A Haida Potlatch

As an anthropologist, a professional observer of traditional peoples, I was trained in the 1950s and 1960s to believe that cultural differences were rapidly eroding all over the world. I was taught that processes of ethnic assimilation to the dominant Western technoculture were inevitable and irreversible, and that the mission of anthropology was to record human differences before they disappeared forever.

Now from the perspective of the 1980s, it is clear that around the middle of the century, a great tide of sentiment on our globe began to turn, and ethnicity, – collective human differences began to be of social value again. In village and urban ghettos around the world, people who have retained ethnic identity are now asserting it. This is especially true in Canada, which has an official government policy of multiculturalism, under which it encourages and supports the expression of ethnicity among its peoples.

In the old days, the Haida potlatched to each other, – and danced, – when a new house was built and when a man raised a totem pole in honour of his uncle, whose noble name he inherited and pledged his life to uphold. Today not only has the occasion for the event changed, but so have the witnesses. The Haida are now potlatching as a people to the world.

Marjorie Halpin, Foreword, A Haida Potlatch

In the past, people lived by a strict code of laws that was defined by public opinion. Since there were no written documents, all changes to the existing order were made at feasts and potlatches, at a time when the public was present. If you accepted the chieftainship, or you raised a memorial pole, or you got married, all activities were recorded this way. So when you decided to change the pattern, you had to accumulate the goods to create the potlatch and invite the people.

What motivated me to give this potlatch is my concern, my awareness of where we come from and where we are going; my awareness of what can be changed and improved. If I lived in a white man’s world I would become a teacher, but I was given the privilege of this knowledge which is not taught in schools or anywhere else. So I feel it is my responsibility to give away what I have, – knowledge, experience. I can only do it in the way I was taught. The potlatch is our way of transferring cultural knowledge. If you talk this way and act this way, this action and talking comes from way back, and when you do it, you are giving the knowledge away.

Robert Davidson

A Haida Potlatch – Ulli Steltzer, Photographer

Robert Davidson
The Artists Voice