In the year 1921, Warren G. Harding moved into the White House, Albert Einstein took home the Nobel Prize in physics and 45 Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people were arrested (and 20 went to jail) for “crimes” like dancing, giving speeches, and carrying and receiving gifts in a ceremony practiced by their ancestors for centuries.
The potlatch ceremony in Alert Bay
The potlatch is a First Nations ceremony in which participants give away possessions to celebrate life and pass down stories, for births and deaths, for marriages and the standing of a new chief, and has always been essential to their culture.
Just west of the small village of Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, is Village Island. It was here, in 1921, that the potlatch mentioned above was held. Indian agents found out about the ceremony and raided it, arresting 45 Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (formerly called Kwakiutl by non-natives) and confiscating regalia and masks, which were then sold to museums and collectors all over the world.
In the late 1950s, the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw began the long process of bringing their confiscated sacred regalia home and this repatriation work continues today. The U’mista Cultural Society was formed in 1974 to preserve Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture, and a museum opened in 1980 to house returned ritual items.
The fight to preserve a culture that was outlawed
“The Potlatch Collection,” a permanent exhibit at the U’mista Cultural Centre, is the most significant in the area and a reminder of the arduous efforts undertaken to regain these prized possessions.
“Our elders still have big memories of the hardships they suffered throughout the era,” says Lillian Hunt of the U’mista Cultural Centre. “It’s very hard for them.
“I was a little girl back then, but I still remember my grandparents coming over to visit, not knowing back then that they had suffered through the residential school system and lost their regalia (we have my grandfather’s regalia in this cultural centre). Only later on when we got older did we understand the impact on our family.”
Even though the federal government banned potlatches and other ceremonies, as well as the use of native languages, First Nations people preserved their traditions by practicing them in secret.
As a child, Lillian remembers the women who made sure that Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw stories were passed down to future generations.
“The old ladies used to reach out and grab us as we were walking down the street,” she laughs. “They’d yard us into wherever they were sitting and teach us dancing and the language.” If not for them, who knows how much would have been passed down?
The New Generation
Now it’s up to younger First Nations people to continue the work their predecessors started. One initiative with this aim is the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC’s Trailblazer Cultural Interpretation training.
Participants learn entry-level tourism skills and training tips. Along with a train-the-trainer program, this allows Aboriginal people to teach Aboriginal people how to share their culture with others.
Victoria Morgan, a Trailblazers’s graduate, had a blast working with those in the program. “When we were doing the training for the Olympics [in 2010],” she remembers, “it was amazing to see those who had never been around so many people. I saw them outside all day with wet shoes, cold, maybe hungry, and they were still helping people with a smile on their face. I was very impressed.”
As Victoria says, the more they can share their culture with both Canadians and those visiting Canada, the more their traditions will continue to flourish.
Do you think tourism is a good way for Aboriginal people to share their culture? And for indigenous people, have you found tourism initiatives helpful places to share your stories?
* A version of this article was first published by the PPI Group.