Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Jul 18, 2010 - 3 comments

Part Eight - The Potlatch

Early in January, 1922, RCMP constable Donald Angermann, based in Alert Bay, learned that a large number of Kwakwaka’wakw had gathered the previous Christmas at Memkoomlish on Village Island to celebrate a potlatch. Modern visitors to the island will find the mouldering beams of a longhouse and a pole or two lying in the undergrowth, but before the people left it during the 1960s, Memkoomlish was an important village site of the Mamalillakula people, one of the tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw.

Located at the mouth of Knight Inlet, Village Island was a bit off the beaten track for coastal travellers, which is one reason Dan Cranmer chose to hold his Christmas ceremony there. The potlatch had been banned by the Canadian government for forty years and the local Indian agent, William Halliday, was known to be a determined enemy of the practice. “This potlatch custom has tended very materially to retard progress amongst the Indians,” he wrote. “It has set up false ideas amongst them, and has been a great waste of time, a great waste of energy, and great waste of substance.”


Using information gathered from informants who attended the Cranmer ceremony, Angermann charged thirty-four people with violating the anti-potlatch law. In mid-February, thirty-two of them appeared in court in front of Halliday, who also served as justice of the peace, and a second justice, local mill owner A. M. Wastell. Facing stiff prison terms, many of the defendants agreed to a deal. Their sentences would be suspended if they surrendered their ceremonial regalia – masks, headdresses, robes, rattles – and signed a promise not to engage any longer in the potlatch. But some refused to sign, and after Angermann had laid more charges against other participants, a total of twenty-two recalcitrants received jail sentences ranging from two to six months. After spending several days imprisoned in the school at Alert Bay, they filed aboard the steamer Beatrice and travelled to Vancouver where they boarded two police trucks for transport to the Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby.


All the forces arrayed against the First Nations of the coast – missionaries, government agents, police – came together in the attempt to suppress the potlatch. For many non-Aboriginals, the ceremony, or what they understood to be the ceremony, embodied everything that was keeping the First Nations in a state of savagery. It fostered senseless waste, they believed. It promoted promiscuity among the women. It distracted the people from punching a timeclock. It included heathen dances and the worship of false gods. It made a mockery of Christian marriage vows. “The efforts of the [Indian] Department,” wrote its senior official in Ottawa, Duncan Campbell Scott, “have been directed to the promotion among the Indians of industry, progress and morality, all of which are greatly hindered by indulgence in the potlatch.” Ironically, the intensity of the potlatch seems to have increased with the arrival of Europeans on the coast. The fur trade and subsequent economic opportunities provided by the wage economy meant that more individuals had the wealth to indulge in larger and more frequent ceremonies.


The term potlatch derived from a Chinook Jargon word meaning, roughly, to give. It was a shorthand term for a constellation of traditional ceremonies, a convenient way for Euro-Canadians to channel their misunderstanding and disapproval of Aboriginal culture. First Nations groups held the ceremonies for any number of reasons: to celebrate a marriage or a birth, to raise a house or a totem pole, to honour a dead chief or welcome a new one, to name a child. Claims to names, privileges and social rank were handed down and validated. People who were invited to witness these events received gifts for doing so. The speechifying, feasting and dancing went on for days. The ceremonies, which were practised by most of the nations of the coast, were at the heart of Aboriginal governance and social structure. By attacking the potlatch, the government and its agents were striking at the system of status and privileges through which the coastal people made sense of the world.


In response to entreaties from West Coast missionaries and Indian agents, the federal government amended the Indian Act to make the potlatch illegal, effective the first day of 1885. It was four and a half years before the first person was prosecuted under the law, at which point BC Chief Justice Matthew Begbie ruled that the law was unenforceable as written because it did not define the term “potlatch”. Several more years passed before a new law was in place and then it was enforced only sporadically. Officials agreed that the potlatch was undesirable, but they did not always agree that coercion was the best way to curtail it. As the years passed, many people believed the custom was dying out of its own accord. But among the Kwakawaka’wakw, it persisted with particular tenacity.


A turning point occurred in 1913 when Duncan Campbell Scott became deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs, the senior department official in Ottawa. Scott, a well-known poet as well as a career bureaucrat, initiated a much more aggressive campaign to stamp out the potlatch. Helped along by new legal powers enacted in 1918, he encouraged agents in the field to get tough with offenders. According to Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin in their book on the history of the potlatch law, William Halliday found himself between a rock and a hard place. The rock was Scott’s hard-nosed attitude. The hard place was the Kwakwaka’wakw’s determination to flout the law. In the normal course of things, Halliday might have waited patiently for persuasion to have its effect. But the new urgency emanating from Ottawa forced his hand, and the result was the mass arrests following the Christmas ceremonials on Village Island.


“The potlatch is killed,” a confident Halliday wrote his superiors following the Cranmer convictions. But of course he was wrong. Potlatching continued on the coast, and the steam went out of the government’s enforcement of the law. Very few people were convicted after the 1922 arrests until finally, in 1951, Ottawa repealed the law and potlatching once again became legal. Twelve years later Chief James Sewid paid a visit to the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization) in Ottawa where most of the regalia which had been confiscated at the Cranmer potlatch was stored. Sewid told the curators that the masks and other items had been stolen and he wanted them back. After several years of negotiations, the museum returned the items, many of which are now on display at specially built cultural centres at Cape Mudge and Alert Bay, a poignant reminder of the government’s ill-fated attempt to force cultural change on the indigenous people of the coast.


Next time: The collectors