From the Milwaukee Public Museum:
The beings that make up Kwakiutl mythology are remarkably diverse. Accounts of their interactions with humans and each other are passed along through stories that not only form the basis of traditional Kwakiutl spiritual and ceremonial life and lore, but also connect Kwakiutl families to their ancestral pasts. Many contemporary Kwakiutl identify themselves as Christians but incorporate traditional mythology into their faith, freely blending elements of Christian and indigenous religion. Broadly speaking, Kwakiutl mythology divides the world into several realms: the mortal world, the sky world, the land beneath the sea, and the ghost world (Boas 1935: 125; 1966: 306; Hawthorn 1967: 19; Macnair 1998: 95). In reality, however, it is difficult to discuss Kwakiutl mythology uniformly owing to the diverse accounts found among the many bands that constitute the Kwakiutl First Nations, though some underlying commonalities exist (Joseph 1998: 18-19, Kwakiutl Indian Band 2009; U’mista Cultural Center 2009).
Kwakiutl creation stories exhibit tremendous variation, but all hold that the original people appeared a very long time ago and presume the Earth to have already been in existence at that time (Bancroft-Hunt and Forman 1979:89-90). Some creation myths, known as transformation stories, tell of ancient ancestors traveling the world transforming nature or themselves into new beings, some taking off their animal masks to reveal their human selves. These ancestors imparted their animal masks as crests for their numaym (lineages), thus identifying some numaym with specific animals, such as the killer whale, wolf, bear, or raven. Some of these characters use their ability to transform to play tricks or to escape the consequences of their actions. Still other tales recount ancient ancestors’ encounters with supernatural visitors, angry spirits, and elemental forces. The list that follows includes brief descriptions of some of the more notable characters in traditional Kwakiutl cosmologies..
Buk’wus (Wild Man of the Woods): This character is one of the most fearsome in Kwakiutl mythology, even though it is generally reclusive and shy of people. The spirit of Buk’wus, Chief of the Ghosts and woodsmen, is said to live in the forest in a house that is invisible by day, subsisting on ghost food and cockles and drawing the spirit of the drowned to his side. He sometimes entices people to feast with him on his ghost food, thus eternally trapping them in the spirit world and eventually turning them into a Buk’wus (Mochon 1966: 72; Hawthorn 1967: 291; U’mista Cultural Center 2009).
Crooked-Beak of Heaven: These supernatural birds, easily identified by their dramatically arched beaks symbolizing hunger, are the attendants of the chief cannibal spirit and their duty is to provide the spirit with bodies to devour. They are believed to travel down to the eartth when they are hungry, seeking people to devour, and also play an important role in completing the secret Hamatsa ceremony (For more on the Hamatsa society, see the section entitled “Kwakiutl Ceremonial Life”).
Dzunukwa (Wild Woman of the Woods): There are many tales about Dzunukwa, though all describe her as a towering, clumsy, wide-mouthed, hairy woman with deep-set eyes and an appetite for disobedient children. She lives with her babies in a house guarded by Sisiutl (see Sisiutl below) set deep in the woods, where she hoards treasure and spends much of her time sleeping. Though terrifying, Dzunukwa can also be moved to generosity and kindness and will even give great treasure to anyone who can make her babies cry. Unlike many Kwakiutl deities that are thought to have fled from the physical world, retreating from the machinations of modern society, Dzunukwa is believed to still physically inhabit the dense mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest (Holm 1972: 33; Cole 1991: 138; Jacknis 1991: 198, 206). For many people, Dzunukwa is probably better known by her Chinook name, Sasquatch, or her English name, Big Foot.
Kumugwe (Copper-Maker, or Wealthy One): God of the land beneath the sea, Kumugwe is associated with tremendous wealth and lives with his wife in an undersea palace made of copper planks guarded by an assortment of sea creatures. It is said that the posts of his house are living sea lions and its doors are like giant, snapping mouths, and that within the walls of his palace is hidden great treasure. If a mortal could reach the sea god’s palace alive they would return home as wealthy and powerful men, for Kumugwe can bestow not only wealth but also magical powers (Boas 1935: 128-130; Hawthorn 1967: 239-240; Macnair 1998: 129). He is also regarded as the adversary of the Thunderbird.
Nu?ama?a (Fool Dancer): These characters are associated with the Hamatsa and are responsible for enforcing the laws that govern proper behavior during the ceremony (For more on the Hamatsa society, see the section entitled “Kwakiutl Ceremonial Life”). Nu?ama?a noses are extremely large and runny, and the mucus they secrete is considered magical and dangerous. However, the Nu?ama?a are very sensitive about their noses, and any mention of it or their mucus will only cause them to become agitated.
Raven: The Raven is considered to be a trickster according to Kwakiutl mythology, but his mischievousness has benefited mankind by providing us with the sun, moon, stars, fire, and salmon. He is also believed to be able to transform himself into any shape or creature at will.
Sisiutl (sea-sealth): A two headed sea serpent with a humanoid face in the center of its body, the Sisiutl is not only easy to recognize but is also one of the most powerful and important beings in Kwakiutl cosmology. It is believed that anyone who sees a Sisiutl will be turned to stone, and walking in the trail of slime that Sisiutl leaves in its wake entails certain doom. Having impervious skin that cannot be pierced, Sisiutl is the assistant of the war spirit Winalagilis, and it is believed that any warrior who can harness Sisiutl will be blessed with great powers. However, the Sisiutl can be killed by striking it with weapons covered with the blood from one’s tongue. This supernatural creature can transform itself into a number of other creatures, and can change its size at will. Those privileged to wear the Sisiutl as their crest are held in very high esteem, as they are afforded the protection and benevolence of the creature. The Sisiutl, along with the Thunderbird and Dzunukwa, are the three most important lineage crests representing supernatural entities (Boas 1935: 146; Hawthorn 1967: 133; Jonaitis 1991: 61, 90).
Thunderbird: These mythical horned birds inhabit the highest reaches of the sky, and are rumored to cause thunder when they ruffle their feathers and lightning when they blink their eyes. Thunderbirds are often transformers, changing from birds to humans (often recognized as ancient ancestors), and are associated with specific communities and lineages. Thunderbirds are generally protective spirits, as are their close relatives the Kulus (Holm 1972: 47; Suttles 1991: 90; Macnair 1998: 100; U’mista Cultural Center 2009).