Living Tradition: The The Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch on the Northwest Coast

Living Tradition Virtual Exhibit

The online museum exhibit “Living Tradition: The Kwakwaka‘wakw Potlatch on the Northwest Coast was developed by the Umista Cultural Society and Synthescape Art Imaging with funding from the Virtual Exhibits Investment Program, Virtual Museum of Canada. As the title suggests, the exhibit focuses on the Kwakwaka‘wakw potlatch. The potlatch is a gift giving feast practiced by First Nations people along the Northwest Coast of North America.

Potlatch is a very loaded term that needs some unpacking. In a broad sense, the potlatch is a gift giving feast practiced by Northwest Coast First Nations in Canada and the U.S. The feasts are held on the occasion of births, deaths, adoptions, and weddings. At a potlatch, the hosts display certain hereditary possessions, and recite the origin of the right to do so, and the history of their transmission. New ranks and names are then bestowed upon the member now entitled to use them. The ceremony is completed by a distribution of gifts, which are really payments to the guests. The guests are witnesses, and their role at a potlatch is to validate the new status of the individual by providing a public witnessing (Cole and Chaikin 1990:5). The feasts are closely associated with the winter months, as food and wealth were traditionally gathered in the warmer summer months. A diversity of different coastal cultures each practice their own version of the potlatch and have different names for it. The word potlatch comes from the Chinook Jargon, a lingua franca practiced among coastal peoples and early traders. Potlatch means “to give away” or “a gift” and is derived from the Nuu-chah-nulth word paɬaˑč (Harkin 2001).

It is a time for pride – a time for showing the masks and dances owned by the Chief or host giving the potlatch. It is a time for joy. “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 [Kwakwaka‘wakw]. Everyone on earth is given something. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy.” — Elder Agnes Axu Alfred (Quoted from Living Tradition Virtual Exhibit, 2016).

The potlatch is much more than a gift giving feast. It was once the primary economic system of Coastal First People (Jonaitis 1991), and although not practiced to the same degree today, it is intricately woven into the social fabric of coastal societies. These events displayed and legitimated class, rank, privilege, kinship, and marriage (Cole and Chaikin 1990:12), and one of the most important aspects of the potlatch is to pass on a family’s rights, privileges, and inheritances. This includes rights to land, property, fishing holes, berry patches, hunting grounds, and beach fronts. The gifts and inheritances distributed at such feasts include tangible objects (hats, blankets, dance aprons, carved benches, coppers, masks, painted house fronts and carved posts), and intangible wealth (rights to specific dances, songs, stories and the right to display animal crest designs) (Umista 2015).

The potlatch gained a special significance among anthropologists in the mid 19th century, and the Kwakwaka‘wakw potlatch in particular, became the focus of sustained academic attention. Anthropologists, led by the father of American anthropology, Franz Boas, have written volumes on the social, symbolic, economic, religious and political aspects of the Kwakwaka‘wakw potlatch. Making the event even more popular was the work of Marcel Mauss, who used the feasts to inform his theories on reciprocity and gift exchange, which are now considered a foundation social theory (Mauss 1990). Due to the amount of attention it has received, the potlatch has become emblematic of the Kwakwaka‘wakw. Such synecdoche is common in anthropology. For example, the cock fight in Bali (Geertz 1973) or the Trobriand kula (Malinowski 1922). In much the same way, the potlatch has come to stand as the object form and condensed enactment of Kwakwaka‘wakw culture (Morris 1994: 84).

Even more significant to the meaning of the word potlatch, especially among the Kwakwaka‘wakw and other Coastal First Nations, is the Canadian governments banning of the ceremony through legal means. Potlatching was made illegal in 1885, and the prohibition was not lifted until 1951 (Cole and Chaikin 1990). Attempts at suppression were not new. Missionaries and federal officials had been trying to ban the custom since they first arrived in British Columbia. The lobbying of the federal government to legislate the ban, can be seen as evidence of just how ineffective their initial attempts at suppression were (Ibid: 14).

The Canadian government’s ban on potlatching came to a head at Christmas in 1921. At this time, Dan Cranmer held the largest potlatch recorded on the coast of British Columbia. Federal authorities caught wind of the event and forty-five people were arrested. 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 (Umista 2015). The confiscated collection of masks, rattles, and other treasured regalia and family heirlooms totaled over 600 pieces. The treasures were transported out in the open by boat and were exhibited as trophies on benches in Parish Hall of the Anglican Church in Alert Bay. This was particularly difficult for the Kwakwaka‘wakw as the items were considered sacred, and strict tradition required that they be stored away and out of sight when not in use (Umista 2015).

