The Potlatch Ban

A display of goods to be given away at a potlatch at Yalis (Alert Bay), ca. 1900. Photograph by William Halliday. BC Archives H-03976.

Potlatches are times of song, ritual, dance and ceremony, and are the context in which ceremonial masks are seen and performed. The potlatch, especially the Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch, is famous for its theatricality and symbolism, and for various reasons has become emblematic of Northwest Coast culture.

In a broad sense, the potlatch is a gift giving feast practiced by Northwest Coast First Nations in Canada and the U.S. The feasts are held on the occasion of births, deaths, adoptions, weddings, and other rite-of-passage events (Harkin 2001). At a potlatch, the hosts display masks and other hereditary possessions, recite the origin of the rights these objects represent and the history of their transmission, and bestow new ranks and names upon the member now entitled to use them. The ceremony is completed by a distribution of gifts, which are really payments to the guests. The guests, or witnesses’, role at a potlatch is to validate the new status of the individual by providing a public witnessing (Cole and Chaikin 1990: 5). The feasts are closely associated with the winter months, as food and wealth were traditionally gathered in the warmer summer months. A diversity of different coastal cultures each practice their own version of the potlatch and have different names for it. The word comes from the Chinook jargon, a lingua franca practiced among coastal peoples and early traders. Potlatch means “to give away” or “a gift” and is derived from the Nuu-chah-nulth word paɬaˑč (Harkin 2001).

It is a time for pride - a time for showing the masks and dances owned by the Chief or host giving the potlatch. It is a time for joy. “When one's heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are [Kwakwaka'wakw]. Everyone on earth is given something. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy." — Elder Agnes Axu Alfred (Quoted from Living Tradition Virtual Exhibit, 2016).

The potlatch is much more than a gift giving feast. It was once the primary economic system of Coastal First People (Jonaitis 1991), and although no longer the primary economic system, it is intricately woven into the social fabric of coastal societies. These events display and legitimate class, rank, privilege, kinship, and marriage (Cole and Chaikin 1990: 12). One of the most important aspects of the potlatch is to pass on a family’s rights, privileges, and inheritances. This includes rights to land, property, fishing holes, berry patches, hunting grounds, and beach fronts. The gifts and inheritances distributed at such feasts include tangible objects (hats, blankets, dance aprons, coppers, masks, painted house fronts and carved posts), and intangible wealth (rights to specific dances, songs, stories and the right to display animal crest designs). After contact with Europeans these gifts were supplemented with goods acquired through trade including metal dishes and tools, European jewelry, flour, sugar, and cash. In the contemporary potlatch goods vary widely and include both handmade and store bought items.

Masks surrendered under duress by the Kwakwaka'wakw people after Chief Dan Cranmer's potlatch in 1921. Photographer unknown. Royal British Columbia Museum, PN 12191.

Integral to the meaning of the potlatch today, especially among the Kwakwaka'wakw and other Coastal First Nations, is the Canadian governments banning of the ceremony through legal means. Potlatching was made illegal in 1885, and the prohibition was not lifted until 1951 (Cole and Chaikin 1990). Such attempts at suppression were not new. Missionaries and federal officials had been trying to ban the custom since they first arrived in British Columbia. The lobbying of the federal government to legislate the ban, can be seen as evidence of just how ineffective their initial attempts at suppression were (Ibid: 14). The purpose of the ban was explicit. It ws intended to stamp out aboriginal people and their culture. Coastal First Nations were persecuted, chiefs and noblewomen were jailed for practicing their culture, masks were confiscated, Big Houses were torn down, and ceremonial objects were burned (Joseph 1998: 26).

The Canadian government’s ban on potlatching came to a head at Christmas in 1921 when Dan Cranmer held the largest potlatch recorded on the coast of British Columbia at the village of ʼMimkwa̱mlis (Village Island). Federal authorities caught wind of the event and forty-five people were arrested. The participants were given a choice of either surrendering their potlatch regalia— to prevent them from having future potlatches—or going to jail. Twenty-two people went to jail (U'mista 2015). The confiscated collection of masks, rattles, and other treasured regalia and family heirlooms totaled over 600 pieces. The treasures were transported out in the open by boat and were exhibited as trophies on benches in Parish Hall of the Anglican Church in Alert Bay. This was particularly difficult for the Kwakwaka'wakw as the items were considered sacred, and strict tradition required that they be stored away and out of sight when not in use (U'mista 2015).

“And my uncle took me to the Parish Hall, where the Chiefs were gathered. Odan picked up a rattle and spoke, ‘We have come to say goodbye to our life,’ then he began to sing his sacred song. All of the Chiefs, standing in a circle around their regalia were weeping, as if someone had died.” (James Charles King, at Alert Bay, 1977) (Quoted from Living Tradition Virtual Exhibit, 2016).

Kwaxalanukwame’, Odan, Chief Johnny Drabble. Photograph by William Halliday. Royal BC Museum, PN 12195

The Indian Agent, William Halliday, displayed the confiscated goods in the Anglican Parish Hall at Yalis (Alert Bay) and charged an admission price. Collectors came to see the masks and add photographs of regalia to their personal collections. Halliday also sold 33 items to Mr. George Heye, of New York, who would later found the Museum of the American Indian (now the National Museum of the American Indian). Most of the collection was then crated and divided between the Victoria Memorial Museum (now the Canadian Museum of History) and the Royal Ontario Museum. 

For many years potlatches continued to be held in secret by people of the Northwest Coast with hopes that the Potlatch Ban would be repealed. In 1951, Section 149 of the Indian Act was deleted and people of the Northwest Coast were able to hold potlatches in public. The first held after the repeal was hosted by Mungo Martin, in Victoria, BC (Cole 1990). However, those who have had their families belongings confiscated have not forgotten and many are still looking to have them returned home. 

Masks surrendered under duress by the Kwakwaka'wakw people after Chief Dan Cranmer's potlatch in 1921. Photograph by Rev. V. Lord, 1922. Royal British Columbia Museum, PN 12189.

Please visit this beautifully designed and informative website for more informaiton on the Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch and the Potlatch Colleciton. While there you can virtually tour the colleciton in high resolution 3D.  

Work Cited

Cole, Dougalas and Ira Chaikin
1990    An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Dougalas and McIntyre.

Harkin, Michael E.
2001    Potlatch in Anthropology, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, eds., vol 17, pp. 11885-11889. Oxford: Pergamon Press

Jonaitis, Aldona
1991    Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch. University of Washington Press 1991

Umista Cultural Society
2015    Living Tradition: The Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch of the Northwest Coast. The Virtual Museum of Canada.