KNOX – A century ago, a secret potlatch continued an indigenous tradition

Bill Cranmer and fallen totem near where his father held a potlatch 100 years ago. (Image: Victoria Times Colonist)

BILL CRANMER FIGURES his dad held his potlatch at this time of year to show that the ­ceremony, with its spiritual significance, gift-giving and feasting, was similar to the traditional ­Christmas celebrated by other Canadians.

Still, Chief Dan Cranmer made sure the potlatch was beyond the reach of the law, hosting it on remote Village Island rather than in Alert Bay, where the Indian agent and police were.

It didn’t work. Potlatching was still illegal in December 1921. The authorities began rounding up the participants, setting in motion a cultural struggle that continues now, exactly 100 years later.

Bill Cranmer, 83, is a hereditary chief of the ‘Namgis First Nation, one of the Kwakwaka’wakw — or Kwak’wala-speaking — peoples whose traditional ­territory stretches from Comox in the south to the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the ­isolated islands and mainland inlets across the strait.

The ‘Namgis are found at Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, a 45-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill. Farther out still is the Broughton Archipelago and the isolated, long-­uninhabited Indigenous community of ­‘Mimkwamlis on ­Mamalilikulla — Village Island — where ­Cranmer’s father decided to push back against attempts to snuff out potlatching.

It’s a story that goes back to 1884, when the Canadian ­government banned the ­practice. Potlatches — long, ­elaborate ceremonies with feasts, speeches, ritual songs and dances — marked marriages, births, deaths, pole-raisings, the bestowing of names, the ­passing of a chief’s privileges, and more. History was passed down, social status validated, relations between tribes sorted out. ­Potlatches were an essential part of Indigenous life.

That’s why Ottawa made them illegal: It believed ­banning the ceremony would speed ­Indigenous assimilation into white society. It was the same reasoning the residential schools used when punishing students caught speaking Indigenous ­languages. Indigenous people persisted, though. The potlatch Dan ­Cranmer held went on for five or six days, his son says. The gifts included gas-powered boats, pool tables, cash, blankets, flour. “It was apparently one of the ­biggest potlatches ever held in our area.”

But then came the crackdown: 45 participants were picked up. Half of them served two to three months at Burnaby’s Oakalla prison farm, while half were freed on the condition that their people surrender all their ­potlatch paraphernalia — masks, whistles, rattles, headdresses, the works. In all, more than 300 pieces were seized.

That’s when the real crime happened, the Kwakwaka’wakw say. Instead of being held in trust as promised, their artifacts were scattered among museums and private collections around the world.

Most were shipped east, ending up in Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. Other pieces ended up in private collections — 33 bought by New York collector George Heye went to the National Museum of the American Indian, now part of the Smithsonian.

By the time the potlatch ban faded away in the early 1950s, the masks and rattles were ­scattered all over. The effect, Bill Cranmer would later say, was devastating, beyond what non-Indigenous people might expect. “What they did was stop our ability to pass on our ­history.”

This was big-time stuff in a culture that puts such emphasis on handing down family possessions — masks, dances, songs, names, blanket designs — from generation to generation.

The Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced KWOK-kwok-ya-wokw) never stopped trying to reclaim the pieces they had given up under duress, arguing the items never should have been seized, let alone scattered to the wind. Retrieval of the lost treasures was seen as a way to honour those who had kept the culture alive, holding potlatches even when it might mean going to jail.

Some of the museums that held the artifacts were sympathetic, others not. For three decades beginning in the 1970s, the paraphernalia came trickling back.

The National Museum of Man — now the Canadian Museum of History — was the first to return its items. The Royal Ontario Museum followed suit in 1988 and the National Museum of the American Indian beginning in 1994.

The Potlatch Collection, as it is known, is shared and ­displayed by the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay and the Nuyumbalees Cultural ­Centre on Quadra Island.

It is believed that almost all the artifacts have been found and returned, though the absence of definitive records makes it hard to be certain. Bill Cranmer believes a handful of pieces remain in museums or private hands.

One story gives hope that even more will emerge: In 2003, a yaxwiwe’, or headdress, came all the way from Paris, having been discovered in the ­apartment of the late French Surrealist writer and visual ­artist André Breton.

Breton, as leader of the ­Surrealist movement (it ­emphasizes the irrational and the automatic over logic and reason), was a cultural icon in France. Many there viewed his apartment and its massive collection — several thousand pieces, including paintings by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and René Magritte — as something of a national shrine, and were upset when the government declined to preserve it.

