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"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. All that before we even deal with the problematic term "potlatch" itself.

Logo of the U'Mista Cultural Centre. Logo of the U'Mista Cultural Centre.
Logo of the U'mista Cultural Centre, January 2018

The feasts still commonly referred to in english as 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. In fact, without the witnessing and the giveaways that recognize the witnessing, the rite of passage or other change may not happen. Yet this role of "potlatching" may be overemphasized in mainstream discussions. Such formalized witnessing is also critical to demonstrating ongoing relationships with the land, or shifts in how those relationships work and who they include.

A common program for ceremonial feasting I have encountered in the context of the U'Mista Cultural Society's documentation is a beginning with mourning songs, followed by dancing and speechmaking. Which means, to be clear, that this is a generalized description of Kwakwaakaa'wakw ceremony. There are parallels to the practices of the other nations mentioned above, but they are not identical. Families are allowed to perform only the dances they own, unless they have 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.

Ceremonial feasts could originally last 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 First Nation with a ceremonial feasting system. Many fish cannery operators favoured the potlatch ban because during the potlatch season, their workforce vanished. Not a few "white" canadians claimed that because of their drive to earn extra money and goods for ceremonial feasting, Indigenous peoples on the west coast were "unfairly" outcompeting them in the work market.

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 expressions 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 the 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 – and remain healthy, whole human beings.

Not that it was easy to establish the "potlatch" ban. As Christopher Bracken describes in The Potlatch Papers, intefering officials couldn't even agree on what they were trying to ban. Early definitions were too vague, or sometimes too specific. Different officials varied in their commitment to destroying Indigenous cultures by pseudo-legal means. The result at first were ineffective prosecutions that mostly embarrassed the colonial state in all its reflexes. But it was also a foreshadowing of the increased social surveillance of anyone considered an "Indian," let alone a "status Indian" to come. Plus, the ban was not as wide ranging as colonial officials wanted. In effect, what they wanted was something that would effectively ban all overt aspects of Indigenous cultures across the settler state of canada, something broad enough to catch sweat lodges, Sun dances, pow wows, first salmon ceremonies, you name it, but not so vague that it caught nothing.

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 (regalia which is still being slowly returned), and helps maintain Kwakwaka'wakw culture. It is worth repeating that the ban, despite the intentions of colonial officials, has led to the survival of ceremonies, and the persistent and ongoing determination of Indigenous people to preserve, participate in, and care for them. This includes by Métis, who are often dismissed as "not really Indigenous" and supposedly not having an Indigenous spirituality, heedless of the facts of religious syncretism, not all Métis are even "christian," and many of us are part of ongoing traditions from before christianity was brought to the americas.

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 north america at large, because it reiterates the fact that we have religious freedom only because we have relentlessly fought for and protected it. Although the deletion of the ban from the Indian Act happened before Pierre Trudeau's infamous 1969 white paper, it was the product of unfailing resistance and protest by Indigenous people. Read Maria Campbell, who recounts the determination of the older women in her family who found ways to hold sweat lodges even if that meant inside their kitchens.

Why risk all the horrors of state-sponsored oppression for practising these ceremonies? People in europe have suffered far worse in history for their own religions, both non-christian and christian. The only reason the question even seems to make sense to many mainstream readers is because they have accepted two assumptions, that Indigenous people have no laws, and that Indigenous peoples have no religions. These assumptions could hardly be more wrong, and if they weren't, no settlers could have survived in the americas.

But if I answer the question from my perspective as a Métis, who has been blessed with the opportunity to take part in and witness some of these ceremonies, both of my own nation and those of other Indigenous nations, I can't do better than the eloquence of O'waxaalagalis in his 1886 explanation to Franz Boas:

It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbours. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you come to forbid us dance, be gone. If not, you will be welcome to us.


  1. The U'Mitsa Cultural Society maintains an excellent website, and the film 'Potlatch – A Strict Law Bids Us Dance' remains available for purchase or online viewing.
  2. For more on notions of supposedly "unfair" Indigenous competition for waged work, see: Lutz, John Sutton 2008 Mákuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations. Vancouver: UBC Press.
    Mákuk is quite accessible, but the narratives about white fragility in a competitive capitalist market were not just trotted out for Indigenous peoples. See Patricia Roy in A White Man's Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1989. Nor was this a purely "british columbian" phenomenon, as Roy's other books show, and as can be read in broad strokes in Franca Iacovetta's Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada. (2006, Toronto: Between the Lines Press)
  3. Bracken, Christopher. 1997 The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Bracken is a literary scholar, so at times this book can be a difficult slog. See especially chapters 1, 3, and 5.
  4. It is all too easy to assume that Indigenous claims about state surveillance are overblown. However, it isn;t difficult to find clear evidence of just how much surveillance there is. Try looking up any First Nation that is also an "Indian band" under the Indian Act by looking at the "First Nation Profiles" maintained by the recently renamed (again, this department is renamed and reorganized on almost every election cycle) "Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada." Go straight to "Search by First Nation," and be warned that this search page will artificially time out. Try clicking on british columbia in the hot map that is loaded on the next page, and select say, Kwakiutl First Nation (this is a direct link). Click on the "Registered Population" button, and note that it is updated up to the month before the current date. This is always the case. As soon as there is a confirmed birth, death, or registration of a "status Indian" that is reflected in the numbers recorded by officials in this department. I never would have believed it if I hadn't learned it myself via tasks required for my job.
  5. In an interesting coincidence, 1951 is also the year that england finally repealed its own witchcraft act, a key tool in attacking Indigenous religions and forcing women out of public life. The last persecution of an accused witch in england began in 1944, when spiritualist medium Helen Duncan was raided by the police. After a term in Holloway Prison, the telltale facility where female political prisoners have been held in much of english history, Duncan suffered harassment for the rest of her life, including after the repeal of the witchcraft act. A reasonable summary of her life and experience of persecution as a witch is provided by HistoricUK. To see the relevant laws here, included repealed versions, see the British Law Online Status Project page Witchcraft Acts.
  6. Yes, Pierre Trudeau, the often lauded father of "multiculturalism" in canada, who was hoping against hope to do an end run around québec separatism with it. The 1969 white paper is widely available on-line, including on the "Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada" website. The ever brilliant Chelsea Vowel contextualizes and demystifies this paper and its more recent reflexes in a 2012 post on her blog, âpihtawikpsisân. Before anybody tries writing me and running such lines of bullshit as "the 1969 white paper would have ended race-based law making" allow me to remind you that canada and the united states are full of race-based laws that specifically interfere with Indigenous families, cripple Indigenous economies, and attempt to annihilate Indigenous existence, which none of you who claim such things have a word to say about. Funny that.
  7. Wonderful to write, Maria Campbell's first book, Halfbreed, is no longer criminally out of print. There is a new edition with deleted text restored from Mclelland and Stewart, released in 2019. There is an excellent interview and article about this new edition available at the cbc radio website, Maria Campbell on the Pain and Relief of Re-releasing Halfbreed with Uncut Account of RCMP Rape. It's still most commonly available edition was printed by Goodread Biographies of Halifax in 1983. Also read any of Maria Campbell's interviews, as they often reflect on what she recounted in Halfbreed and consider issues of Indigenous culture, religion, and survival.
  8. A partial transcription of this speech is provided in the wikipedia article on the Kwakwaakaa'wakw. I have not had a chance to confirm whether this is a translation, though if it is, it is an excellent one because it reflects the eloquence of the original. It is difficult to be a respected leader in Indigenous cultures without the ability to speak well.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:17