When European settlers, missionaries and government agents began arriving on the coast of BC in the 20th century they were bewildered and appalled by one particular custom practised by the indigenous people living there: the potlatch.

For most non-Aboriginals, the potlatch embodied everything that was keeping the First Nations in a backward state. It fostered senseless waste, they believed. It promoted promiscuity among the women. It distracted the people from punching a timeclock. It included heathen dances and the worship of false gods. It made a mockery of Christian marriage vows. "The efforts of the [Indian] Department,” wrote its senior official in Ottawa, Duncan Campbell Scott, "have been directed to the promotion among the Indians of industry, progress and morality, all of which are greatly hindered by indulgence in the potlatch.”

The term potlatch is derived from a Chinook Jargon word meaning, roughly, to give. It was a shorthand expression for a variety of traditional ceremonies, a convenient way for Euro-Canadians to channel their misunderstanding and disapproval of Aboriginal culture. First Nations groups held the ceremonies for any number of reasons: to celebrate a marriage or a birth, to raise a house or a totem pole, to honour a dead chief or welcome a new one, or to name a child. Claims to names, privileges and social rank were handed down and validated. People who were invited to witness these important cultural events received gifts for doing so. The speechifying, feasting and dancing went on for days. The ceremonies, which were practised by most of the nations of the coast, were at the heart of Aboriginal governance and social structure. By attacking the potlatch, the government and its agents struck at the system of status and privileges through which the coastal people made sense of the world.

Potlatch
Masked Dancers, from Edward S. Curtis's North American Indian Portfolio, 1915 (courtesy Smithsonian Institution Libraries/98/911).

On April 19, 1884 the federal government amended the Indian Act to make the potlatch illegal, effective 1 Jan 1885. It was over 4 years before the first person was prosecuted under the law, at which point BC Chief Justice Matthew Begbie ruled that it was unenforceable as written because it did not define the term "potlatch.”

Several more years passed before a new law was in place and then it was enforced only sporadically. Officials agreed that the potlatch was undesirable, but they did not always agree that coercion was the best way to curtail it. As the years passed, many people believed the custom was dying out of its own accord. But among the Kwakawaka'wakw, a group of tribes from the central coast, it persisted with particular tenacity.

Following World War I Duncan Campbell Scott decided to take a more aggressive approach. As a result, early in 1922, 34 people who had attended a ceremony at the Village Island community of Memkoomlish the previous Christmas were charged with violating the anti-potlatch law. Many of the defendants agreed to accept a deal to avoid prison terms. In return for surrendering their ceremonial regalia - masks, headdresses, robes, rattles - and signing a promise not to engage any longer in the potlatch, they received suspended sentences. But some refused to sign. A total of 22 Kwakawaka'wakw received jail sentences ranging from 2 to 6 months, served at the Oakalla Prison Farm outside Vancouver.

"The potlatch is killed,” a confident Indian agent, William Halliday, wrote to his superiors. But of course he was wrong. Potlatching continued clandestinely on the coast, and the steam went out of the government's enforcement of the law. Very few people were convicted after the 1922 arrests until finally, in 1951, Ottawa repealed the law and potlatching once again became legal.

Twelve years later Chief James Sewid paid a visit to the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization) in Ottawa where most of the regalia which had been confiscated at Village Island was stored. Sewid told the curators that the masks and other items had been stolen and he wanted them back. After several years of negotiations, the museum returned the items, many of which are now on display at cultural centres at Cape Mudge and Alert Bay, a poignant reminder of the government's ill-fated attempt to force cultural change on the indigenous people of the BC coast.