Unpopular as that decision might have been (when the ­collection was broken up and sold, fetching $70 million, ­protesters threw stink bombs outside the Paris hotel where the auction was held), it also led to the return of the yaxwiwe’.

The headdress features what is likely a raven carved out of wood, sitting above a hawk-like figure. The carving sits over the forehead and is held in place by an ermine band topped with ­sea-lion whiskers.

An ermine cape once flowed down the back, but not much remained of that. The dancer wearing the yaxwiwe’ would place the down of an eagle inside the crown. When the dancer shook his head, the down would float away, symbolizing peace.

Breton may or may not have known all that, but French anthropologist Marie Mauze ­certainly did. In 2003, ­having been asked to ­examine the ­headdress for possible ­purchase by the Louvre, she immediately recognized it as Kwakwaka’wakw, then ­discovered it was one of the missing potlatch pieces.

Breton, Mauze discovered, was just the last in a series of people who had bought the piece after it was “deaccessioned” by the National Museum of the American Indian. She told Breton’s daughter, Aube Breton-Elleouet, who decided it should not be sold with the rest of the art.

Instead, the chic Parisienne returned it to Alert Bay, where she appeared both thrilled and bewildered when asked to join in a dance in the Big House, cedar smoke swirling around her. Bill Cranmer presided at the ­ceremony.

The return of the ­yaxwiwe’ was easier than the ­recovery of one other item, a transformation mask that the British Museum resolutely refused to let go.

Arguably the best-known museum on the planet, the ­London institution replied that its governing legislation, an act of the British parliament, ­specifically prohibited it from giving up artifacts.

Others noted there was a significant queue of claimants wanting the return of items in the museum’s possession, ­notably Greece’s Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon in the early 1800s, and 11 wooden tablets representing the original Ark of the Covenant, sacred to Ethiopia’s 36 million Orthodox Christians, picked up by British soldiers later in the 19th century.

The museum argued that the mask, bought from an ­American museum decades previous, had been obtained legally. Still, it was in an uncomfortable ­position. The David-versus-­Goliath struggle was even detailed in the New York Times.

The David was personified by Andrea Sanborn, executive director of the U’mista Cultural Centre. The five-foot-nothing middle-aged woman from the tiny island town might not have been the most ­intimidating ­presence when she travelled to London to insist on the ­repatriation of the artifact, but she proved stubborn as a bad cold.

She argued, she cajoled, she used a sly sense of humour to take the edge off confrontations. (At one point, she showed up at the British Museum with an empty Adidas bag. “What’s that for?” the perplexed museum officials asked. “I’ve come for the mask,” she deadpanned.)

Sanborn kept plodding away with an approach both stubborn and disarming until, in 2005, the museum returned the ­transformation mask — one that opens up to change from one ­figure into another — on long-term loan.

All of which leads to the ­obvious question: Why bother? Why put such emphasis on ­culture and identity? The answer may lie in the fact that the culture was systematically repressed for so long — and the fact that it takes such a ­relentless effort to keep it from being overwhelmed.

“It’s the desire to maintain it as a living culture, an ongoing, evolving culture,” Sanborn said. It was a loss for all when a brain tumour claimed her at age 62 in 2010.

It’s hard to overstate what the Potlatch Collection means to the Kwakwaka’wakw. “It’s ­priceless,” Bill Cranmer once said. “It represents all the ­suffering our old people went through in the potlatch ­prohibition, the fight they went through to keep our history alive.”

This month, he added: “To me it represents what happened to our people, the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Kwak’wala-speaking people. We were the last people to be fighting against the potlatch ­prohibition and other things in the Indian Act.”

The arrests after the ­December 1921 potlatch didn’t actually end the practice. ­Potlatches continued out of sight. “They were still holding them, but in remote villages,” Bill Cranmer said. He ­remembers his mother taking him to four or so when he was a young boy.

In 1953, with the potlatch ban having disappeared from the Indian Act, Bill Cranmer took an ­overnight steamship from Alert Bay to Vancouver, then boarded the CPR ferry to Victoria, where Chief Mungo Martin hosted a potlatch to mark the building of Wawadit’la, the big house at Thunderbird Park at the Royal B.C. Museum.

Dan Cranmer, who had been arrested after his 1921 potlatch, was there, too. “Chief Mungo Martin had my father speak,” Bill Cranmer recalls. A century later, that still means something.

About Mel Rothenburger (9504 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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