Potlatch 67-67: Generations of cultural genocide

This is the first of a three-part June series looking at the significance of the potlatch for the Kwakawaka’wakw of the Pacific Northwest, the attempted cultural genocide through a federal anti-potlatch ban and how artists are creating new forms of expression in conjunction with an upcoming thematic program entitled Potlatch 67–67: The Potlatch Ban – Then and Now, opening at the Comox Valley Art Gallery July 20.

The prison was located not far from Burnaby’s Deer Lake, situated on 185 acres of land.

The Oakalla Prison Farm, notorious for its escapes, riots and executions, housed some of B.C.’s most violent criminals, such as serial child-killer Clifford Olson.

Ten years after its opening in 1922, the prison housed 20 Kwakawaka’wakw – Pacific Northwest Coast Indigenous people.

In 1876, the Indian Act was first passed, with its purpose, as stated by its drafters, to legally enforce enfranchisement: a legal process for terminating a person’s Indian status and conferring full Canadian citizenship.

In 1887, John A. MacDonald stated: “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”

The anti-potlatch proclamation was issued in 1883; on Jan. 1, 1885, it became law.

According to Section 3 of An Act Further to Amend The Indian Act, 1880, “every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ or the Indian dance known as the ‘Tamanawas’ is guilty of a misdemeanour, and shall be liable to imprisonment.”

Chief and artist Kwaxitola, Willie Seaweed (1873-1967) holding his coppers. Image PN 2300-A courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

Forty-five people were arrested around Christmas 1921 during the largest potlatch recorded on the northwest coast of B.C.at the village of ’Mimkwamlis (Village Island – in the Johnstone Strait, east of Telegraph Cove); participants were given a choice of either surrendering their regalia or going to jail.

The guilty committed crimes, in the eye of Canadian law, such as dancing, gift-giving, singing and giving speeches.

Those who went to jail received sentences ranging from two to six months.

• • •

Potlatch is more than local government, the rights to land, dances, songs, regalia; to celebrate marriages, the naming of babies and to honour those who passed on.

Potlatch is more than a judiciary system, to recognize lineage, or to celebrate the raising of carved poles.

At the heart of a potlatch, however, is the ability to give.

Originating from trade jargon Chinook, formerly used along the Pacific coast of Canada, the word ‘potlach’ means ‘to give’ in its English translation.

Gifts were given at the event; for the Kwakwaka’waka, the wealthiest people are not those who have the most goods, rather have the ability to give it away in a potlatch.

“You see family always being involved in the potlatch system – you get to reconnect,” says Nagedzi, Rob Everson hereditary chief, Gigalga̱m Wala̱s Kwaguł. “ … What a lot of people don’t understand is that (potlatch) preceded residential schools.”

• • •

William May Halliday moved from Ontario to the Comox area with his family when he was seven years old. After working jobs in Victoria, he moved to Alert Bay and took a job as assistant principal at St. Michael’s Residential School.

His longest serving job was that of Indian Agent for the North Island and adjacent mainland inlets. He began in 1906 and held that job for 26 years.

According to an article that ran in the North Island Gazette, Halliday felt that traditional First Nations customs had some redeeming qualities. However, he stated the potlatch “was a particularly wasteful and destructive custom, and created ill-feeling, jealously, and in most cases great poverty.”

During the Christmas 1921 potlatch in Alert Bay hosted by ’Namgis Chief Dan Cranmer, Halliday was informed of the event, and subsequently arrested many in attendance.

Participants were given a choice of either surrendering potlatch regalia in order to prevent them from further potlatches, or going to jail.

“Through the Indian Act, they came up with the solution to wipe out our culture and song and dance,” notes Everson. “There were generations of culture removed from society … the potlatch ban was an attempted genocide on who our people were.”

Bags of flour to be given away at a potlatch. Image H-03980 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

During the ban, more than 600 masks, rattles and heirlooms were taken, and ceremonial items including blankets, masks, carvings and regalia that were confiscated were dispersed through collectors and museums. It has been reported that Halliday and other bureaucrats illegally sold ceremonial items, and took others for their personal collections.

Sixty-seven years after it came into existence, the ban was lifted. Attempts by individuals to have the potlatch material returned were unsuccessful.

According to the U’mista Cultural Society, the Kwakwaka’wakw were able to demonstrate that Halliday had illegally pressured people to give up their regalia, and in the 1970s they petitioned the Canadian government to have their items repatriated.

The board of trustees of the Canadian National Museums Corporation eventually agreed, and as part of the agreement for the return, two Kwakwaka’wakw museums were constructed to house the artifacts (one is located at Alert Bay and the other at Cape Mudge on Quadra Island).

Around the same time, the federal government admitted it had not maintained the items in the correct manner.

The society also notes owners estimated coppers taken in 1921 had a total value of more than $35,000. The Canadian Department of Indian Affairs paid only $1,485 for masks and other materials; no compensation was ever paid for the coppers.

• • •

It has been 67 years since the potlatch ban has been lifted, a ban which lasted for 67 years. Everson, along with his wife Lee, are passionate about maintaining and reclaiming traditional cultural practices and in creating new forms of expression.

Together, they have created the exhibition hiłt̕sist̕a’a̱m (the copper will be fixed), part of the Potlatch 67–67: The Potlatch Ban – Then and Now thematic program.

A diverse body of work created by Indigenous artists and cultural carrier living on the west coast and Vancouver Island were invited to participate in a gallery exhibition, set for July 20 to Oct. 4 at the Comox Valley Art Gallery.

“There is a lack of identity and piece of history missing,” notes Lee. “There are generations of culture removed from society. We want to bring to light a piece of history a lot of people don’t understand.”

For more information and a virtual tour of the Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch, visit umistapotlatch.ca.

For the English translation of the audio heard above, click here.

In Part 2 of the series, a look at the exhibit itself, and the artists involved.

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