West indian culture

Jack Knox: A century ago, a turning point in the Indigenous culture of the Island

In 1884, the Canadian government banned potlatches, long, elaborate ceremonies with parties, speeches, ritual songs, and dances. They marked weddings, births, deaths, pole lifting, naming, transmission of a chief’s privileges, etc.

Bill Cranmer believes his father held his potlatch around this time of year to show that the ceremony, with its spiritual significance, gifts and feasts, was similar to the traditional Christmas celebrated by other Canadians.

Still, Chief Dan Cranmer made sure the potlatch was out of the reach of the law, holding it on the village’s remote island rather than Alert Bay, where the Indian agent and police were located.

It did not work. The potlatch was still illegal as of December 1921. Authorities began to bring the participants together, sparking a cultural struggle that continues today, exactly 100 years later.

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

The ‘Namgis are located in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, a 45-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill. Further afield are the Broughton Archipelago and the isolated and long uninhabited indigenous community of ‘Mimkwamlis on Mamalilikulla – Village Island – where Cranmer’s father decided to push back attempts to extinguish the potlatch.

It’s a story that dates back to 1884, when the Canadian government banned the practice. Potlatches – long, elaborate ceremonies with feasts, speeches, ritual songs and dances – marked weddings, births, deaths, pole lifting, naming, transfer of a chief’s privileges , and more. History is passed on, social status validated, relations between tribes regulated. The potlatches were an essential part of Aboriginal life.

This is why Ottawa made them illegal: he believed that banning the ceremony would accelerate the assimilation of Indigenous people into white society. This was the same reasoning residential schools used to punish students caught speaking Indigenous languages. Indigenous peoples persisted, however. Dan Cranmer’s potlatch lasted five or six days, his son said. The gifts included gasoline boats, pool tables, money, blankets, flour. “It was apparently one of the biggest potlatches ever held in our region.”

But that’s when the crackdown came: 45 participants were picked up. Half of them spent two to three months on the Oakalla Prison farm in Burnaby, while half were released on condition that their people return all their potlatch paraphernalia – masks, whistles, rattles, headdresses. , the works. In total, more than 300 pieces were seized.

This is when the real crime happened, say the Kwakwaka’wakw. Instead of being held in trust as promised, their artifacts have been scattered across museums and private collections around the world.

Most were shipped east, ending up at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and what is now the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. Other pieces ended up in private collections – 33 purchased 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 disappeared in the early 1950s, masks and rattles were strewn everywhere. 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 our story on.”

It was a big deal in a culture that places so much emphasis on passing family goods – masks, dances, songs, names, cover designs – from generation to generation.

The Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced KWOK-kwok-ya-wokw) never stopped trying to retrieve the pieces they had left under duress, arguing that the items should never have been seized, let alone scattered in the wind. Collecting lost treasures was seen as a way to honor 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 nice, some were not. For three decades from the 1970s, paraphernalia returned.

The National Museum of Man – now the Canadian Museum of History – was the first to return his objects. The Royal Ontario Museum followed suit in 1988 and the National Museum of the American Indian from 1994.

The Potlatch Collection, as it is called, is shared and exhibited by the U’mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay and the Nuyumbalees Cultural Center on Quadra Island.

Almost all of the artifacts are believed to have been found and returned, although the lack of definitive documents makes it difficult to be certain. Bill Cranmer believes that a handful of pieces remain in museums or in private hands.

A story gives hope that others will emerge: in 2003, a yaxwiwe ‘, or headdress, came straight from Paris, after being discovered in the apartment of the late French surrealist writer and visual artist André Breton.

Breton, as the leader of the surrealist movement (he emphasizes the irrational and the automatic rather than logic and reason), was a cultural icon in France. Many there considered his apartment and its massive collection – several thousand pieces, including paintings by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, and René Magritte – as some sort of national shrine, and were upset when the government refused to preserve it.

As unpopular as the move may have been (when the collection was dismantled and sold, grossing $ 70 million, protesters threw stink bombs outside the Paris hotel where the auction was being held), it also drove on return from yaxwiwe ‘.

The headdress features what is likely a crow carved from wood, sitting above a hawk-like figure. The sculpture rests on the forehead and is held in place by an ermine band topped with sea lion whiskers.

An ermine cloak once ran down my back, but not much was left of it. The dancer wearing the yaxwiwe ‘ would place an eagle’s down inside the crown. When the dancer shook his head, the down flew up, symbolizing peace.

Breton knew all this or not, but the French anthropologist Marie Mauze certainly knew it. In 2003, after being asked to examine the headdress for a possible purchase by the Louvre, she immediately recognized it as Kwakwaka’wakw, then discovered that it was one of the missing pieces of the potlatch.

Breton, Mauze discovered, was only the latest in a series of people who had purchased the piece after it was “ceded” by the National Museum of the American Indian. She told Breton’s daughter, Aube Breton-Elleouet, who decided that it shouldn’t be sold with the rest of the art.

Instead, the Parisian chic sent him back to Alert Bay, where she appeared both elated and bewildered when asked to join in a dance in the Grande Maison, cedar smoke swirling around. ‘she. Bill Cranmer presided over the ceremony.

The return of theyaxwiwe ‘ was easier than retrieving another object, a mask of transformation that the British Museum steadfastly refused to let go.

Arguably the most famous museum on the planet, the London institution responded that its current legislation, an act of the British parliament, specifically prohibited it from giving away artifacts.

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

The museum argued that the mask, purchased from an American museum decades earlier, was obtained legally. Yet he was in an awkward position. David’s fight against Goliath was even detailed in the New York Times.

The David was personified by Andrea Sanborn, executive director of the U’mista Cultural Center. The five-foot-nothing middle-aged woman from the small island town was perhaps not the most intimidating presence when she traveled to London to insist on the repatriation of the artifact, but she did turned out to be as stubborn as a bad cold.

She argued, she coaxed, she used a sly sense of humor to avoid confrontation. (At one point, she showed up to the British Museum with an empty Adidas bag. “What is that for?” Asked puzzled museum officials. “I came for the mask,” he said. she said impassive.)

Sanborn continued to move forward with an approach that was both stubborn and disarming until in 2005 the museum returned the Transformation Mask – a mask that opens to move from character to character – on loan to long term.

All of this leads to the obvious question: why bother? Why put so much emphasis on culture and identity? The answer may lie in the fact that culture has been systematically suppressed for so long – and that it takes such a relentless effort to keep it from being overwhelmed.

“It is the desire to keep it as a living culture, a continuous and evolving culture,” said Sanborn. It was a loss for all when a brain tumor took her away at 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 seniors endured during the potlatch ban, the fight they fought to keep our history alive.”

This month, he added, “To me this represents what happened to our people, the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Kwak’wala speaking people. We were the last to fight against the ban on the potlatch and other elements of the Indian Act.

The arrests after the December 1921 potlatch did not really end the practice. The potlatches continued out of sight. “They still held them, but in remote villages,” Bill Cranmer said. He remembers his mother taking him four or more when he was a young boy.

In 1953, with the potlatch ban removed from the Indian Act, Bill Cranmer boarded an overnight steamboat from Alert Bay to Vancouver, then boarded the CP ferry to Victoria, where the Chief Mungo Martin organized a potlatch to mark the construction of Wawadit’la, the Big House in Thunderbird Park at the Royal BC Museum.

Dan Cranmer, who was arrested after his 1921 potlatch, was there too. “Chef Mungo Martin got my dad talking,” recalls Bill Cranmer. A century later, that still means something.

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