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Surrendered regalia, Alert Bay Parish Hall, 1922

“And my uncle took me to the Parish Hall, where the Chiefs were gathered. Odan picked up a rattle and spoke, ‘We have come to say goodbye to our life,’ then he began to sing his sacred song. All of the Chiefs, standing in a circle around their regalia were weeping, as if someone had died.” (James Charles King, at Alert Bay, 1977) (Quoted from Living Tradition Virtual Exhibit, 2016).

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 10.24.49 AMKwaxalanukwame’, Odan, Chief Johnny Drabble

The Umista Society was formed in 1974 with the explicit purpose of negotiation the return of these cultural treasures from Canada’s national museum (who held the majority of the collection) and other institutions in Europe and North America (Umista 2015). As part of the final agreement with the national museum, two Kwakwaka‘wakw museums were constructed to properly house the artifacts. The Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre at Cape Mudge opened on July 29, 1979, and the U’mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay opened on November 1, 1980 (Umist 2016). It is the potlatch collection at U’mista that is the focus of this exhibit.

This introduction to the potlatch and the potlatch collection is both an overview of the virtual exhibit’s content, and the broader context in which the online exhibit exists. The short history presented above is integral to the creation of the exhibit. Having been provided with this knowledge, it is evident that the resiliency and resistance of the Kwakwaka‘wakw people is very much on display here. One might say the virtual exhibit mediates these qualities. This becomes more evident in the use of media, particularly historic images, throughout the site

Structure of the Exhibit
Landing on the home page of the online exhibit, one is immediately taken by the images presented. Here a series of five images plays through on a carousel inviting the visitor to “learn about the land”, “learn about the potlatch”, “learn about our people”, etc. These slides containing images and text preview the site’s structure. The exhibit is divided into four main categories: Our People, Potlatch, Virtual Tour, and Education. Each of these themes or categories have a number of sub-themes. For example, the Our People tab contains the sub-themes Our Land, and Our Language. The Potlatch tab contains the sub-themes Potlatch Ban, and Our Masks Come Home. The drop-down in each of these adds to the narrative of who the Kwakwaka‘wakw are, where they are from, the importance of the potlatch, and the story behind the collection. Within each of the categories and associated sub-categories, a mix of text, still images of contemporary and historic scenes, and contemporary film footage is presented. Much of the media content here is focused on performance, singing, dancing, and regalia. These visuals are very successful in relating the potlatch as a highly charged visual and aural event. The main component to the exhibit is the Virtual Tour. Here visitors are transported to the U’mista museum, where they can virtually move through the galleries, and interact with the potlatch collection rendered in three dimensions.

Brief Example of Living Tradition Virtual Exhibit

Two threads of analysis come to mind when exploring this virtual exhibit. One involves the use of images, especially historic images in the exhibits narrative. The other concerns the digital representations of the potlatch collection, and the argument that digital reproduction threatens the meaning contained in the material object.

A concept that first comes to mind when exploring the exhibit is remediation. The representation of one medium in another (Bolter and Grusin, 2000:45). This is precisely what McLuhan means when he says “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph” (1964:23-24). In Living Tradition, we see the use of film, photographs, audio, and text forming the content of the virtual exhibit. Of course, each of these media are themselves remediations. Much of the site’s content was captured in analog form, which has been remediated to digital. The analogs themselves being mediations of light and sound waves. At the risk of going on to describe what seems like an infinity mirror of abstractions, what Mitchel and Hansen call an “unending media-semiosis” (2010: xiv), I will simply acknowledge that the propensity for it exists here. The objects in the potlatch collection are all mediations in themselves, representing a mythological time, animal ancestors, spirits, and supernatural beings, all of which are mediations in their own right. It is useful here to focus not on what is being abstracted in each layer of mediation, but on whether or not Living Tradition threatens the materiality of the objects it represents.

Living Tradition provides a useful platform to analyze what Brown refers to as the dematerialization Hypothesis (2010:51). The dystopian theory holds that the physical world is somehow being “vaporized” by electronic media (ibid). This is a familiar argument presented by Baudrillard (1991), and to a lesser degree Benjamin (2010). For Baudrillard the image, has “no relation to any reality whatsoever (1991:6). Baudrillard presents a very strong and thought provoking argument, but he offers little beyond an observation that the world we experience is an endless series of abstractions. In a similar vein Benjamin argues that mechanical reproductions, equated here with digital remediations, lack the aura of the original: ‘‘its presence in time andspace, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’’ (Walsh 2007:28). Brown poignantly points out that these aren’t exactly ground breaking revelations. Paraphrasing Kant he says “we know the world only as it is mediated by perceptual categories (time, space, cause and effect, and so on). We know the world, moreover, only as it is mediated by the senses” (Brown 2010: 51).

