Child: What did the Kwakwaka’wakw people do for Christmas?
Mother: Not so long ago, before the non-native people came to this land, our people spent a lot of the year traveling around to different harvest sites. Many would leave their main villages in the spring, summer and fall to gather and preserving many different kinds of foods like salmon, berries and special kinds of sea weed. Then, when the weather turned cold and wet during the dark time of the year (winter), there would be plenty to eat and share with family and community. This was the time when they would have winter celebrations or potlatches.
Child: Were these winter celebrations like Christmas?
Mother: In many ways yes, but even bigger and more important. In ancient times and still today, families and chiefs hold potlatches to celebrate and remember important community events. Because the Kwakwaka’wakw did not have a written language, when something significant like a marriage, adoption or the installation of a new chief happened, the family would want as many people as possible to witness and remember the event. So, they would invite everyone from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation to come, watch and remember and give gifts to the people to thank them for coming.
Child: Wow, that sounds kind of like the big weddings that people have sometimes.
Mother: Yes, sort of. But, because the family and community may only be able to gather once a year, they would have many different events at the same time. Babies born since the last potlatch would be presented and given names, many marriages would be announced, if important community members died, they would be honored and remembered and any changes in leadership would be announced. Often, poles commemorating chiefs, elders and events would be carved and raised as part of the potlatch. Also, if there were any problems or disputes going on between chiefs, communities or family members, these were discussed and resolved as part of the potlatch. With all of the chiefs, matriarchs and elders present, people with issues could come forward and have their difficulties addressed by the community.
Child: That’s a lot. How did they manage all of this stuff without getting confused?
Mother: Our people developed rituals for different kinds of activities and created beautiful wooden masks and colorful dances to explain their history and honor their beliefs. Knowledge of Kwakwaka’wakw spirits, legends, stories, history and ancestors were artistically presented in unique ways by each family whenever they held a potlatch.
Child: So the potlatch was their parliament, library, church, museum, art gallery, theater, register of births, deaths and marriages and Christmas.
Mother: Yes, at all potlatches, preserved food and necessities would be distributed along with more precious items ensuring that those who had less were still taken care of.
Child: Wow, so why did the non-native people try to stop our people from potlatching?
Mother: Either they didn’t understand our ways or they knew that without the potlatch our nation could no longer exist.
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.