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Sharing the box of treasures.

ELABORATELY CARVED masks occupy a place of honor at the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia. Worn by dancers during traditional potlatch ceremonies, the masks evoke denizens of land, air, and sea: wolf and bear, raven and eagle, salmon and whale. Great-beaked cannibal birds embellished with shredded cedar bark, and enigmatic creatures like Dzunuk'wa--a woman who scoops up errant children only to let them escape when site nods off--speak of legends passed down across generations.

But collectively, these masks have another story to tell: a true-life narrative no less dramatic than the mythical personages they portray. It was their central role in the potlatch--a ceremony rooted in ancient traditions and marked by extraordinary generosity--that launched the masks and other artifacts on an epic journey. Set off by a clash of belief systems and abetted by official skulduggery, the story of the Potlatch Collection is skill being played out today.

The saga originates in the labyrinth of straits, passages, bays, and inlets that splinter the North American continent's north Pacific coast into a mosaic of islands large and small. The confluence of land and water ensured a bountiful food supply for the inhabitants, who fished for salmon, halibut, cod, and the small, oily fish known as eulachon. Along the shores they harvested seaweed and shellfish, and in the forested mountains they hunted deer and gathered berries. Great cedar trees, the "tree of life," supplied wood for dwellings, canoes, tools, and ritual items such as totem poles, talking sticks, and masks.

This is the traditional home of the Kwakwaka'wakw, Kwak'wala-speaking people of whom some eighteen groups survive, among them the Kwakiutl of Fort Rupert, the 'Namgis of Alert Bay, and the Weiwaikum of Campbell River. (Anthropologists for a time applied the name "Kwakiutl," or "Kwagiulth," to all Kwakwaka'wakw'wakw.)

Along with the Coast Salish and other northwestern tribal groups, the Kwakwaka'wakw parlayed the abundance of Cite region into great ritual feasts, celebrated in a Big House that was warned by a central fire and by the comforting presence of successive generations of family members. There the speeches and rites of the potlatch impressed on their memories the particulars of important milestones: marriages, births, deaths, naming of children, the transfer of rights and privileges, or the raising of a totem pole.

"The ceremony is also referred to as a wintering ceremony," says Lillian Hunt of the U'mista Cultural Centre. "As you can imagine, our ancestors would be using the rest of the year for food gathering and shelter building, and what better time to potlatch and get people together than the cold winter time around a roaring fire to celebrate their history?"

More than the feasting or the guests who arrived in great dugout canoes or even the ritual songs and dances, it was the giving of gifts that stamped the celebration as a pot latch. Chiefs maintained their prestige by demonstrating their largesse to their guests, who served as witnesses to important transactions in this preliterate but complex society. Gifts might consist of foodstuffs, goat-hair blankets, canoes, and the prized grease from the eulachon. In fact, the very name "potlatch," from the Chinook trading language used along the coast, means "to give." The end result was the redistribution of wealth in such a way that no leader could abuse his power to amass riches.

Also emblematic of the potlatch were the "coppers"--shield-shaped symbols of wealth made of native copper, each individually named and imbued with its own history. As a copper changed hands it increased in value, in amounts denoted by hundreds or thousands of blankets. "Some of the coppers were broken," says Hunt, "usually in disagreement at a decision being made at a potlatch." In his autobiography Guests Never Leave Hungry, Chief James Sewid illustrates the worth of a copper: "My grandfather aim his uncle were so strong that nobody could pay them back when they broke a copper."

References to the U'mista Cultural Centre as a "box of treasures" carry more than a literal meaning for people familiar with the old ways. In addition to the kinds of artifacts on display, and real properly such as land, buildings, and canoes, each family owned less tangible possessions--songs, dances, stories, family crests, the rights to certain fishing grounds and other resources--all of which constituted their box of treasures.

The crests, such as raven, thunderbird, and orca, were derived from mythical ancestors. Represented as masks and figures on totem poles, each had its rank within a hierarchy, just as each individual held a prescribed rank within the household. The order of the potlatch, too, is very strict, says Hunt. "It takes a lot of work and effort to host a potlatch," she says. "There are so many intricate details that have to be worked out, and this ix done by the women, the keepers of the knowledge and the order of things."

Into this well ordered world sailed the late eighteenth-century explorers, bestowing Spanish and English names on the surrounding landforms and waterways but causing barely a ripple in the life-style of the native people. It was only toward the mid-nineteenth century that Europeans arrived in significant numbers. Even then, the deaths from imported diseases and the disruptions resulting from increased European contact failed to dispel longstanding traditions, although manufactured goods and sewing machines began to appear among the potlatch gifts.

Despite its benign retentions and the importance of the potlatch in maintaining social order, members of British Columbia's First Nations recall a dark period in their history when the ceremony was outlawed and relatives who took part in it were imprisoned. In 1884 government attempts to "civilize" the original inhabitants, and missionary efforts to Christianize them, prompted an amendment to the Indian Act: "Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the 'Potlatch' is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less that two months."

