Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
'A Strict Law Bids Us Dance'
In 1975, the U'Mitsa Cultural Society released the film 'Potlatch A Strict Law Bids Us Dance.' It tells the story of the potlatch as it is held by the Kwakwaka'wakw, briefly explaining the purpose of the ceremony and the effects of the ban on potlatches initiated by the Canadian federal government in 1884. Federal officials were bewildered when potlatching First Nations including the Tlingit, Nuu Chah Nulth, Gitskan, and Cowichan as well as the Kwakwaka'wakw persisted in potlatching. The ceremony went underground for many years, and people insisted on potlatching in the face of jail time, devastating fines, and the repeated confiscation of regalia. The potlatch is often described as a ceremony where things are given away. This isn't wrong, but it leaves so much out that if we stick with this definition, going to jail rather than not hold one seems a bit crazy.
Potlatches are held by families for a member who has undergone a rite of passage, such as birth, death, marriage, or earning a new name. The ceremony provides a means for many people to bear witness to these important events, as well as for the potlatch holder to accrue prestige. The more a potlatch holder was able to give away, the greater their status. From a Western perspective the growth in status seems to be primarily related to wealth, but the bearing of witness is no less, and perhaps even more, important. To be able to draw many witnesses to a ceremony marking a rite of passage indicates the potlatch holder is widely respected.
Each potlatch begins with mourning songs, followed by dancing and speechmaking. Families were allowed to perform only the dances they owned, unless they had special permission from other dance owners. The dancers don specially carved and painted masks and often woven cloaks or other special regalia, representing supernatural beings whose stories are told through the performance. One of the most famous and misunderstood of these dances is the very first performed after the mourning songs, the hamat'sa dance. It represents the taming and reintegration into society of a person sent into the woods alone to join with the fearsome cannibal spirit, Baxbakwalanuksiwe'. By singing the songs, performing the dances, and giving speeches, the history and mythology of the Kwakwaka'wakw are retold, relearned, and preserved.
The potlatch originally lasted from two to three weeks, and still serves to some degree as a means of redistributing wealth. When the Canadian federal government instituted the potlatch ban in 1885 and tightened the law in subsequent years, altering it to ban all 'Indian ceremonies' one of the reasons for doing so was ostensibly because potlatch holders bankrupted themselves in order to have the ceremony. In fact, a person intending to hold a potlatch and their family worked for a year or more prior to the potlatch, gathering goods over and above their own necessities to give away. Even if a potlatch holder and their family seemed quite poor afterwards, since more than one potlatch was held a year, this was no great problem as they could expect to attend other potlatches and receive gifts. This is not to say the potlatch ban was not inspired by economic concerns, but those concerns were not necessarily those of the Kwakwaka'wakw, or any other potlatching First Nation. Many fish cannery operators favoured the potlatch ban because during the potlatch season, their workforce vanished.
Fundamentally, the ban had far more to do with the continent-wide attempt to undermine and destroy Indigenous cultures. Ceremonies are key events in any culture, where teachings are passed on, historical events are reenacted, and life changes are acknowledged. They structure time and often provide a venue for artistic expression of all kinds and a fixed time when otherwise scattered families are able to get together. For many Indigenous comunities throughout North America, the first step towards health and success after years of grinding poverty, rampant illness and persistent addiction is the reinstatement of the ceremonies that draw them back together and re-establish social roles people need to feel loved and valued. In short, you can't try to remake 'Indians' into tarnished, second rate 'white men' without destroying what makes them able to hang onto their own ways and their own identity.
Once the ban was established, many potlatch holders resorted to holding the ceremony on islands or in obscure villages the police were unable to patrol regularly. In 1921, a police crackdown led to the arrest and imprisonment of nearly fifty people who participated in Dan Cranmer's potlatch, and the dispersal of their regalia. It was a terrible blow, yet ultimately helped insure the survival of the potlatch and the creation of the U'Mitsa Cultural Society, which runs a museum that cares for the regalia from the Cranmer potlatch (which is still being slowly returned), and helps maintain Kwakwaka'wakw culture.
In 1951, the federal government revised the Indian Act, ending the ban on the potlatch and other indigenous ceremonies such as the Sun Dance. However, the ban was not repealed, merely deleted, which should be an ongoing concern for Indigenous people in Canada.