1914: “The last of the Indian ‘potlatch’ “

From one of the great Canadian magazines, an impressively well reported account of the colonialist prohibition on potlatching.


(Image credit: “Colonialism and the Potlatch Ban”, University of Alberta Law blog)

This is an article still filled with prejudice and stereotyping of Native people, but I’m reproducing it here because it’s an in-depth look, it’s better informed than usual, and because it catches some of the Chinook Jargon that was in use at the time in coastal British Columbia.

For instance, “delate hyas tyhee”, a ‘truly great chief’, is genuine Vancouver Island-area Chinook for one of the ranks of traditional leaders.

The Last of the Indian “Potlatch”
“Giving Away Bees” of the Coast Indians Have Been Declared Taboo by the Great White Chiefs at Ottawa
The Last of the Indian “Potlatch”

“Giving Away Bees” of the Coast Indians Have Been Declared Taboo by the Great White Chiefs at Ottawa

J. Sedgwick Cowper

THERE IS mourning now among the Coast Indians of British Columbia for the Government has put its foot down on the last of the old tribal customs, the “potlatch.” Forty years ago on the shore at Port Simpson the last of the cannibal feasts was held by the Tsimpseans. Here and there still linger a few shamans or medicine men, but the coast missions and the hospitals have made a dent in their practice. Nowadays the Siwash buys a bottle of painkiller when he goes to town, and the would-be shaman finds it scarcely worth while to starve himself into madness, until he “sees things” in the bush that a normal healthy man cannot. This was not the worst. The shaman had to be drawn up three times to the roof of the rancherie by steel hooks thrust through his arms and legs, before he could wear the headdress of great power or wield the sacred thighbone, or otherwise engage in the practice of chasing the bad medicine out of sick Indians. The game is not worth the candle nowadays.

Forty years ago the cannibal feasts ended. Then dog eating became unfashionable. After that the war dances were stopped. Last New Year’s night, five ancient Haidas in the old Masset village on Queen Charlotte Island, danced for the last time by consent of the tribe, the old devil-doctor dance. The Haidas are the Norsemen of the Pacific Coast. Fiercest of all the tribes in war when in the olden days their huge sea canoes led the raids on the mainland tribes, they have since become the most enlightened and progressive tribe on the coast. It was by request of the younger educated members of the tribe that the old devil-doctor dance has been abolished.

But with the potlatch it was different. “Potlatch is good thing for poor Indian. He gets blankets and presents of good things and is not expected to give potlatch in return like rich Indian,” said Chief Jimmy Okus of the Cape Mudge Indians to me with indignation a few weeks ago, when he saw Chief Ned Harris and Chief George Bagwany being tried in a criminal court on a charge of holding a potlatch. Chief Jimmy had been planning to hold a potlatch himself this year. Now alas, he has no way of becoming a “delate hyas tyee,” and of going down to fame as a man who was rich, but who gave away all his belonging to his neighbors in one big potlatch.

The potlatch is the Siwash’s idea of a spending-jag, or rather of a giving-away jag, when he becomes intoxicated with the desire to give away all his possessions in a frenzy of generosity. Its ethics are a good deal like those of a little girl’s birthday party. All those who come, though they are not expected to bring presents, are expected at some time or another to give a potlatch of their own. The bigger the potlatch, the greater the fame, while he is living. To-day on many a grave slab, engraved in the wood is the name of the good Indian who lies there, with the simple statement, “In his lifetime he held . . . potlatches, and gave away. . . dollars.” One Bella Coola Indian in two potlatches gave away $11,000, but this was eclipsed last year by a member of his own tribe who in one potlatch gave away $12,000 worth of goods.

White men who are favored by the confidence of the Siwash tribes are sometimes invited to the potlatch, but it is a “cultus potlatch” so far as they are concerned and involves no obligation in return. The Duke of Connaught was thus honored by the Alert Bay Indians on his recent visit to the Pacific coast. The various government agents in charge of the reserves usually get a “cultus potlatch” on accepting office as a recognition that his authority is accepted by the band.

Among his own kind the Siwash is very touchy about having his invitations accepted when he holds a potlatch. He acts somewhat like the old “forty-niner” in the bar-room who, after having his invitation to join in a drink refused by a tenderfoot, remarked as he reached for his hip-pocket, “Hell, can’t I even take a drink without killin’ a man?” Sometimes he shows his scorn in odd ways, as did Peter Cesaholis of Kingcome Inlet. Cesaholis gave a “skookum potlach” this February to which he invited all the adjacent tribes. Blankets and flour, added to sometimes by gifts of money, are the usual gifts at a potlatch, but Cesaholis outdid this. He had in addition to blankets and flour, scores of mirrors, bedroom dressers, sewing machines, enamelware saucepans and cooking utensils. To crown all he had what is the height of ambition of every Siwash to possess, a number of gramaphones. Yet to this “skookum potlatch” the Kwawkewliths, who live on the opposite side of Queen Charlotte Sound, came not. They sent a message in reply to the invitation, to say that they were holding a potlatch of their own on that day.