In his memoir, Sewid recalls that "the government had stepped in and said the potlatches and dances were forbidden. So the people had to be very careful.... I remember we used to move around from one village to another and go to these pot latches almost every month in the winter." Farther north, the Christianized Nisga'a took to holding barely disguised "revival meetings." By 1920 anti-potlatch measures targeted "any Indian festival, dance, or other ceremony of which the giving away or paying or giving back of money, goods, or articles of any sort forms a part."

The following year a 'Namgis chief from Alert Bay slated a large potlatch at Village Island, a place chosen for its isolation as well as his wife's family ties. But the Indian agent and the police officer from Alert Bay learned of the transgression. They charged forty-five people with offenses: making speeches, dancing, and delivering and receiving gifts. "They had spies amongst our own people to tell who danced, who made speeches, who gave out gifts," says Vera Newman, a 'Namgis elder.

It was at this juncture that the masks and other regalia connected with the potlatch began their circuitous journeys. William Halliday, the local Indian agent, took charge of the ceremonial gear--cedar bark headpieces, masks, rattles, whistles, drums, carvings, and coppers--upwards of five hundred items, which he stored in the parish hall After photographing them, and charging admission for a look at the objects, Halliday offered a Faustian bargain: If entire tribes were to give up their potlatch paraphernalia, tribal members would have their sentences suspended.

"There were only people from three villages who did what they were ordered Cape Mudge, Village Island, and Alert Bay," says Sewid, who as a curious eight year old peered in through the window of his schoolhouse, temporarily serving as courthouse and sleeping quarters for the accused. "They gave all their masks and regalia and everything riley owned front the Indian way.... And the people who had refused to give up their things were brought into Alert Bay and put on trial."

"My mom was six months old when the potlatch prohibition came about," says Newman. "That's why my granny didn't go to jail, because there was no one to take care of my mom, and so my granny's older sister went to jail." Twenty men and women served two to three months at Oakalla Prison, near Vancouver.

Some of the plundered artifacts found their way into the personal collection of Duncan Campbell Scott, then superintendent general of Indian Affairs. Juanita Pasco, collections manager at the U'mista Cultural Centre, traces the separate paths taken by others: "The bulk of the collection went to the National Museum of Man [now the Canadian Museum of Civilization] in Ottawa, and a small portion of it went to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto."

Choice pieces migrated to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, some courtesy of Sargeant Donald Angerman, the arresting officer, and others by a more direct route. "At the time George Heye (founder of the museum) was in the area on a buying trip," says Pasco. "Halliday sold him thirty-three items from the collection. The rattles, headpieces, and headdresses that he purchased were the cream of the crop; he was a private collector so he knew what he wanted."

Now the potlatch truly went underground. On Village Island a now-abandoned village gained the name "Mamalaliculla" or "Village of the Last Potlatch." In Fort Rupert, people watched for storms on the horizon, confident that the police and the Indian agent would avoid going outside during blustery weather.

In their determination to eradicate native languages and culture, church and govern merit officials uprooted native children from their families and consigned them to residential schools like the one in Alert Bay. Built in 1929, the building once knower as St. Michael's School brings back painful memories for tribal elders, who were punished for speaking their home language. By 1951 prohibitions against the potlatch were no longer in effect, but residential schools continued to stamp "Indianness" out of their charges into the 1970s.

Even as they adopted Christianity, some indigenous people honored the teachings of their forbears. "My granny used to say a payer every time we had salmon," says Newman. "She'd put all the remains of the salmon right back in the water and give thanks to the Creator for it. It wasn't the church that brought us prayer either; we had our own way. My dad used to say the missionaries cane with a bible in one hand and a knife in the back in tire other, because they cane and confused our people, and a lot of our people to this day reject our customs."

Unlike other First Nations people who have torn down their former residential schools, the people of Alert Bay have decided to restore the dilapidated brick structure--not because of any fond memories, says Hunt, but "lest we forget." Already it serves as a place where artists carve totem poles like the one fronting the cultural center. A priority is the study of Kwak'wala, in the same classrooms where its use was once forbidden.

The very existence of the U'mista Cultural Centre is a tribute to the tenacity of the communities who surrendered their potlatch regalia but never relinquished their oral history. In the late 1960s local people started campaigning for the return of those objects surrendered to the Indian agent nearly half a century earlier. "The Department of Indian Affairs retained ownership, so it was a long-term loan," says Pasco. "In the end I believe that's how they got the pieces back."

But there was a catch. The National Museums Corporation agreed to return the objects held in Ottawa on condition that a facility be built to house the collection. When a dispute ensued about where to build the museum, two facilities took shape, one in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island and one to the south in Cape Mudge, Quadra Island. In 1979 the Nuyumbalees ("In the Beginning") Cultural Society completed the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre on land donated by the Wewaikai of Cape Mudge. (Now closed for renovation, the museum is expected to open by next summer, says Donald Assu, president of the society.)

In Alert Bay, the opening of the U'mista Cultural Centre the following year provided the occasion for a joyful potlatch. The name, says Hunt, derives from the old days when raiding parties sometimes seized captives; if payment of ransom or retaliatory raids brought them back, they were said to have u'mista. "The return of our treasures from distant museums is a form of u'mista," she says. "These masks, costumes, and coppers are a symbol of Kwakwaka'wakw cultural survival."

