The potlatch is an incredibly intricate and fascinating set of rituals through which the values, beliefs and culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw and other west coast First Nations are shared. Traditionally, Kwakwaka’wakw society was based upon these many acts of giving and generosity that make up the potlatch. In the colder, darker months of winter, all members of the nation would be invited to attend. The hosting chief would then preside over days and even weeks of cultural, political, social and even bureaucratic events. During this time, all guests would be sumptuously fed and housed by the host family.
The politics of the nation and communities would be discussed. Elders, chiefs and community members would hear about disagreements and hold discussions till appropriate solutions were found. An endless array of carvings, songs and dances would be displayed by both the creators of the pieces and those who acquired the rights to do so. Rules around artistic ownership remain strict to this day. Displaying or using the cultural property of another family without permission is unacceptable. The entire process was governed by a strict set of rules and guidelines, which were passed on and confirmed by elders at every such event. There were even a set of guidelines for dealing with mistakes and errors in judgment that allowed for all to save face while continuing to live in harmony.
Throughout the potlatch and especially at the end, gifts according to occasion and rank would be handed out. Through this gift giving, the host chief would confirm their position and importance within Kwakwaka’wakw society. The chiefs and families who gave the most were held in the highest esteem by the larger community. This aspect of the culture led to numerous wars of generosity in which rival chiefs would go to extreme lengths in their attempts to outdo each other’s ability and willingness to give. Wouldn’t it be great to attend one of those events!
Can you imagine how our society would be different today if, instead of the immigrant culture becoming dominant, the Kwakwaka’wakw nation’s ways became the norm? Wealthy corporations would compete with each other to be more generous. Celebrity millionaires would go to great lengths to give all that they had away as quickly as possible to ensure their continued fame and social importance. There would be no need for a social safety net. Instead, each community would have several big houses where resources would constantly be re-distributed. Kwakwaka’wakw families will work and save for years to gather enough to share at a respectable level. Can you imagine your neighbors and friends toiling tirelessly solely for the sake of giving?
The potlatch ritual united the community and ensured that no one went without. Even today, participating in a potlatch as part of the host family is an amazing and wonderful experience. The host family proudly displays their “box of treasures’ or collection of songs, dances and carved masks. As each member fulfills their role according to age, rank and tradition, they learn what it means to belong to their family and their culture. While items are being presented to guests, even the youngest learn that the true gift is in the giving and not the receiving. The wholeness and serenity that follow hosting such an event is something that I have never experienced outside of First Nations Culture.
The Kwakwaka’wakw are the Kwakwala speaking people who live around the north east coast of Vancouver Island. They have also been erroneously known as the “Kwaguilt” people.
Potlatching is common to the cultures of most west coast First Nation’s people. Recognizing the importance of these rituals to the culture, strength and integrity of area First Nations, the Canadian government banned the practice as part of their attempt to eliminate the “Indian problem” in the late 1800’s. In spite of the ban, potlatching continued in secret keeping the culture and traditions alive. In 1951, Canadian politicians thought that the practice was extinct, so no mention of the practice was made in a revised version of the Indian Act. Potlatching openly resumed shortly afterwards when First Nations people realized that they could no longer be put in jail for participating in these rituals.
Kathleen Westergaard’s spiritual journey has taken her home to Village Island, Haida Gwaii and Campbell River. As the mother of James Aul Sewid’s great grand children, she has had the privilege of living and learning in the Kwakwaka’wakw culture for many years and is looking forward to many more.