Potlatch tradition

How the Kwakwaka’wakw People Preserve the Tradition of the Hamatsa Ceremony and Potlatch

The Potlatch in Northwest Coast Indigenous Cultures 

The Potlatch, or feast hall system, is an integral part of the governance structures of many Indigenous cultures found along the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. Decisions are made during this ceremony, which lasts many days. The transfer of territorial rights and privileges over land ownership are announced. Marriages are celebrated and the dead are mourned. The Kwakwaka’wakw people, whose traditional territory includes parts of Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, also use the Potlatch to announce and keep track of their genealogy as they have a complex system for tracing clan membership and lineages. They are a bilineal society, which means they trace their ancestry through both the mother and father. There are eighteen clans among the Kwakwaka’wakw. Each family also has crest art associated with it, and members who are not from a particular clan may not use certain artistic motifs that belong to that clan. The word “Potlatch” itself comes from a trade jargon, Chinook, and means “to gift.” Large amounts of wealth are redistributed among the community during the Potlatch feasting ceremony. These include beautiful chilkat blankets made from mountain goat wool, food, and works of art in the formline style which is the signature art style associated with the Northwest Coast. The stories of the Kwakwaka’wakw people are passed down through song and dance, with reenactments of the traditional stories involving dancers with masks. 

One of the dances which takes place during the Potlatch is known as the Hamsamala, which occurs during the Hamatsa ceremony and involves dancers wearing cedar bird masks. The Canadian government banned all Indigenous ceremonies in Canada, including the Potlatch, from 1885 to 1951. During this time, the Potlatch was continued in secret even though some were shut down and masks used in them were confiscated by authorities. The Kwakwaka’wakw people fought for their rights to continue their ceremonies and for their bird masks to be repatriated. Today, they proudly continue the tradition of the Hamsamala dance and the Potlatch continues to be a central part of their culture.

Kwakwaka’wakw elder Agnes Alfred holds a repatriated Potlatch mask, 1980
Kwakwaka’wakw elder Agnes Alfred holds a repatriated Potlatch mask, 1980. Credit: U’mista Potlatch

The Hamatsa Ceremony and the Hamsamala Dance

The Hamatsa ceremony centres around an initiate, someone who acts out a transformation into a wild cannibal spirit, who other dancers are supposed to capture and tame. This initiate may spend time fasting in the wilderness, then return for the taming ceremony. He wears a cedar bird mask and is covered in shredded cedar to resemble plumage. The hinged beak of the mask can be opened and closed loudly using an attached braided twine rope. This can give the appearance that the bird is hungry and snapping its beak to eat. Once the initiate undergoes the capturing and taming, he is adorned in elaborate regalia including button blankets, bracelets, anklets and neck rings. A female relative of the Hamatsa initiate prepares food for him during the taming. The taming is supposed to be metaphorical, as it represents the socialization of a child or the cultivation of a young person into the ways of the Kwakwaka’wakw. In Kwakwaka’wakw culture, cannibal spirits are viewed as being childlike and undisciplined. Both children and cannibals are hungry and must be taught how to behave in society. The Hamatsa ceremony mirrors what it’s like for a child to be initiated into Kwakwaka’wakw society by taming the cannibal spirit dancer. Once the taming is finished, the initiate returns to a calm, peaceful state and can live among society.

The Hamsamala dance is one part of the Hamatsa ceremony. It involves many dancers who wear masks representing Hamsaml (cannibal birds). These bird masks are given many different names, such as Gwaxgwakwalanuksiwe (raven at the north end of the world) depicted below. This mask was made by an unknown Kwakwaka’wakw artist and belonged to Harry Mountain from Village Island, British Columbia before it was confiscated at an illegal potlatch in 1921 during the Potlatch ban of 1885-1951. It was later repatriated to the U’mista Cultural Centre, which was established by the Kwakwaka’wakw people near Alert Bay, British Columbia after they fought for the right to have their ceremonial items returned from museums and collections around the world. The mask is made of cedar, fabric, and rope and is painted red and black. There is also evidence of repairs made to the mask using metal and nails. These birds are said to serve Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’, (man eater at the north end of the world) who is a cannibal with many mouths who the birds must bring food to. The right to perform the Hamsamala dance itself only belongs to some Kwakwaka’wakw families. This right is said to be passed down to the family from Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’ himself. The bird masks enact transformation. The dancers who wear them go into a frenzy to behave as the cannibal spirit depicted on them does.

