Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My World Tuesday ~ Potlatching

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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Tammie Lee said...

such a gorgeous pole
powerful pole
meaning full art that stops us to breath slower
to contemplate what is meaningful
to cherish

Powell River Books said...

I remember you pictures of a pole raising ceremony a while back. I can't wait to see the new ones. - Margy

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! And that pole is just lovely!

Pierre BOYER said...

Regards from France,


jo©o said...

Hiya Carolyn,
What an interesting post.
I am so glad these traditions are so beautifully upheld. How many people are expected at an occasion like this?
Looking forward to your further reportage.

Anonymous said...

what an interesting post and fascinating to see the pole being carved. Judy's Postcards

Marion said...

This is such an informative post...I never knew what the rings on the poles stood for, although I've been to two potlatches.

The artist chose a wonderful pole...I want to run my hands over it! I love wood like this.

Can't wait to hear how it all went...xo

Carolyn said...

This is one of the most poles I have seen carved here on Haida Gwaii and Marion I did run my hands along its length and it was so fine and beautifully done. I can hardly wait to see it go up!

Janie said...

This is such an interesting representation of art and culture. A shame it was outlawed for a time. I'm glad the Canadian government has reversed a bad decision.

JenB said...

Carolyn you are so lucky to touch that beautiful wood! So stunning. I am so glad that so many poles are going up all over the islands - I especially love all the signs & benches in Masset & Old Masset. I look forward to your pictures!

sunflowerkat321 said...

This was really fascinating. I've always assumed that there was a story behind these poles and it's interesting to hear some of what they represent. I'll look forward to seeing photos of the pole being raised.


aka Penelope said...

I like the beautifully vivid carvings and interesting concept on the potlatch. Throughout history those in power have perceived (sometimes incorrectly) traditions as harmful in some way. Luckily, understanding increases overtime and our eyes are open to the wisdom of some practices. Glad you have shared this interesting event in your world.

Linda said...

You've answered the question I had on reading your most recent post - who gets to carry the new pole. It's good to see that it's all who want to be involved.
The things that were done in the name of assimilation...

Max-e said...

I have found this to be an interesting series of posts.
So many injustices were perpetrated in the name of "civilisation", progress and other causes in the past, all over the world. Yet in all these situation the wheel turns and a new rder takes over - some better some worse.
When will mankind learn to embrace the richness of our diversity and leave the old traditions.


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