Persistent to potlatch: The continuity of Nuu-Chah-Nulth potlatches through COVID-19

Culture

Since time immemorial, coastal nations have engaged in the potlatch ceremony. Serving a wide range of purposes, Nuu-Chah-Nulth peoples utilized the ceremony as a means of preserving their histories. Some Nuu-Chah-Nulth-aht have argued that the potlatch is a key component to Nuu-Chah-Nulth sovereignty and an essential means to being a self-governing nation. Among the various types of potlatch ceremonies, there is one common denominator in a Nuu-Chah-Nulth potlatch: it is to be hosted by a Hawiith in his home Haahoothlee. 

The types of potlatches that Nuu-Chah-Nulth people hosted covered a wide spectrum. Potlatches are a means of observing big moments such as naming ceremonies; typically, one-year-old children received their first name at a potlatch. Another type of ceremony was the coming-of-age ceremonies, hosted for young ladies after they transitioned to womanhood. The most significant potlatches were the passing of a chieftainship, weddings, and lastly, memorials. For Nuu-Chah-Nulth peoples, most memorials are hosted four years after a person’s passing. 

Prior to contact, potlatches took many years to prepare for and the ceremony could go on for days. In a Nuu-chah-nulth potlatch, the host family would open the floor, then invite other chiefs to perform. The host family would again close the potlatch by performing their most sacred and significant dances. The potlatch concluded when gifts were given away by the chief. 

In 1884, the potlatch was banned by the Government of Canada. The government did so by making an amendment to the Indian Act of 1876. This came after Prime Minister John A. Macdonald stated that “this Indian festival is debauchery of the worst kind.” The potlatch ban affected Indigenous peoples on the West Coast heavily. Among the hardest hit were the Indigenous women belonging to potlatch-based societies. 

In the CBC article entitled “Historical ban on potlatch ceremony has lingering effects for Indigenous women,” Leonard Monkman interviews Peepeekisis Elder Philip Brass about how the potlatch became a patriarchal practice during the 70 years that the ban was in effect. Brass explains that the ban was enforced by Indian Agents, and Indigenous people were forced to practice the ceremony in secrecy. To cover their tracks, the men would collect a pass to leave the reserve with the explanation that they were going hunting. This prevented women from being able to remain engaged while the ceremony was pushed underground. 

Here on Vancouver Island, the effort to continue to practice the potlatch ceremony persisted for the entirety of the 70-year ban. In 1921, the resistance effort of the Kwakwaka’wakw was met with backlash when hereditary chief Dan Cranmer hosted a potlatch on Christmas day. The potlatch was attended by many people and unfortunately 45 were arrested. On top of the arrest, over 600 masks were confiscated and sold to collectors and museums.

The ban did not deter Indigenous peoples on the coast and the federal government was left with no other choice but to halt their effort to enforce the potlatch ban. In 1951, after the ban was lifted, hereditary chief Mungo Martin hosted the first legal potlatch here on Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ territories. This marked the first of thousands of legal potlatches that have been legally hosted here in British Columbia over the last 70 years. 

Since Martin’s potlatch in 1951, the potlatch has taken on a new and modern variation. In recent years, potlatch ceremonies only take place on weekends, most starting on early Saturday mornings. Larger ceremonies may last anywhere between 24 and 30 hours. This adaptation allows people to participate without needing to take a leave of absence from school or work. 

This consistent pattern of potlatching was once again disrupted on March 18, 2020, when the provincial government declared a state of emergency. During phase one, gatherings of more than 50 people were deemed unsafe due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This directly disrupted the potlatch ceremony as many potlatches have large crowds. Although many families were left with no other choice but to cancel, there was one persistent Nuu-Chah-Nulth couple who decided to host the first virtual potlatch in Nuu-Chah-Nulth history. 

On Nov. 28, 2020 — while the world awaited the in ring return of boxing legend ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson — Nuu-Chah-Nulth peoples were gathered virtually over Facebook to witness the historic potlatch hosted by Steve ‘Tutuutshwiniish’ Howard and Allison ‘Haakwaa’ Howard. In keeping with the traditional protocol, the host family opened the floor at 11 a.m. Over two dozen half-hour slots were filled during the 13-hour potlatch. Participants ranged from as young as five years old all the way to Elders in their 70s. 

The Howards felt compelled to host this potlatch, after one of their relatives from Opitsaht projected that their family likely would host the first post-pandemic potlatch. After much consideration, the couple decided that the potlatch could be hosted online. “I expected a handful of people would watch and participate,” said Howard. But what happened next still has the couple in astonishment. 

The coordinated effort allowed participants to share songs, stories and dances via Facebook Live. Howard described the potlatch as “long overdue for those of us missing our family, friends, and culture.” Their inspiration behind the potlatch was to offer Oo’ii or medicine to all of those who were coping with the pandemic. As the potlatch continued, the viewership numbers only increased throughout the day. At its peak, over 10 000 people bore witness to the ceremony. After the Howards concluded their virtual potlatch, their gifts were put into the mail for all of the participants. 

On the page’s timeline, many people took to sharing laughter about the parts of the potlatch experience that weren’t captured in the virtual experience. Along with the memes, there was also a plethora of messages of  gratitude and encouragement to all the participants. 

In the end, the historic potlatch was a success and a testament to the persistence of Nuu-Chah-Nulth people to continue their participation through the potlatch ban and the COVID-19 state of emergency — this time from the safety of their own homes.