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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 on his rights and privileges to his eldest son.

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The Potlatch - On the suppression of the potlatch

There was no immediate opposition to the potlatch upon initial contact with Europeans until after the arrival of the missionaries and government officials in Kwakwaka'wakw territory. In earlier times the missionaries became concerned about the potlatch, which they believed was an expression of actual cannibalism. Descriptions of the Hamat'sa dance were exaggerated in the press. The Hamat'sa is the most dramatic performance during the potlatch ceremony.

Another concern was the Kwakwaka'wakw marriage practice where women obtained great status by marrying multiple times. Many of these marriages were symbolic only as a way for families to obtain the rights to dances that can only be transferred through marriage from the bride's family. Most marriages were arranged until the late 1960's.

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. Native peoples' labour was needed by non-native, market-oriented business enterprises, especially local canneries. Such businesses could not abide the inconsistency of a native labour force whose time and energy was needed for participation in the potlatch. Federal Canadian Indian agents were concerned about what they perceived as problems created by the expansion of potlatching and felt that native people were too wrapped up in the old customs.

From the Kwakwaka'wakw perspective, a tremendous economic endeavour was required to accumulate those items given away at a potlatch. The Kwakwaka'wakw have always been extremely industrious and they soon began to use the European economic system to reinforce and expand the potlatch, buying items that were given away to the "witnesses" in attendance at potlatches as payment for remembering and recording the events that take place during the potlatch. This is an extremely important aspect of the potlatch as it is the means of recording the history of the Kwakwaka'wakw. They were determined to hold onto the practise of the potlatch. It is the most important part of our societal system, the very glue that holds our culture together.

In a speech at Fort Rupert in 1896, the Kwakwaka'wakw challenged anthropologists, including Franz Boas, to support them. Boas and others in turn protested the law that made potlatching illegal, but it remained in place. Early legal efforts at prosecution were not successful because enforcement was impossible. The law did not even define a potlatch and cases were thrown out of court. In one instance, the Indian Agent tried to circumvent the potlatch law by making arrests for the charge of trespassing on another reserve.

By 1913, a new Indian Agent, William Halliday, who was against potlatching, took no action at first until Duncan Campbell Scott became the new Superintendent General of Indian Affairs and under his directorship things began to change. Halliday was now given the orders he wanted from Scott to eliminate the potlatch. Several arrests took place, but once again only suspended sentences were issued by the courts, or in one instance the case was completely thrown out, frustrating the efforts of Scott and Halliday to obtain convictions. Finally, Scott requested and obtained changes from Parliament in the anti-potlatching law. These changes reduced the crime from a criminal offence to a minor offense. This had drastic implications for the Kwakwaka'wakw because now Halliday, as Indian Agent, was also the Justice of the Peace. He could not only try a case, but also convict and sentence at his discretion.

Two men, Amos Dawson and Bob Harris, were immediately arrested, tried and convicted and sentenced to two months at Oakalla Prison Farm near Vancouver, British Columbia. In later cases, others were allowed to plead guilty and receive suspended sentences if they agreed to give up potlatching. Once the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment was established in Alert Bay, arrests increased, this time with convictions and imprisonment.

The 'Namgis, the Mamalilikala and the Weka'yi signed pledges that they would give up potlatching. As a stipulation for receiving lighter sentences, they were illegally forced to surrender their potlatch paraphernalia, including masks, whistles, cedar bark regalia and coppers. The Kwagu'‡, the –awit'sis, the Da'naxda'xw and the Dzawada'enux, refused to sign agreements to stop potlatching and therefore, served prison sentences.

Indian Agent Halliday's official responsibility was for the welfare of the Kwakwaka'wakw. He also functioned as the regional magistrate so, ironically, he was involved in prosecuting the people whose rights he was supposed to be protecting. Over 600 potlatch-related pieces were given up and in his own statement, Halliday said that he had accumulated over 300 cubic feet of potlatch material. Their owners estimated the coppers in 1921 to have had a total value of over $35,000. However, the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs paid only a token amount of $1,485 for the masks and other materials, but no compensation was ever paid for the coppers.

The confiscated masks and other goods were transported out in the open by boat and then were put on exhibition on benches in the Parish Hall of the Anglican Church at Alert Bay. It was particularly difficult for the Kwakwaka'wakw to endure the display of the materials openly in the boat because these items were sacred and were considered to be treasures. Strict tradition required that they be stored away in cedar boxes out of sight when not in use.

