This weekend the Skidegate Gidins will host a pole raising and potlatch to honour their new chief.
Potlatch, from the Chinook word(a common trading language of the Northwest coast indigeneous peoples) means "to give away" or "a gift" and was a social gathering by a hereditary chief or family in their house(longhouse) to establish or uphold his/their status position in society and to redistribute wealth. In a culture where history is passed on in an oral tradition potlatches were mainly winter cermonies to mark a significant event such as a son's marriage, the passing of a chief, the birth of a child or the installation of a new chief. Potlatches are distinguished from feasts in that guests are invited to a potlatch to share food and receive gifts or payment for witnessing the event. Potlatches were also the venue in which ownership to economic and ceremonial privileges was asserted, displayed, and formally transferred to heirs.
This beautiful pole, which was commissioned by Chief Syd Crosby from Master carver Tim Boyko will be raised outside of Sydney's home in Skidegate. (In older times it would have been raised in front of the clan longhouse.) Following the pole raising in which everyone is welcome to help raise the pole the potlatch will be held. The story of the pole will be told and the carver will be honoured and paid along with his apprentices.
The top figure on Syd's pole is an eagle and the post with the two rings on it represents the two potlatches that Sydney has/will host. There are old totem poles with many rings representing many potlatches. The photo below from BC Archives shows a memorial pole to a chief who in his life time hosted 10 potlatches.
The potlatch was seen by the church and the government as "the ritualistic act of giving away nearly all of one’s hard-earned possessions as a sign that the indigenous people were ‘unstable’". Yet the potlatch was the First Nations primary connection to their culture and the redistribution of wealth among their people. Your wealth was determined by how much you gave away not by how much you had! In 1880 an amendment was made to the Indian Act of Canada that banned the potlatch and proclaimed that:
"Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the “Potlatch” or in the Indian dance known as the “Tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less than two months in any gaol or other place of confinement; and every Indian or persons who encourages… an Indian to get up such a festival… shall be liable to the same punishment."
This Amendment to the Indian Act was meant to assimilate the First Nations people into the European culture however without the support of many of the Indian Agents it was a hard law to uphold. Some First Nations willing let the potlatch go however those like the Haida and the Kwakwakaʼwakw continued to practice the potlatch however in a much simpler form. The Anti-Potlatch ban was repealed in Canada in 1951 and the potlatch has become an important part of the resurgance of the Northwest culture. It is full of song, dance, regalia, food and pride and I will post lots of pictures next week!
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