Print Method: Giclée
Released: October 2019
Paper Size: 17" x 22"
My first ancestor, ‘Na̱mugwis, descended from the sky wearing the feather garments of a Sea Eagle. Upon landing, he removed his outer clothes to reveal his inner human form. After some time living alone, ‘Na̱mugwis discovered a young boy abandoned on the beach and immediately adopted him. Through training and determination, this boy grew rapidly and started to hunt from his canoe. He was extremely successful and quickly amassed a great amount of sea otter and seal for his father. With this newfound abundance, ’Na̱mugwis decided to hold the first feast in the area. He invited all of the nearby chiefs whom he fed and gifted pelts. This redistribution of wealth, or “potlatch”, allowed him to give his son the new name U’ma̱xtalatła’yi, or “He-Who-Becomes-Chief-by-Hunting-on-the-Sea”. This ceremony came to set the order of gift-giving and the respective ranking structure of the Kwagu’ł chiefs for successive generations to follow. It was the way in which our ancestors conducted business—both big and small.
Upon seeing potlatches in action, early missionaries and Indian agents couldn’t understand why we liked to give away our wealth. To their Victorian sensibilities, fortunes were made to amass, not to give away. With advice from these individuals and influenced by sensationalistic stories in newspapers, the nascent Canadian government introduced the “anti-potlatch” law. Enacted in 1885, this law made provisions to arrest and imprison anyone caught participating in our traditional ceremonies—with the potlatch being the prime example. In the face of this law, our people persisted and continued to potlatch. Even when a number of our chiefs and noble women were taken away to Oakalla prison, they still tenaciously followed their traditions. To evade police, our ceremonies began to be held in remote villages during inclement weather or in living rooms rooms under the guise of a good tea party. With tenacity, our people carried on.
When the anti-potlatch law was unceremoniously dropped from the Indian Act in 1951, our people were able to conduct our ceremonies in public once again. Chiefs—including my grandfather—built bighouses in which we could once again host potlatches. Looking at the tenacity of our old people, it is imperative that our present generation continue to follow in the path laid down by our ancestors.