation
legends, and the legends of the origin of the secret societies. To give only
one or two examples: In the tale of the origin of the cannibal society
of the Bella Bella, it is told how a woman gave birth to a number of dogs,
who attained the secrets of the cannibal society. This tale is found over
the whole of the northwestern portion of North America, among all the
Athapascan tribes, among the Eskimo, and all along the North Pacific
Coast. Only in this single instance is it connected with the origin of the
secret societies, and I conclude, therefore, that a foreign story has been
embodied in this myth.

While here the foreign portion of the myth forms only a slightly
connected incident of the tale, foreign material is much more closely
interwoven with the whole fabric in the most important one of all the
legends of secret societies, viz., the tale of Bax̣ubakwālanux̣usī'weɛ. When
we compare this myth with the creation myth of the Chinook we find a
remarkable resemblance in certain parts of the legends. The grandmother
of the divinity of the Chinook, 14 when a child, was carried away
by a monster. Their child became the mother of the culture hero, and
by her help the monster was slain. Among the Kwakiutl, the cannibal
spirit carries away a girl, and is finally slain. In one version their
child becomes the new cannibal spirit. There exist several stories on
the west coast of Vancouver Island which form probably the connecting
links between these two legends. 25 Furthermore, the important
incident of the magic flight which figures in the Kwakiutl legend has so
wide a distribution, not only on the Pacific Coast but also in the Old
World, that we must consider it a foreign element in this myth.

These instances show that the myths referring to the ceremonial are of
complex origin.

I will point out another peculiarity of these traditions: When we compare
the legends as told by the various tribes of the coast, we find that the
ceremonial is derived from a variety of myths. Some men obtained it
from Bax̣ubakwālanux̣usī'weɛ, others from the wolves, still others
brought it down from heaven. The legend of the Tsimshian tells that a
hunter obtained it from a bear who took him into his lodge in the interior
381of a rock. Traditions which are entirely distinct in character and origin
are brought forward to explain the origin of the same ceremonial.

What does this prove? We have seen that none of the tales referred
to can be considered as a growth of the genius of any of these tribes uninfluenced
by any foreign sources. All the traditions are full of foreign
elements which can be traced, step by step, to distant regions. When we
see, therefore, that the same ritual is explained by a variety of traditions,
we must conclude that in this region at least the ritual is older than the
tradition referring to the ritual; that the former must be considered as
primary, the latter as secondary.

I believe the source of the ritual, as well as of the legends which are
connected with it, must be looked for in the advantages and the prerogatives
which the membership of secret societies gives. This must have
caused a desire to possess such membership, which either led the men to
acquire memberships in existing societies, or, where these were not sufficient,
for the people to invent new ones. Of course, I do not mean to say
that the Indian invented traditions consciously and intentionally, but
that the desire excited his fancy and his whole state of mind, and that
in this manner, after appropriate fasting, the opportunity was given for
hallucinations, the material for which was necessarily taken from the
existing ideas, or from the ideas of neighboring tribes. These are the
peculiar phenomena which were set forth by Stoll in his book on Suggestion,
and I think in a deeper manner by Tarde in his book on the
Laws of Imitation.

It is easily understood how the exciting aspect of the ceremonial of
the cannibal society caused a young man who had gone fasting to believe
that he saw in his hallucinations the same spirit under new conditions,
and to tell of his experience after his return. As the notion had become
established that the spirit, after having been seen, had a tendency to
reappear to the descendants, an opportunity was given for the formation
of a new place in the secret society. We may therefore assume that the
psychological explanation for the development of the complicated system
of the membership in secret societies lies in the combined action of
the social system and the method of acquiring guardian spirits.

While these considerations explain the variety of forms of the secret
societies and prove that the myths on which the ritual is apparently
founded are probably secondary in character, they do not give a clue to
the origin of the secret societies and of the peculiar customs connected
with them. There are, however, indications which allow us to conclude
382that these customs had their origin in methods of warfare. First of all,
the deity Wīna'lag˙ilis is considered the bringer of the ceremonial. The
name means “the one who makes war in the whole world,” and he rules
the mind of man at the time of war as well as during the period of activity
of the secret societies. For this reason, also, the secret societies are
in action during times of war, in winter as well as in summer. All the
oldest songs of these societies have reference to war; the cannibal, the
bear dancer, and the fool dancer, are considered as chief warriors, and
fall into ecstasies as soon as they have killed an enemy. All this seems to
indicate that the origin of secret societies has a close connection with

But one thing more must be considered. The customs which we
observe nowadays are evidently a modern development of more ancient
forms. The ceremonial of cannibalism, which nowadays is the most
important part of the whole ceremonial, is known to have been introduced
among the various tribes recently, although its foundation, the
idea of the existence of a spirit who is killing people, is present among
all the tribes. The Kwakiutl state uniformly that the custom of devouring
men was introduced among their tribe about 1830, and that it was
derived from the Bella Bella. We also have conclusive evidence that
the custom was acquired by the Tsimshian not before 1820 approximately,
and that they also obtained it from the Bella Bella. Therefore
there is no doubt that the custom originally was confined to the small
territory of the Bella Bella. Among the southern tribes the action of the
cannibal was confined to his taking hold with his teeth of the heads of
enemies, which were cut off in war.

The form in which the ceremony of cannibalism of the Bella Bella
appeared first was the following: A slave was killed by his owner, and
then was torn and eaten by the cannibals, or pieces of flesh were torn
with the teeth from the arms or the chests of people, or finally, corpses
which were prepared in a particular manner were devoured by the
cannibal. The first of these customs shows clearly its close connection
with warfare. The slave is the booty of the cannibal, or of his relatives,
and by slaying him the victory is once more brought before the eyes of
his admiring friends. It is hardly possible to prove definitely that the
secret societies have developed exclusively from customs relating to warfare,
but I believe my remarks have made clear the close connection
between the two phenomena.383

11 With slight modifications from pp. 660-664, of the “The Social Organization
and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians,” Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895 (Washington, 1897).

21 It cannot be proved that any connection exists between the torture ceremonies
of the Kwakiutl (hawī'nalał) and the sun-dance ceremonies of the Sioux and Blackfoot,
but their analogy is quite striking.

32 Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Küste Amerikas (Berlin, 1895),
p. 329.

41 Chinook Texts, Bulletin 20 of the Bureau of Ethnology (1894), p. 9.

52 For a remarkable analogue of this tradition collected among the Golds of Amoor
River, see Globus, vol. 71 (1897), p. 92.