Exhibit Opening! A Strict Law Bids Us Dance 100 Years since the Potlatch Trials
Join us this Saturday, March 4th 2023 for our new exhibit A Strict Law Bids Us Dance 100 Years Since the Potlatch Trials. The opening will start at 1 pm followed by refreshments.
“It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you come to forbid us dance, be gone. If not, you will be welcome to us.”
- Chief of the Kwagu’ł, to Franz Boas, 1886
The Exhibit brings you through the history and impact of the Potlach Ban and the Trials that took place here in Alert Bay.
In the late 1800s, the Canadian government felt First Nations’ traditions were keeping Native people from becoming “civilized.” The government saw Native culture as a threat and enacted a law to shut down the ceremonial potlatch. The anti-potlatch proclamation was issued in 1883; it became law January 1, 1885. It read:
“EVERY INDIAN OR OTHER PERSON WHO ENGAGES IN OR ASSISTS IN CELEBRATING THE INDIAN FESTIVAL KNOWN AS THE ‘POTLATCH’ OR IN THE INDIAN DANCE ‘TAMANANAWAS’ IS GUILTY OF A MISDEMEANOR, AND SHALL BE LIABLE TO IMPRISONMENT...”
For more than sixty years the ceremonial potlatch was outlawed. During that time many Native people were arrested; for some, the charge was dancing, speaking, or distributing gifts. Still, potlatches continued—but in secret. At Christmas time, 1921, Dan Cranmer, held the largest potlatch recorded on the north-west coast of British Columbia. This potlatch is best known for the fact that forty-five people were arrested, and the participants were given a choice of either surrendering their potlatch regalia— to prevent them from having future potlatches—or going to jail. Twenty-two people went to jail.