In September 2014, my family held our first Potlatch ceremony since it had been outlawed. From 1885-1951, the Potlatch Ban was enforced and our traditional ways were forbidden.
The family giving the Potlatch reaffirms their connections to the community, as well as their responsibilities within it. This quote has always moved me and shaped my understanding of the Potlatch:
“When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. It was given to us by our Creator, to be our way of doing things, we who are Indians. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy. Every people on earth is given something. This was given to us.” – Agnes “Axu” Alfred, ‘Namgis Wise woman
So much richness through cultural and spiritual wealth is shared amongst family in one Potlatch. In one day, we shared ceremonies within ceremonies, including: a coming of age ceremony for the young women; a mourning ceremony to cry for our ancestors and loved ones who have passed on to the spirit world; a cleansing ceremony for relatives who faced near death experiences through accidents and disease; the naming of over 60 relatives; passing on rights of a chieftainship; two traditional weddings; and a protection ceremony to steward the attachment of our children’s souls onto their physical bodies.
To attend this Potlatch, we travelled from Montreal to our remote village, Alert Bay. We couldn’t and wouldn’t miss this historic event for the world. Upon arrival to the quaint Island, the culminated stress of our family members had reached a boiling point over years leading up to this ceremony. Endless power struggles of who should take leadership, roles and delegation, learning protocol, gift preparation, and financial strain to host a ceremony for more than 400 guests.
In most traditional ceremonies, a certain level of discomfort is quite common. It embodies the acute nature of suffering. This is typically consistent from preparation to closing, ebbing and flowing depending on our individual clinging to the physical body. Self-sacrifice is inherent to the process. I didn’t feel prepared for any of it.
Many deep wounds were forced to the surface from intergenerational trauma and abuse; several relatives chose not to attend, as they would be put in the same room as a childhood abuser – a nightmare no one should have to confront. I felt conflicted that I chose to attend and stay rather than stand in support with my relatives who may have needed that acknowledgement.
Amidst this chaos and discomfort, there was also a time of reclaiming our history and origin stories and sharing them with the witnesses present. There was a sense of ownership and pride amongst our family that came from our ancestors – especially for some of my relatives who had never worn traditional regalia or danced in the Gukwdzi (Big House). The experience was profound.
Many of us were privileged to receive rights to dances and songs and receive Indian names. I was given rights to the Lalułalał - sacred “Ghost Dance”. The ghost dancer is bestowed the ability to travel to the underworld. I was wrapped in hemlock boughs and dressed in regalia adorned in skulls, symbolizing ghosts. Traditionally, preparation for this dance is done in secrecy, however my only preparation came the day before from a respected dancer and singer who assured me to just « feel our ancestors ».
To start the dance, I entered the room by turning counter-clockwise, which signifies entering the spirit world. My nerves were screaming bloody murder at the start of the song. I was so nervous as I moved passed dozens of hereditary chiefs to circle around the sacred fire. When I finally loosened up and felt the vibrations of the drumming, I realized I was being trailed by a number of Hamatsa initiates, who represent the highest society in Kwakwaka’wakw culture. I felt their support.
This is how our ancestors passed on core values and teachings and how they prayed for our children’s children. I came to realize that in order to learn from ceremony, we must be selfless and put our best qualities forward for the benefit of everyone in attendance. Take out the ceremony part, and these are words to live by each day.