Potlatches

Jessica Leblanc Distefano

As many of us know, the First Nations peoples of Canada have been through decades of acculturation and assimilation. It is throughout numerous acts and laws that the government of Canada has tried in various ways to transform a society that used to be so pure. A society attached to its traditions, to symbolic rituals, and where every single person has a specific role to play for the benefit of everyone. In which no individual is superior to another, and where helping each other is common courtesy of everyday life. Indigenous people have been assimilated into a society that is based on religion and in which women do not have their say meaning that patriarchy governs.

Before going into detail about how the Indian Act stipulated by the Canada's government which intended to abolish potlatches, let's define what a potlatch is and how it was practiced before 1884. A potlatch is a traditional gather-up practiced by many aboriginals where the community celebrated public changes such as marriages, births, and even deaths. In such circumstances, the host would distribute presents that corresponded to the social status of his guests. Hosts would expect the same when they themselves attended potlatches, therefore there was no lose in their societal ranking.

In abolishing such practices, the government intended to take full control over the Aboriginal traditions and the way they lived their lives with the sole intention of assimilating them. Thus, defining the moment when children needed to attend school, having complete control of the resources on their lands, as well as identifying their career possibilities. These actions led the Aboriginals to cultural loss as well as questioning of their social status within national society. The Government of Canada stated in the Indian Act of 1873, section 3 that joining a potlatch was a criminal offence. "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 shall be liable to imprisonment … and any Indian or other person who encourages … an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, … is guilty of a like offence …"

Of course, the First Nations community did not leave things without their say, potlatches continued to take place in numerous communities. One of the most famous underground potlatches that took place was held by Chief Dan Cranmer in Alert Bay in 1921. It took place for six days and was then discovered which led to twenty two arrests. The reasons of their arrests remained as ridiculous as giving gifts and speeches, in addition to dancing.

Still today, aboriginal communities have difficulties that are caused by such none sense laws that were intended to assimilate, but ended up destroying valuable traditions and culture that did not harm the Canadian society in the first place. It is unfortunate to say the Government of Canada almost destroyed communities that were perfectly fine upon the arrival of Canadian population. The Indian Act was revised in 1951, making potlatches a practice that was once again legal.


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