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Totem Poles and Tea

 

by Hughina Harold

 

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Excerpt from “Potlatch”

 

Early one evening, after four o'clock tea, I walked to the end of the Indian wharf for a breath of fresh air. As I gazed down Village Pass, an Indian gas boat came into view. There was nothing unusual in this and I watched it idly, expecting it to come by the wharf in the usual way. Instead, it veered off and skirted the rocks in front of the village as if trying to sneak up on the island. Another boat appeared, following the first. Then another. Soon boats were converging on the village from every direction Gilford, Tumour, Midsummer, and Harbiedown islands. They all traveled in the same stealthy manner, as if not wanting to be noticed.


Later that night, at supper, I said, "There seems to be a lot of visitors in the village tonight. I wonder what's up."


Miss O'Brien was curious too, and after the meal was cleared away, she went to call on the Chief, Harry Mountain. In a few minutes she was back obviously excited.


"The people are having a Potlatch," she said. "And it's well under way."


My excitement matched hers. "I'd love to see it. Do you suppose they'd mind?"


"I'm sure Harry Mountain will agree," she said. "And I think you should see it. I'll go along with you."


I didn't waste a minute. "I'll get my coat," I said, and turned quickly toward my room. Before I'd reached the door, Miss Dibben rose in mighty indignation.


"Miss O'Brien!" she said in a voice so loud poor O'Brien could hear it without her ear trumpet. "You are well aware the Potlatch has been outlawed, it is a heathen ceremony. If you attend, it will appear you are condoning such conduct. What kind of an example is that to set for the Indians?" She was in high dudgeon.


"Now, Dib, this is more like a party," said Miss O'Brien gently.


"It would be a shame if Miss B missed seeing the dancing. This might be her only opportunity."


"It is against the law," Miss Dibben reminded us sternly. "And I will have nothing to do with such goings on and you should not either." With that she stomped off to the Gables.


Miss Dibben was right, of course. The Potlatch, part ritual and part celebration, and at one time integral to traditional native society, had been outlawed by the government since 1884. Because of this, part of an ancient culture had been lost, and what might have been passed from generation to generation had been forgotten.


Potlatches now were rare and clandestine.


I was thrilled at the opportunity to witness one.


Miss O'Brien, old sport that she was, walked with me through the darkened village to the community house. A couple of men stood at the door. One of them was Simon Beans.
"Evenin', Miz O'Brien. Evenin', Miz B," he said.


"Good evening, Simon," answered Miss O'Brien. "Do you mind if we watch for awhile? Miss B would like to see the dancing."


"Sure. Okay. Go in," he said hospitably.


"No, thank you, Simon. We'll watch from here."


"It's warm in there. Cold out here," Simon said. A practical observation, I thought.


"No," Miss O'Brien said firmly. "Out here will be fine."


Evidently she condoned the Potlatch only so far, but as I wasn't in a position to argue, I held my tongue, happy to participate in any way I could.


Through the knotholes and cracks in the walls, and a half open door, I witnessed a fantastic scene. It was as though I'd walked back through the pages of a history book, to the time before the white man came; a time when these people were free to celebrate their culture and live as they chose.


The community house, ordinarily full of echoes and a ghostlike emptiness, now glowed with vibrant life and colour. A huge pile of Ogsblazed and crackled in the centre of the earthen floor, the flames leaping high, while the smoke curled upward to escape through the hole in the roof. The roaring fire was the only illumination, and it "It distorted, dancing shadows on the old plank walls.


My eyes were drawn to the far end of the long morn where the bordered stood. The colours yellow, red, green, and white, bordered in black which formed the unique design of their feathers and eyes glowed in the orange light of the fire. In daylight, they were beautiful specimens of native art, but now they were animate! Was it my imagination, I wondered, or were their eyes watchful their wings curled to guard against evil from without?


People sat in the gloom on the platform around the edge of the earthen floor. Each was wrapped in a blanket of red or green, while children, laughing and happy, played in the glow of the fire. Two tall figures in ceremonial robes stood on the dais at the feet of the Thunderbirds. The taller of the two was covered from shoulder to ankle by a splendid green robe, heavy with buttons of mother of pearl which outlined the intricate appliquéd design. He wore a crown of ermine tails and animal claws, and in his hand he held a beautifully carved speaker's staff or Talking Stick.


It took me a few minutes to realize the picturesque figure was Harry Mountain, chief of the Mamalilikulla tribe. What a different Harry to the work a day fisherman I had come to know. He was the Gikumi now, these were his people, and time had reverted to past glories.


The other man was also arrayed in the raiment of Chief. He wore a long blanket fringed with ermine tails and adorned with pearl buttons. His headdress was designed from abalone shells and eagle feathers, and he, too, held a Talking Stick, the emblem of a Chief.


Harry was speaking to the people, his voice resounding through the great house. He spoke dramatically and emphasized each phrase with sweeping gestures. As he spoke, the children continued to play in the firelight, and the people laughed and chattered in the shadows around the walls. The fact no one listened didn't seem to bother him. His speech went on and on. It was obvious he was saying complimentary things about the man at his side. I wondered why.
"What's going on?" I finally asked Miss O'Brien.


She turned to Simon who was still standing near the door.


"Why is the Potlatch being given, Simon?"


"Fort Ruper' Chief die. His son is now Chief."


"Ah, then this is a celebration," said Miss O'Brien, who knew something of Indian customs. She turned to me. "The guest of honour is the new Chief of the Fort Rupert people. Watch.

Harry will probably do something to show him great honour."


Just then Harry picked up what looked like a shield about four feet high and a foot or so wide which had been resting at the feet of the Thunderbirds. He presented it to his guest with a dramatic speech. The Fort Rupert Chief accepted it. Then, with a few modest words, he gave it back to Harry. This was repeated several times.


"What are they doing now?" I asked. This was getting more confusing by the minute and intriguing.


"Harry's given him a copper. To be presented with a copper is a great compliment to the new Chief. But tradition requires he, in all humility, must refuse a part of the ceremony."


"What's a 'copper'?"


"They're sheets of copper which have been beaten into the shape of a shield. The shield is then embossed and incised with designs depicting family crests which, in most cases, is an honoured animal from their native lore.


"Traditionally the copper was considered a standard of social prestige and could be inherited by the descendants of the owner. It was also a unit of monetary value, the value depending on its Potlatch history. It has no real value in itself, but, I'm told, it could possibly double in price each time it's sold or given away. Each copper is given a name and its history is always known."
"It must be very valuable then?"


"Indeed." She nodded before going on. "Before the white man came and introduced money as we know it, the blanket was the standard of monetary value among the natives. Back then they were made of cedar bark or animal skins. Later, they used the Hudson's Bay blanket. Theoretically, a copper could be worth any number of blankets, which might be owed by one man to another. On occasion a copper was destroyed or tossed into the sea. When this was done, all debt was cleared and the slate wiped clean. Its display at a Potlatch was always a dramatic event." She turned her attention back to the ongoing ceremony.


The Gi Gjkumj, or Chiefs, had at last finished their orations when the guest accepted the copper.


Then the music began. But such strange music! The musicians were seated below the dais near the feet of the Thunderbirds. About ten men sat either side of a long board and, with sticks, beat out a pulsating rhythm. They accompanied the rhythmic beat with droning, guttural singing. They sang in chorus, keeping perfect time to their OW accompaniment. I found my cold feet tapping to the captivating ONE, two, three, four ONE, two, three, four beat.


Out of the shadows, from around the walls, the women slowly rose and came into the circle of light cast by the fire. They took up at first. In the end he'll accept it. It's all the rhythm of the music with dancing feet. Round and round the fire they whirled, turning, weaving, and swaying in the time honoured way of their ancestors.


Every dancer wore a button blanket of red or green or blue. Each blanket was ornamented with a family crest a whale, a bear, a salmon, or a seal which had been cut from flannel or cotton and appliquéd on the blanket so the design lay on the back of the wearer. The crests were outlined with mother of pearl buttons and bordered with more buttons in geometric designs.
As the dancers twirled and swayed around the fire, the glow picked up the rainbow colours of the pearl buttons, causing them to sparkle and flash in the light. It made a brilliant picture; the blazing fire, the stout blanket draped women, surprisingly light and graceful on their feet, dancing to the throb of the music. And there, in the background the chiefs in all their magnificence, standing between the Thunderbirds with the copper gleaming at their side.


The music faded, the women returned to the shadows, and for a few minutes there was silence. Then, from outside the walls of the community house, came the sound of a weird and haunting whistle.


Immediately, the musicians took up a frantic drumming, and from behind the Thunderbirds, into the circle of light, leaped the Ha,natsa. A startling sight!


His face was painted and he was scantily clad in a brief shirt and trunks. His ankles and wrists were ringed with bracelets of shredded cedar bark and animal claws, while on his head he wore a circle of coloured feathers and abalone shells. He was the cannibal, awesome and savage.
He leaped and crouched, weaving with fantastic energy around the fire. All the while emitting blood curdling howls. While he danced with abandon, four stalwart youths circled the room, staying between the people and the Hamatsa.


"What are the boys doing?" I asked Miss O'Brien.


"Legend has it the people must be protected from this unearthly being, lest he attack or capture a victim to drag away to his lair in the forest. The young men are intended to be those protectors."


The Hamatsa cannibal dance stemmed from the initiation of a novice into a secret society. The novice was kept secluded in the forest and spent many days fasting. He was taught the rules, dances, songs, and rituals, and when his training period was complete, a special feast was arranged. The people would gather in the great house, around the fire, and await his arrival. The signal was given by the eerie whistle, and in those early days, he would leap into their midst through the hole in the roof. He would dance and mime uncontrollable hunger, uttering cries of "Eat! Eat!" Sometimes he would actually bite a person who had been singled out for this dubious honour. Through the dance he would tell how he was possessed of evil spirits.

 

Gradually his mentors would show him how to control them, and he, interpreting through the dance, would reveal he was ready to return to human society.


As I watched the Hamatsa dance around the blazing fire in time to the wild music, I was lost in times past. Then abruptly the music stopped, and he was gone as quickly as he had appeared. Again there was silence.


The drumming started again but with a slower beat, and another figure appeared from the shadows and began to dance around the fire. He was dressed in long fringes of shredded cedar bark, one from armpit to waist, the other from waist to knee. His anklet and bracelet were of animal claws. He was less wild than the Hamatsa and his dance was slower. What tale was he telling? I wondered.


Just then Miss O'Brien tugged at my sleeve, and I realized she must be as cold as I was. Still, I was reluctant to leave.


She tugged again.


We left the people to their dancing and gift giving, and I never found out what story the dancer was telling.


Miss O'Brien and I made our way through the night using a flashlight to pick out the path, while I continued to feel the presence of wood spirits and wild men.


Later in my stay on Village Island, Harry Mountain showed me a collection of old photographs of a Potlatch which had taken place in Alert Bay years before. Both sides of the narrow street were piled high with blankets, sacks of flour and sugar, and stacks of dishes. Thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise stood in the street. He told how the givers of the Potlatches would try to outdo each other in gift giving. This increased their standing in the community while they fully expected their bounty to be returned a hundredfold.


This system worked well for the Kwakiutl, who were among the wealthiest of the Indian nations. They lived in a land of abundance, their living standard one of the highest in the world.


Then the white man came, bringing his monetary system and his diseases; measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis killed thousands. The Potlatch system broke down. The last great Potlatch was held on Village Island in December of 1921, after which, forty five people were charged with such offences as dancing, speech making, and gift giving. Twenty of these people were sent to prison and served short sentences while their Potlatch paraphernalia was pirated away to eastern Canada and the United States. Since that time, the occasional Potlatch, such as the one I had witnessed, was a furtive affair, and but a shadow of its former prominence and glory. But I would not soon forget it.


The sitting room looked drab after the excitement of the community house, and Miss Dibben was still huffy with Miss O'Brien for going and taking me. But I didn't care. I sat with my cold feet on the heater, sipping hot cocoa, still under the spell of the wildly beating drums.

 

 

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