"We've been working since we got the stuff back front the Canadian Museum of Civilization to repatriate the remainder of the collection," says Pasco. "We have a specific claim against the government because the person who was in charge of looking after the fights of the natives hi the area was also the same person who was prosecuting them for potlatching." Ultimately, in 1988, the Royal Ontario Museum complied. During the 1990s acquisitions began trickling in from the National Museum of the American Indian, now under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution; their final shipment arrived in November 2002.

Today a potlatch often follows the death of a family member. Newman describes the healing process it engenders: "It means so much because we have to prepare. It costs lots of money, a lot of time and work, so all the fanny comes together and works together to honor the memory of the loved one," she says. "For whatever reason, once that's over, in spite of all the hurts and losing a loved one"--she touches her heart--"it feels real good here."

One of the more festive potlatches in recent memory was the two--day extravaganza organized to celebrate the opening of the Gukwdzi, the Big House, which replaced an earlier building destroyed by fire. Guests from far-flung communities sailed into Alert Bay in painted canoes and fishing boats draped with cedar boughs, proffering greetings in Kwak'wala to Chief William Cranmer. Inside the Big House, a phalanx of drummers beat out a rhythmic cadence on a carved log drum to accompany traditional dances. Most dramatic, as always, was the Hamat'sa ritual, in which dancers mimicked flamboyant birds clacking their enormous beaks as a youth raced wildly around the fire, dragging attendants with him as they tried to subdue him. Cooks prepared a banquet featuring salmon, halibut, bannock, aid oil from the eulachon for the huge crowd. Gifts flowed in both directions as guests donated cash and newly carved paraphernalia to the building committee, while the T'sasala dance troupe presented woven headdresses to their counterparts from a distant village.

Increasingly, tourists file into the Big House to browse art objects for sale and view dance performances derived from the potlatch, like the "Peace Dance," in which tufts of eagle down symbolizing peace and good luck waft toward the audience. Similar performances take place at the Gildas Box of Treasures Theatre in Campbell River, where director Jason Wilson explains that "Gildas" is the name given to the symbolic box in which each family keeps its traditional songs, masks, dances, and stories. On Quadra Island, First Nations tourism has taken the form of an attractive lodge built in the style of a Big House, called Tsa-Kwa-Luten or "the Gathering Place." Maritime ventures like Aboriginal Journeys and Homalco Tours cruise the Broughton Archipelago, giving passengers a close-up view of the creatures they've previously seen only on totem poles: eagles, orcas, grizzly bears, and other wildlife.

Randy Bell, of the 'Namgis Community Development Department, takes the tourism initiatives a step further, partnering with a high-end wilderness lodge to provide a cultural component for their guests. He calls the program "Wi'la'mola"--We are traveling together. "We've always been a welcoming people," he says. "Social interaction is the lifeline of our culture." Bell also takes trekkers over the "Grease Trail," all ancient trading route that once linked the Kwakwaka'wakw with the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island's west coast. "Every time I go through there I find more history," he says, citing guardian masks, bird pictographs, and "culturally modified trees"--cedars whose bark was once stripped for basketry, clothing, and ceremonial use.

As a means of earning a livelihood, these forays into cultural tourism come none too soon for native fishermen, whose fishing boats often sit idle in the harbor. Locals have seen their fishing fights restricted as commercial fishing and clear-cut logging have depleted salmon runs.

Among other slights is the refusal of the British Museum to return a prized transformation mask identified front the original photographs taken by the Indian agent. "The mask was acquired lawfully," insists a museum spokesperson, who reiterates the colonial-era claims that the museum benefits all mankind by serving as a repository of the world's cultural heritage.

Speaking of the stolen artifacts in general, Juanita Pasco says, "I think it's important that they come back because it's righting a wrong. It's not so much the stuff that, the people are concerned about, it's the fact that they never should have been taken in the first place."

To Vera Newman, more important than the masks and ceremonies are the teachings they represent. "I have to share what my granny taught me: we feed people, we give gifts to people," she says. "One of the most important teachings of our people is mayaxala: respect. My hope for our people is to remember our teachings, not to forget our language, not to forget our customs, not to forget who we are."

A Surreal Journey

FUTURE GENERATIONS MAY ONE DAY retell the legend of the Kwakwaka'wakw artifact that inspired a famous French author. Surrendered to the government in 1922, the mask-cum-headdress then embarked on an eighty year odyssey. After a sojourn at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, it migrated to the Parisian apartments of surrealist Andre Breton.

Following his death in 1966, a decades-long controversy ensued over the fate of Breton's estate. Last year his collections were put up for auction, whereupon anthropologist Dr. Marie Mauze recognized the headdress as a Yaxwiwe, worn at potlatches during the peace dance.

Breton's daughter, Madame Aube Elleouet-Breton, readily agreed to return the Yaxwiwe. Last September she presented it personally to 'Namgis chief William Cranmer, son of the chief whose forbidden potlatch had drawn the wrath of authorities. In a joyful ceremony in the Big House, the long-lost Yaxwiwe was welcomed home.

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a freelance writer living in California and a past contributor to Americas.
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Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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