Kwakwaka'wakw carver Willie Seaweed was born in 1873 at Blunden Harbour, British Columbia, where he lived until his death in 1967. Both his parents came from chiefly lines and so as chief of the Nakwaktokw band, Seaweed was called Heyhlamas or Rights Maker. His informal name was Kwaghitola or Smoky Top. Seaweed was his official Canadian name, as First People had to have a legal name recognized by the government.
Seaweed’s father was a Kwakwaka'wakw chief and died before he was born. Somehow Seaweed managed to avoid attending the government boarding school, as was the practice at the time. As a result he maintained and spoke his Kwak'wala language during his entire lifetime. During his childhood, Seaweed apprenticed in carving with his half brother Johnny Davis.
Seaweed was a Northwest Coast carver in the tradition of Charles James, Mungo Martin and Charles Edenshaw. His professional career coincided with the Canadian ban on the Potlatch ceremony. During this time Seaweed carved totem poles, coppers, headdresses, drums, rattles, whistles, and masks as well as painting house fronts. Most of Seaweed’s work was considered illegal because they consisted of ceremonial items and had to do with chiefly duties or public speaking.
There are over 120 known and cataloged examples of Seaweed’s work in existence. Many more examples probably exist in private collections or within the Kwakwaka'wakw community as gifts from potlatch ceremonies. Seaweed used his extensive knowledge of traditional stories, songs and dances and incorporated them into his work.
Seaweed was also an innovator who developed the staid Kwakwaka'wakw art style into a more dynamic and flamboyant expression. Combined with Chief George, Charley George Sr. and George Walkus, Seaweed helped to create a new Kwakwaka'wakw style in the 1920s. This group of artists known as the “Kwakwaka'wakw Four” employed devices such as painting the background of a piece white, and using high gloss enamel paints in red, black, orange, yellow, blue and green, to give their work a more theatrical appearance. Seaweed also began using tools such as a compass and straight edge for precision line work and near perfect circles.
Seaweed was very prolific in his time. Of the more than 120 items collected, two thirds of these were masks. His masks tended to fall into three categories: Hamatsa (Cannibal Raven), Atlakam (Spirits of the Forest), and Tsonoqua (Cannibal Grandmother).
The legacy of the Kwakwaka'wakw artists and Willie Seaweed in particular continued to flourish at the hands of their offspring. Charley George Jr., Charley G. Walkus and Joe Seaweed continued this remarkable artistic and cultural tradition and inspired today’s new generation of Northwest Coast artists.
- Malin, Edward (1999). Northwest coast Indian painting: house fronts and interior screens. Timber Press. p. 138. ISBN 978-0-88192-471-8.
- Johnson, Tim. Spirit Capture: Photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
- Matuz, Roger. St. James Guide to Native North American Artists. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998.
- “Willie Seaweed.” ABC Book World. (06 Apr. 2009.)
- “Willie Seaweed.” McGaugh Elementary School. 06 Apr. 2009.
- Hiłamas (Willie Seaweed or Smoky Top, ´Nak´waxda´xw Kwakwaka´wakw, 1873–1967), gikiwe´ (chief’s headdress) ca. 1949, Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian