Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

The Potlatch Online

Jan 23, 2017

Several years ago I travelled to northern Vancouver Island to visit a pair of museums/cultural centres that tell the story of one of the most flagrant art heists in Canadian history. But this robbery was not carried out by cat burglars or art thieves; it was the work of the Canadian government on behalf of the Canadian people.

The Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre at Cape Mudge is on Quadra Island, a brief ferry trip from Campbell River, and the U'Mista Cultural Centre is at Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, requiring another short ferry ride from Port McNeill. Both these places house amazing collections of masks and other ceremonial regalia confiscated by the Canadian government many years ago when the potlatch ban was in effect. The items were seized by the RCMP during an infamous raid on a potlatch on Village Island at Christmastime, 1921. Twenty-two First Nations people went to jail and the seized cultural items ended up in museum collections in eastern Canada and the US.

The potlatch ban was lifted in 1951 but it was not until the end of the '70s that the Kwakwaka'wakw got their regalia back and put it all on display in the two cultural centres.

I mention this because it is now possible to see these treasures online without taking the long trip north thanks to a new website Living Tradition: The Kwakwaka'wakw Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. The site tells the story of the potlatch and interprets many of the items on display from the perspective of the people to whom they belonged.