From 1885 to 1951, the Indigenous ceremony known as the Potlatch was banned by the federal government of Canada. The government justified their decision to ban the Potlatch because they believed it was preventing the assimilation of Indigenous Peoples. Today, this ban is recognized as an aspect of cultural genocide (see Genocide and Indigenous Peoples in Canada). Though the Potlatch was illegal during this period of time, the ban was only ever sporadically enforced. This was in part a result of the vagueness of the wording of the law. The law was rewritten and prosecutions increased. In 1922, Indian agents, aided by police, arrested individuals who had participated in a Potlatch held in the community of ʼMimkwa̱mlis. They arrested 45 people. Ultimately, this resulted in imprisonment and the confiscation of hundreds of precious ceremonial objects.
The Potlatch is a traditional ceremony of Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia and the interior western subarctic. The ceremony has a variety of functions. It is vital to the governance structures of some Indigenous Peoples. The specifics of the Potlatch, as well as its formality, differ between Indigenous nations and Clans. However, they tend to coincide with important events. Some Potlatches can last for several days. While approaches to Potlatches can differ, generally they include feasting, ceremonial dancing, singing and theatre. Potlatches accomplished many things, including redistribution of wealth. The Potlatch also reinforces solidarity amongst the community. Potlatches preserve established hierarchies between groups and peoples.
Every important thing that happens in the community was marked by a potlatch or a feast. It was also a way for our people to keep our history alive, because every time you held a potlatch, you invited people to be witnesses – and they kept our history going by remembering what they witnessed at the potlatch, as we had no written language at the time.
- Chief Bill Cranmer, of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people of northern British Columbia
From the perspective of early settler Euro-Canadians, several aspects of the Potlatch appeared puzzling. It was also perceived as a barrier to the government’s attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples. In particular, redistribution of wealth conflicted with the capitalist value of accumulating wealth. Potlatch ceremonies helped maintain independent Indigenous communities and political systems. At this time, the federal government and churches were attempting to convert Indigenous Peoples to Christianity (see also Residential Schools in Canada). These entities perceived ceremonial dancing and singing as in conflict with Christianity. The government saw Indigenous cultures, societies, politics and traditions as a threat to their authority.
Banning the Potlatch
The Indian Act is a law the federal government uses to administer and manage Indigenous Peoples and communities. It was created in 1876 and was replaced with an updated version in 1951. The Indian Act focused mostly on assimilating Indigenous people. It did this by banning certain customs and traditions and by forcing Indigenous youth into residential schools.
The federal government decided to ban the Potlatch as early as 1883. It issued a statement that would lead to the amending of the Indian Act on 19 April 1884. This, in turn, became law on 1 January 1885. The statement read as follows:
“Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘potlatch’ or in the Indian dance ‘tamananawas’ is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment…”
The law was vaguely worded. It was several years before anyone was prosecuted for participation in the Potlatch. When this first occurred, British Columbia chief justice Matthew Begbie ruled that the law was unenforceable. He argued this because the term Potlatch had not been defined.
Despite the vagueness of the law and early legal opinion that it was unenforceable, it remained on the books. Individuals were sometimes prosecuted under the ban. Some government officials weren’t convinced that coercion was the best practice to encourage assimilation. Some thought that the Potlatch would simply die out on its own. Application of the law led to odd situations, such as arrests for the crime of dancing. The law was a poor deterrent, as many Indigenous communities continued the Potlatch in secret.
German-American anthropologist Franz Boas spent much of his career studying Indigenous languages, cultures and societies in Canada. He was an outspoken opponent of the Potlatch ban. Boaz organized and hosted his own Potlatches. Additionally, he defended Indigenous people who participated in his Potlatches. Boaz was a noted opponent of the ‘scientific racism’ that was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These racist ideas were the foundation of Canadian government laws, such as the Indian Act. Boaz made numerous recordings of Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw Chief Dan Cranmer in 1938. Cranmer had carried on the Potlatch tradition in secret.
Cranmer Potlatch of 1921
On 25 December 1921, Chief Dan Cranmer hosted the largest Potlatch recorded on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia. There were a reported 300 people in attendance. The Potlatch occurred in ʼMimkwa̱mlis (also spelled Memkumlis, and also known as Village Island). Indian agents, along with police, later arrested Potlatch participants, charging them under the Potlatch ban. The Indian agents issued an ultimatum to the community. They demanded the community give up the practice of potlatching and hand over all ceremonial items used in the Potlatch. These items included masks, costumes, headdresses and other traditional ceremonial objects. Roughly half of those arrested were given jail sentences between two and three months. The other half of those arrested, around 20 people, avoided imprisonment when the community accepted the demand they turn over ceremonial items.
The total number of objects that were confiscated is difficult to determine, but the estimated total is approximately 600. Some objects were taken by Indian agents, police officers, and other authority figures and government officials. Other items were sold to private collectors. The bulk of the items wound up in three museums; the National Museum in Ottawa (now called the Canadian Museum of History), the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Some also ended up in the United Kingdom. Beginning in the 1970s, Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw people started work to have confiscated items returned. Many items have been returned, though not all have been recovered.
End of the Potlatch Ban
The Indian Act was substantially revised in 1951. This revision included an end to the Potlatch ban. This revision likely came about as a consequence of Canada’s experience in the Second World War, particularly the eugenics and ‘scientific racism’ at the core of the Nazi’s fascist ideology. At this time, Canada also signed the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Canada’s oppressive policies towards Indigenous people seemed out of step with global trends in the middle decades of the 20th century. The following year, Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Chief Mungo Martin held the first ‘legal’ Potlatch since 1885 in Victoria, British Columbia. Members of the Cranmer family were in attendance. It would still take several decades before the Potlatch returned to prominence and was regularly practiced by Indigenous communities.