"When one's heart is glad, he gives away gifts.
Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing
things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are Indian.
The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing
Agnes Alfred, Alert Bay, 1980
Prior to 1884, the Potlatch played a major role in
the Kwakwaka'wakw Society; it is our
way of life. The Potlatch refers to the ceremony where
families gather and names are given, births are announced,
marriages are conducted, and where families mourn
the loss of a loved one. The Potlatch is also the
ceremony where a Chief will pass his rights and privileges
on to his eldest son.
The word "potlatch" comes from the Chinook
jargon, a trade language formerly used along the coast.
It means, "to give" and came to designate
a ceremony common to peoples on the Northwest Coast
and parts of the Interior. —asa is the Kwawala
word used for the ceremony known as the potlatch.
The Kwawala speaking groups express joy and
much more through the potlatch. The potlatch is the
very foundation for a system of laws by which we have
always lived and continues as the cornerstone of our
In the past the ceremonies were held in the winter,
as the spring and summer months were used for traveling
the coast gathering food and in the fall the food
was prepared for storage. The potlatch included all
eighteen tribes of the Kwakwaka'wakw
and lasted four or more days.
Today the ceremony may take place in one day and
night and is generally held in the spring. Feasts also accompany a Potlatch, and there is a specified
order in which events occur.
The Potlatch is divided into two dance series, the
seka, which is illustrated with red cedar
bark worn by the dancers and the T'asala,
or Peace Dance. The saa or mourning ceremony
begins where women are invited to sit in front of
the Chiefs to pay tribute to members of their family
who have recently passed on or to those who passed
on before them. If there were to be a sale or transfer
of a copper, it would follow the "mourning"
session. The transfer or sale of a copper is a ceremony
full of profound meaning and symbolism for those present.
The kadzita or marriage ceremony then
follows if one is to be included. The great feast
is served to the Chiefs, singers and kwalskwal'yakw
or Old People and then to the guests or witnesses.
The feast songs follow the feast.
The t'seka begins, first with the cutting
of the large circle of cedar bark, sections of which
are distributed to each guest to place around his
or her head. Whistles are then heard to announce the
approach of the hamat'sa. Other dances follow the
hamat'sa, again, in specified order.At the end of
the t'seka, the cedar bark headbands are removed.
The T'asala begins, in which the Chiefs
participate; unlike the t'seka, where they
do not. Following their performance, a manifestation
of a supernatural creature or Dugwe' or treasure,
enters through the front door. The Dugwe', can
be one of many different kinds of masks. At the end,
the am'lala or fun dance begins, when guests
are invited to participate.
Finally, gifts from the many cartons are laid out
on the Big House floor and money is distributed, first
to the Chiefs, the Old ones, singers and then the
guests. Guests are given gifts for witnessing the
events that have taken place. As a witness it is your
responsibility to remember these events and pass on
the knowledge. The more gifts distributed, the higher
the status achieved by the potlatch host. It is a
time for pride and a time for showing the masks and
dances owned by the family hosting the potlatch.
While this is going on, the Chiefs are invited to
speak. Here is where they thank the hosting Chief
for sharing his families' treasures and uplifting
his family status. He might also talk about his family
ties to the hosting Chief, and the great feast.