Potlatch Ban

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The Potlatch Ban, which was legislation forbidding the practice of the potlatch passed by the government of the Dominion of Canada, began in 1885 and lasted until 1951.[1] Though often ignored and circumvented, the ban remained in Canadian legal codes until 1951, when Section 149 was deleted from a revision of the Indian Act. Arrests for charges under the Act were few until 1921, when a raid on the village of Memkumlis held by Chief Dan Cranmer saw the arrest and charges laid against 45 people; of these 22 were given suspended sentences and 20 men and women sent to Oakalla Prison in Burnaby.[2]

History[edit]

Potlatch, which means "to give" or "a gift" in the Chinook Jargon,[3] became adapted to refer to “the different ceremonies among [the] many nations of the Pacific Northwest that… [include] feasting, dancing and giving gifts to all in attendance”.[4] It is also described somewhat more completely by The Story of the Masks website from the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay as "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."[3]

The British Columbia Indian Office, specifically the Indian Commissioner, I. W. Powell, had found the native peoples to be rich and hardy, but also found they appeared as if they were poor.[5] This finding led to further research on the subject of potlatches where it was found that to the indigenous peoples, the P0otlatch was a great institution. It encouraged people to give away their earnings and possessions in exchange, the giver would receive a great deal of respect and be seen as honourable to his tribe and others.[6]

However, John A. Macdonald did not see this tradition as valuable or appropriate and, under the guise of unifying the Dominion of Canada, encouraged the government to lay “an iron hand on the shoulders of the [native] people” by restricting some of their non-essential, inappropriate rituals and leading them towards what he perceived as a ‘healthier’ European mindset.[7] Work thus began on an amendment to the Indian Act of 1880. Some criticized the idea, such as James Benjamin McCullagh in his essay on the tribal lifestyle of the indigenous peoples of Canada, The Indian Potlatch.[8]

In the third section of the Indian Act, signed on April 19, 1884, it was declared that:

"Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the “Potlatch” or in the Indian dance known as the “Tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less than two months in any gaol or other place of confinement; and every Indian or persons who encourages… an Indian to get up such a festival… shall be liable to the same punishment."[9]

Reasons for the Ban[edit]

After witnessing the behaviours of the indigenous people, the government was appalled at the ritual of Potlatch. They saw the ritualistic act of giving away nearly all of one’s hard-earned possessions as a sign that the indigenous people were ‘unstable’. Under the encouragement of the Indian Reserve Allotment Commission; the Indian Reserve Commission; and the Church, this behaviour was deemed possibly as a destabilizing force in the nation because it was so dramatically opposed to the values of the ideal “Christian capitalist society.”[10]

Two major players in the Canadian Potlatch ban were George Blenkinsop and Gilbert M. Sproat. Blenkinsop was a government agent commissioned to survey the lifestyle of the indigenous people in Barkley Sound. His findings on native culture were not encouraging to the Government, as he reported that there was “…little hope of elevating… [the natives] from their present state of degradation” without eliminating ceremonies such as the Potlatch.[7] Gilbert M. Sproat, on the other hand, was a “joint Federal-Provincial appointee to the Indian Reserve Commission”.[7] In this regard, he had worked closely with different native groups and tribes throughout British Columbia. In 1879, Sproat sent a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.[7] In the letter, Sproat declared that the Potlatch ceremony was “the parent of numerous vices which eat out the heart of the [native] people”, and reaffirmed the words of Blenkinsop by assuring the Prime Minister that “It is not possible that the Indians can acquire property, or can become industrious with any good result, while under the influence of… [the Potlatch]”.[7]

Sproat’s opinion was a commonly held one for the white employers of British Columbia. Euro-Canadians saw the Potlatch as a pointless ceremony that did little but advance barbarity and retract the ability of the native peoples to advance themselves in society.[11] Essentially, the Potlatch was an important ritual to the natives prevented assimilation into the melting pot the Euro-Canadian government sought to enforce.[11]

Employers found similar problems. Many of the aboriginal peoples of 1800s British Columbia were often motivated to work in order to gain wealth which would permit them to buy more items for Potlatches, which would result in greater honour. This work was often seasonal in nature. This was in direct contrast to the agendas of many of the “white” employers who ultimately were frustrated by what they perceived to be the native “work ethic”.[1] According to John Lutz, written accounts of white employers were almost bipolar because of the indigenous peoples’ seasonal working habits. This seasonal work permitted them to choose when they would work or when they would stay in their villages. Some employers deemed them “as ‘indispensible’ while [others] condemned their ‘unreliability’ and ‘laziness’”.[1]

Missionaries of the northwestern regions of Canada also sent their opinions to the government. Most commonly they stated their arguments based on three fields: Health, Morality and economics.[12] On the issue of health, the missionaries worried about the spread of disease amongst the large groups that gathered for potlatches, and critiqued the native peoples’ recklessness.[12] Specifically, they called out against the treatment of children, accusing those who attend potlatches of being responsible for the statistic claiming that "Six out of every ten [native] infants die…" and that losing all of a family’s possessions led to greater health risks to the family who hosted the potlatch.[13] On the issue of morality, missionaries claimed that potlatches and financial requirements led wives and “maiden daughters” of those hosting to turn to prostitution to help their fathers gather wealth, as well as the consumption of alcohol.[13] The issue of economics was simple in the notion that the native desire to give away all their goods was the opposite of the “Christian capitalist” values held in high esteem by Euro-Canadians.[1]

Results and legacy[edit]

Upon its release, the amendment to the Indian Act was found to be ineffectual due to a lack of enforcement.[1] There are several recorded arrests in which the native peoples found loopholes in the edict and held potlatches in celebratory seasons, claiming to be doing what was “customary with white people during this season”, and celebrating potlatches around holidays such as Christmas.[14] Other groups made formal requests that they be able to host potlatches, but were refused.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Lutz, John. “After the Fur Trade: The Aboriginal Labouring Class of British Columbia, 1849-1890” in Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-Class History, ed. Brian D. Palmer & Joan Sangster. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2008. P.28
  2. ^ The Potlatch Collection History, U'Mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, website
  3. ^ a b "The Potlatch: On the Suppression of the Potlatch", Story of the Masks website, U'mista Cultural Centre
  4. ^ Lutz, John. “After the Fur Trade: The Aboriginal Labouring Class of British Columbia, 1849-1890” in Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-Class History, ed. Brian D. Palmer & Joan Sangster. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2008. P.26
  5. ^ To Potlatch of Not to Potlatch: An In-Depth Study of Culture-Conflict Between the B.C. Coastal Indian and the White Man. Charles Hou. Vancouver: British Columbia Teachers' Federation, P.17
  6. ^ Bracken, Christopher. The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997. P.110
  7. ^ a b c d e Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin. An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990. P.15
  8. ^ McCullagh, J.B. The Indian potlatch substance of a paper read before C.M.S. annual conference at Metlakatla, B.C., 1899. Canadiana.org. Toronto: Woman’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, 1899. P. 9
  9. ^ To Potlatch of Not to Potlatch: An In-Depth Study of Culture-Conflict Between the B.C. Coastal Indian and the White Man. Charles Hou. Vancouver: British Columbia Teachers' Federation, P.8
  10. ^ Lutz, John. “After the Fur Trade: The Aboriginal Labouring Class of British Columbia, 1849-1890” in Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-Class History, ed. Brian D. Palmer & Joan Sangster. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2008. P.28
  11. ^ a b Bracken, Christopher. The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997. P.117
  12. ^ a b Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin. An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990. P.18
  13. ^ a b Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin. An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990. P.19
  14. ^ Bracken, Christopher. The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997 P.181