Cesaholis replied to this slight on his hospitality with a true Siwash humor and abandon, like the gay city sport who lights his cigar with a five dollar bill, to prove that he has no notion of the value of money. He procured a sailboat. This he loaded with blankets, sacks of flour, bedroom dressers, mirrors, utensils and above all two gramaphones. The bow of the boat was pointed across Queen Charlotte Sound towards Port Rupert where the Kwawkewliths live; its sails were set; its tiller was lashed; the two gramaphones were wound up and started playing, and the boat, without a man on board, was shoved off amid the shouts and laughter of the tribesmen. Cesaholis and the Kingcomes had showed the Kwawkewliths that, when it came to getting rid of their belongings, they could cast their blankets and flour, etc., upon the waters, with the best of them. . . ,

The joke was that this argosy laden with gifts and scorn never reached the Kwawkeliths. It was wrecked on Malcolm Island, half way across the Sound, and caused a Finnish rancher several days labor searching for the supposed dead bodies of the crew whom he felt certain had perished when the vessel struck the rocks at Lizard Point.

In the early pioneer days the potlatches were attended with tribal cruelties, but nowadays their objectionableness to the government agents is almost entirely confined to the plea that the feasting and dancing unsettles the Indian mind and disturbs their morals. My old friend, Dr. W Wymond Walkem, the historian of the pioneer days, had a narrow escape of his life when he stumbled on a potlatch in the summer of 1875, which the Saanich chiefs were giving to their neighbors the Cowichans and the Nitinats. The intervention of a provincial police official who had considerable influence with the tribes, and the fact that he was able next day to attend to the injuries of a wounded Indian, made him an honored guest. Then the guests who came in huge canoes, the flotilla taking the shape of a large fan, heralded their coming with rifle fire from the boats, which was returned by the Indians on shore. One canoe was struck, and one Indian on shore wounded before the drums beat to cease fire. In the ceremonies which followed during the three succeeding days, the shamans indulged in feats of magic, making eagle quills float in the air and revolve, and pouring buckets of water into a biscuit box without either filling the box or dampening the ground, and in other ways showed their mysterious skill. At the close 500 bags of flour and some hundreds of Hudson’s Bay blankets were distributed. The blankets were flung into the crowds, many of them being torn into shreds by the savage disputants. At the end of the ceremonies a great shout was raised by the assembled tribes, during which the two little sons of the chief ran out clad in deerskin, and were poised proudly upon the shoulders of their sire, while the savages acclaimed them. The day before he had been one of the wealthiest of Indians, now he was one of the poorest. But he had achieved the distinction of becoming a “delate hyas tyee.” Vanity is the weakness of the Siwash, and he will gladly strip himself of all his wealth in order to be proclaimed as a prince of good fellows.

Even so far back as 1875 the authorities frowned upon the potlatch, and when the chief of the Musquiems, a tribe at the mouth of the Fraser River dissipated a small fortune in a potlatch, and applied for government relief, he was promptly sent to jail for three months as a vagrant. The spectacle of the delate hyas tyee working with a chain gang at New Westminster proved a great shock to the Indian susceptibilities, but it did the chief good. After his release he accumulated a second fortune, and stuck to it. But the Indian is still unconvinced that the potlatch is a bad thing. In 1882 when a big potlatch was arranged by four of the wealthy members of the Nanaimo tribe, Dr. Walkem in obedience to a request from Ottawa, warned all members of the tribe he attended professionally that the potlatch was taboo. He got his answer quickly. “Why should the government want to put stop to the Indian’s potlatch?” demanded Chief Sammie Eaton.

“Because the Indian gives everything away in entertaining his friends and is left very poor,” explained Dr. Walkern. Chief Sammy came back with a hot shot. “You just write back to the chief of the Indian department at Ottawa,” he said, “and tell him that lots of white people in Victoria give dances and entertainments who cannot afford it, and who never pay for what they give away. Tell the chief at Ottawa that he had better make a law stopping these people first, and when he has done that the Indians will stop holding potlatches.”

“I had nothing more to say on the subject of potlatches,” said the venerable doctor, in narrating the incident.

It has often been a source of wonder to strangers as to how the Indians become possessed of the money for potlatch purposes. Their wants are few and easily satisfied without the use of much money. When he owns a gasoline fishing boat, the Siwash has reached the height of his ambition. Comfortably housed on the reserves, the Indian can live very cheaply. Salmon and bear meat he smokes in the summer for winter fare, and gets a deer or mountain goat for fresh meat at will. The salmon fishery is his great harvest. While the men fish in the boats and sell their catch to the canneries, the klootches and elder children cut the fish in the canneries or manipulate the “Iron Chink.” The amount of money an Indian family will take home after a couple of months’ work in the salmon season would make many a white family envious. Last season there were many men who averaged over $100 a week on the Fraser River during the season. Trapping, packing and acting as guide to hunting parties are often lucrative to the Indian. Some of the more enlightened chiefs are men who would be considered wealthy even among white men. Chief Matthew Edenshaw of the Masset Indians a Haida tribe, has town lots, farming lands, a fleet of gasoline boats for hiring out to surveying and prospecting parties, and is interested in a score of enterprises for the development of Graham Island. The Masset band who only number two score families or thereabouts took last year $50,000 in from the canneries for the sale of salmon. The Metlakatlas each received several thousand dollars a head from the Grand Trunk Pacific for giving up their reserve as an addition for the city of Prince Rupert. For giving up their reserve the Songhees Indians outside Victoria later received about $20,000 per family, while more recently the Kitsilano band whose reserve is now inside the city limits of Vancouver received $12,000 per family for moving away to a new reserve up the coast.

In short the era of prosperity for the Siwash now makes it all the harder for him to think of giving up the potlatch. It is a sad thing to be without money; it is irony to have money and not know how to spend it.

— from Macleans Magazine, November 1, 1914

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