With their relatives watching and crying, the prisoners were loaded onto a boat and transported to Oakalla Prison, where conditions were harsh. They were separated by gender, strip searched and eventually fingerprinted and measured, again naked. They were counted and searched again each day as they returned to their cells. They slept on mattresses made of straw with no pillows. For ten days, they were locked into crowded cells, and then divided into working groups. During their time at Oakalla, they built bridges, felled trees, fed animals and cooked for the prison.

Inventoried and crated, the treasured belongings were sent to Ottawa. They were then turned over by the government to the Victoria Memorial Museum, now the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, and to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Halliday illegally sold some items to George Gustav Heye from the United States while the pieces were still in Alert Bay . An avid collector, George Heye established his private Museum of the American Indian in New York. It has recently become a public collection, the National Museum of the American Indian, under the stewardship of the Smithsonian Institution. Duncan Campbell Scott, the Canadian Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, kept several masks for his personal collection, including the Bak'was, which he hung on his office wall. These artefacts were then re-accessioned back into the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization after the retirement of Duncan Campbell Scott. It would be almost 60 years before these objects were returned to their rightful owners, the Kwakwaka'wakw.

The Kwakwaka'wakw continued to protest the anti-potlatching law by petitions and other legal means, these efforts were not successful and potlatching remained illegal. In spite of all that happened to them, many continued to participate secretly, believing that it was their right to potlatch and dance in spite of the law. Potlatches were sometimes scheduled specifically during stormy weather when the authorities did not like to travel. Potlatching practices also became disjointed at times; gifts were handed out separately from when the dancing took place or they were disguised as holiday presents or charity. Potlatching did decrease over time because of the impact of the market economy, the Great Depression and other stresses from the outside world, as the Kwakwaka'wakw became increasingly involved in wage work.

The anti-potlatching law was never actually repealed through formal legislative action; rather it was merely deleted from the Canadian legal codes in 1951. The Kwakwaka'wakw had hoped that the Canadian government would make a stronger statement about the nature of the law by formally repealing it.

Once potlatching became legal again, things began to change. Chief Andy Frank, a Kwakwaka'wakw who lived at Comox, unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government to return the potlatch goods and to help establish a native museum to house them in Comox. Several other early attempts by native individuals to have the potlatch material returned were not successful.

The Kwakwaka'wakw began a concerted effort to have their treasures repatriated in the 1960's and ten years later, the Kwakwaka'wakw as a whole petitioned the Canadian Government to return their potlatch materials. The U'mista Cultural Society was formed on March 22, 1974 for the explicit purpose of negotiating the return of these items.

The Kwakwaka'wakw were able to demonstrate that Indian Agent Halliday had illegally pressured people to give up their regalia. The Board of Trustees of the Canadian National Museums Corporation eventually agreed and the process was begun for the return of these treasures to their rightful home. In addition, the federal government was forced to admit that they had not maintained the treasures in the correct manner. As part of the agreement for the return of the paraphernalia, two Kwakwaka'wakw museums were constructed to properly house the artifacts. Each family decided where their regalia was to be held and the combined Kwakwaka'wakw tribes were involved in the decisions and planning for both museums. One is located at Alert Bay and the other is at Cape Mudge on Quadra Island at the southern end of Kwakwaka'wakw territory. The Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre at Cape Mudge opened on July 29, 1979, and the U'mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay opened on November 1, 1980.

Both Museums reflect, in their own way, the structure of a traditional ceremonial Gukwdzi or Big House. Among the Kwakwaka'wakw and all Northwest Coast native peoples, the Gukwdzi is where special ceremonies occur.

The house front design on the U'mista Cultural Centre of a thunderbird and whale crest was patterned closely after the Gukwdzi belonging to 'Namgis Chief T‡akwud‡as who was a cousin to Joe, Ned and Willie Harris. Master carver Doug Cranmer painted the crest figure on the House front and helped create many of the beams and posts of the U'mista Cultural Centre, including the doors at the entrance. The panels were originally carved for the BC Pavilion at the World Exposition in Osaka, Japan and then donated to the Centre by the government of British Columbia.

The meaning of U'mista: In earlier days, people were sometimes taken captive by raiding parties. When they returned to their homes, either through payment of ransom or by a retaliatory raid, they were said to have "u'mista". The return of our treasures from distant museums is a form of u'mista and became the name chosen for the newly established Cultural Society because these masks, costumes and coppers are U'mista and, are a symbol of Kwakwaka'wakw cultural survival.

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

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