The potlatch culture of the Northwest is well known and widely studied. It is still practised among the Kwakwaka’wakw, as is the lavish artwork for which they and their neighbours are so renowned. The phenomenon of the potlatch, and the vibrant societies and cultures associated with it, can be found in Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, which details the incredible artwork and legendary material that go with the other aspects of the potlatch, and gives a glimpse into the high politics and great wealth and power of the Kwakwaka’wakw chiefs.
When the Canadian government was focused on assimilation of First Nations, it made the potlatch a target of activities to be suppressed. Missionary William Duncan wrote in 1875 that the potlatch was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized”.
In 1885, the Indian Act was revised to include clauses banning the potlatch and making it illegal to practise. The official legislation read,
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 for a term not more than six nor less than two months in a jail or other place of confinement; and, any Indian or other person who encourages, either directly or indirectly an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, or who shall assist in the celebration of same is guilty of a like offence, and shall be liable to the same punishment.
O’wax̱a̱laga̱lis, Chief of the Kwagu’ł “Fort Rupert Tribes”, said to anthropologist Franz Boas on October 7, 1886, when he arrived to study their culture:
We want to know whether you have come to stop our dances and feasts, as the missionaries and agents who live among our neighbors try to do. We do not want to have anyone here who will interfere with our customs. We were told that a man-of-war would come if we should continue to do as our grandfathers and great-grandfathers have done. But we do not mind such words. Is this the white man’s land? We are told it is the Queen’s land, but no! It is mine.
Where was the Queen when our God gave this land to my grandfather and told him, “This will be thine”? My father owned the land and was a mighty Chief; now it is mine. And when your man-of-war comes, let him destroy our houses. Do you see yon trees? Do you see yon woods? We shall cut them down and build new houses and live as our fathers did.
We will dance when our laws command us to dance, and we will feast when our hearts desire to feast. Do we ask the white man, “Do as the Indian does”? It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you come to forbid us dance, be gone. If not, you will be welcome to us.
Eventually the Act was amended, expanded to prohibit guests from participating in the potlatch ceremony. The Kwakwaka’wakw were too numerous to police, and the government could not enforce the law. Duncan Campbell Scott convinced Parliament to change the offence from criminal to summary, which meant “the agents, as justice of the peace, could try a case, convict, and sentence”.
Sustaining the customs and culture of their ancestors, in the 21st century the Kwakwaka’wakw openly hold potlatches to commit to the revival of their ancestors’ ways. The frequency of potlatches has increased as occur frequently and increasingly more over the years as families reclaim their birthright.
Source From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia