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The Canadian Government outlawed the potlatch in 1885, in part because of their belief that potlatches were a detriment to the expansion of the nation's economy.

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The Potlatch - When One's Heart is Glad He Gives Away Gifts

"When one's heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are Indian. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy."

Agnes Alfred, Alert Bay, 1980

Prior to 1884, the Potlatch played a major role in the Kwakwaka'wakw Society; it is our way of life. The Potlatch refers to the ceremony where families gather and names are given, births are announced, marriages are conducted, and where families mourn the loss of a loved one. The Potlatch is also the ceremony where a Chief will pass his rights and privileges on to his eldest son.

The word "potlatch" comes from the Chinook jargon, a trade language formerly used along the coast. It means, "to give" and came to designate a ceremony common to peoples on the Northwest Coast and parts of the Interior. —asa is the Kwa„wala word used for the ceremony known as the potlatch.

The Kwa„wala speaking groups express joy and much more through the potlatch. The potlatch is the very foundation for a system of laws by which we have always lived and continues as the cornerstone of our culture today.

In the past the ceremonies were held in the winter, as the spring and summer months were used for traveling the coast gathering food and in the fall the food was prepared for storage. The potlatch included all eighteen tribes of the Kwakwaka'wakw and lasted four or more days.

Today the ceremony may take place in one day and night and is generally held in the spring. Feasts also accompany a Potlatch, and there is a specified order in which events occur.

The Potlatch is divided into two dance series, the ˜seka, which is illustrated with red cedar bark worn by the dancers and the T'‡asala, or Peace Dance. The sa‡a or mourning ceremony begins where women are invited to sit in front of the Chiefs to pay tribute to members of their family who have recently passed on or to those who passed on before them. If there were to be a sale or transfer of a copper, it would follow the "mourning" session. The transfer or sale of a copper is a ceremony full of profound meaning and symbolism for those present. The kadzit‡a or marriage ceremony then follows if one is to be included. The great feast is served to the Chiefs, singers and kwalskwal'yakw or Old People and then to the guests or witnesses. The feast songs follow the feast.

The t'seka begins, first with the cutting of the large circle of cedar bark, sections of which are distributed to each guest to place around his or her head. Whistles are then heard to announce the approach of the hamat'sa. Other dances follow the hamat'sa, again, in specified order.At the end of the t'seka, the cedar bark headbands are removed.

The T'‡asala begins, in which the Chiefs participate; unlike the t'seka, where they do not. Following their performance, a manifestation of a supernatural creature or D‡ugwe' or treasure, enters through the front door. The D‡ugwe', can be one of many different kinds of masks. At the end, the am'lala or fun dance begins, when guests are invited to participate.

Finally, gifts from the many cartons are laid out on the Big House floor and money is distributed, first to the Chiefs, the Old ones, singers and then the guests. Guests are given gifts for witnessing the events that have taken place. As a witness it is your responsibility to remember these events and pass on the knowledge. The more gifts distributed, the higher the status achieved by the potlatch host. It is a time for pride and a time for showing the masks and dances owned by the family hosting the potlatch.

While this is going on, the Chiefs are invited to speak. Here is where they thank the hosting Chief for sharing his families' treasures and uplifting his family status. He might also talk about his family ties to the hosting Chief, and the great feast.

See video about the potlatch
Watch Irene Cook talk about the potlatch.
Watch Irene Cook talk about the potlatch (select player below).

This clip is 2:19 long.
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