Arguments such as Baudrillard’s and Benjamin’s tend to present media as a threat to materiality. Yet another layer of abstraction that furthers us from the “real” world. What Living tradition shows us is that it is not so much a distancing that we experience with new media, but a change from the forms we are used to. Living Tradition is what Bolton and Grusin refer to as hypermedia. “Its raw ingredients are images, sound, text, animation and video, which can be brought together in any combination” (2000: 31). In these settings, the user is continually made aware of the interface. Living Tradition has an embodied interface, one that is markedly different than holding a photograph, but a material experience none-the less. Aside form holding a mouse or using a touch screen, visitors to Living Tradition can move through the narrative presented in numerous ways. Learning about the potlatch first, and then about the Kwakwaka’wakw, or vice versa. Where the material experience is most evident, is in the virtual tour. Here the visitor can make their way though the gallery taking various routes. Look at objects of their choosing, and physically manipulate those objects in relation to themselves in three dimensions. This is a far more enhanced material and sensory experience than holding a photograph in one’s hand.

Historic Images
The second line of analysis the exhibit calls forward, relates to the sites use of historic images taken by European and Euro-American colonizers. These images were taken for very different reasons than their use here, and the exhibit can be seen as purifying them of their former ideological contamination (Mitchel and Hansen 2010:38). Since the time photography was even remotely portable, photos were taken of colonized lands and peoples with a documentary intent (Williams 2003). Photographs documented the lives and cultural practices of indigenous people, and those people had no legal right to determine how or when this documentary material was accessed or used (Anderson and Christen 2013:106). The point here being that Indigenous people were never the intended audience for the images taken. In Living Tradition, historic images, never intended by their authors for the eyes of the Kwakwaka’wakw, have been subverted as markers of Indigenous resistance and resiliency. Images that were effectively taken as trophies, commoditized markers of the successful civilizing mission of the church and state (Williams 2003), have been reclaimed, remediated, and held up as markers of cultural continuity.

Living Tradition is both a remediation and subversion of historic images that were originally taken to document the success of the colonial process. Use of contemporary stills and video remove these images from the past and show them in a light of cultural continuity. Thus, it gives a sense of ownership to the collection, to the potlatch, and of the representation of theKwakwaka’wakw community. In the past these representations have been largely determined by the academic community, and the Federal authorities. The exhibit is also an adoption of new media as a way to display the wealth of the Kwakwaka’wakw. In much the same way that the regalia and masks were brought out on special occasions, and in the same way that a potlatch displayed the wealth and surplus of its host, so too, Living Tradition make a grand display of the spiritual, cultural and political wealth of the Kwakwaka’wakw. A wealth they have “recaptured” from external raiders, the Canadian Government. Whether intended or not, the presentation of wealth through the exhibit simulates a cultural narrative about wealth, and how property should be treated. By presenting it publicly, the user becomes the witness who affirms the status of Umista as owners, and who also affirms the value and esteem of the masks in the collection. In this way, one might argue that the digital reproduction of the potlatch collection does not diminish the “aura” of the pieces, but vastly adds to their significance and value (Walsh 2000: 30).

In closing, the virtual exhibit operates in a similar fashion to the presentation of wealth at the potlatch. Here the potlatch collection is presented, and its history of confiscation and repatriation is recited and added to the biography of each object and the collection as a whole. As such, a new rank is bestowed upon the collection within Kwakwaka’wakw society, but also within Canada and even globally via the internet.


Work Cited

Anderson, J. and Kimberly Christen
2013    ‘Chuck a Copyright on it’: Dilemmas of Digital Return and the Possibilities for Traditional Knowledge Licenses and Labels. Museum Anthropology Review, Vol. 1, No. 1-2, pp 105-126.

Baudrillard, Jean
1991    Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Benjamin, Walter
2010    The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility [First Version]. Grey Room 39:11-37.

Bolter, Jay and Grusin, Richard
2000    Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press

Cole, Dougalas and Ira Chaikin
1990    An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Dougalas dn McIntyre.

Geertz, Clifford
1973     Notes on the Balinese Cockfight in The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

Harkin, Michael E.
2001    Potlatch in Anthropology, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, eds., vol 17, pp. 11885-11889. Oxford: Pergamon Press

Jonaitis, Aldona
1991    Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch. University of Washington Press 1991

 Malinowski, Bronislaw
1922    Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Mauss, Marcel
1990    The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. New York: Routledge.

McLuhan, Marshall
1964    Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.

Mitchel, W.J.T. and M.B. Hansen
2010    Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moris, Rosiland
1994    New Worlds from Fragments: Film, Ethnography, and the Representation of Northwest Coast Cultures. Boulder: Westview Press.

Umista Cultural Society
2015    Living Tradition: The Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch of the Northwest Coast. The Virtual Museum of Canada.

Walsh, Peter
2007    Rise and Fall of the Post-Photographic Museum: Technology and Transformation of Art in

Williams, Carol J.
2003    Framing the West: Race, Gender, and the Photographic Frontier in the Pacific Northwest. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.






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