Cedar mask representing Gwaxgwakwalanuksiwe’ (raven at the north end of the world), one of the bird attendants of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’, (man eater at the north end of the world). This mask is made with painted wood and shredded cedar and has been repaired with metal strips.
Cedar mask representing Gwaxgwakwalanuksiwe’ (raven at the north end of the world), one of the bird attendants of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’, (man eater at the north end of the world). This mask is made with painted wood and shredded cedar and has been repaired with metal strips. (Image Source: U’mista Cultural Centre Virtual Tour)

The ‘Namgis clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw have a story for how they obtained the rights to perform the Hamatsa. According to the story, four brothers found the house of the cannibal Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’. The cannibal chased them to try to eat them, but the brothers got away through magical tricks such as creating a fog with the fur of a mountain goat. Once the brothers returned home, they knew the cannibal would still be after them. They set up a trap for Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’, which was a pit of hot stones and boiling water. The cannibal refused to return to his home at the north end of the world and fell into the pit. After this, the brothers went to the cannibal’s house and gathered up his bird masks. These would be the basis of the Hamatsa ceremony. 

 A Hamsamala dance with performers wearing bird masks
 A Hamsamala dance with performers wearing bird masks (Image Source: BC Time-Slip)

The Formline Art Style in Northwest Coast Indigenous Art 

Art historians have noted that the formline art style found on the Northwest Coast has remained remarkably stable for hundreds of years. It can be found on totem poles, cedar houses, treasure boxes used for giving gifts during the Potlatch, and of course on transformation masks. Because of the stability of the art style, it is possible that these masks have been made in similar styles for over a thousand years. But since they are made of organic materials like wood and feathers, it is difficult to know for sure how long the tradition of the Potlatch and the Hamatsa has been going on. Transformation masks like the raven masks used during the Hamsamala dance are used to reenact the stories of the Kwakwaka’wakw. The common elements of formline art include ovoid shapes, U-forms, and thick outlines. Common colours of paint used are black, white and red. Ovoid forms are especially common in the eyes, as can be seen in the eagle mask below. 

Kwakwaka’wakw Eagle Mask from Alert Bay, British Columbia
Kwakwaka’wakw Eagle Mask from Alert Bay, British Columbia (Image Source  Khan  Academy)

The making of Hamatsa transformation masks can take months or even years and makes use of red cedar wood, which is a common material in Northwest art and architecture. The use of organic materials such as wood, rope, and feathers means that these masks quickly decay. As a result, most surviving pieces are from the 19th or 20th century. Yet the artistic tradition of the Northwest has remained relatively stable throughout time, and it is believed that these masks started being made over a thousand years ago.

The Potlatch Ban 

The Indian Act of Canada, introduced in 1876, sought to control all aspects of the lives of Indigenous peoples in Canada. It established the reserve system, which prohibited Indigenous people from leaving reserves without the permission of an Indian agent. Large gatherings of Indigenous peoples were banned. Among the most devastating parts of the Indian Act was the establishment of residential schools, which thousands of Indigenous children were forced to attend. Many suffered from physical abuse and poor sanitary conditions while attending these schools and at least 3,200 were killed. Children at residential schools were prohibited from speaking their language or practicing their culture. The last residential school closed in 1996 in Punnichy, Saskatchewan. Residential schools threatened the survival of Indigenous cultural traditions and languages. They continue to have long-lasting impacts and emotional trauma today on the families of those affected.  

The Indian Act also banned ceremonies like the Potlatch, as well as the wearing of traditional regalia. While Indigenous cultures and their survival was threatened by the Canadian state, the Kwakwaka’wakw people were determined to continue practicing the tradition of the Potlatch in secret. One illegal Potlatch in 1921 became well-known for being shut down by authorities and leading to the confiscation of several Hamsamala dance masks. This was known as the Cranmer Potlatch. The attendants of the Cranmer Potlatch took such a risk as the Potlatch is integral to the survival of cultures in the West Coast. The Kwakwaka’wakw consider it an important part of their identity. 

Chief Bill Cranmer of the Kwakwaka’wakw celebrate the repatriation of a mask confiscated by Canadian authorities in 1921 from a Potlatch hosted by his father, Dan Cranmer
Chief Bill Cranmer of the Kwakwaka’wakw celebrate the repatriation of a mask confiscated by Canadian authorities in 1921 from a Potlatch hosted by his father, Dan Cranmer (Image Source: Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

The Cranmer Potlatch of 1921 

The Cranmer Potlatch was held in Village Island, British Columbia in 1921 during the Potlatch Ban of 1885 to 1951. It was one of the largest Potlatches in history with over 300 attendants. When regional magistrate William Halliday found out about the Potlatch, he arrested 22 attendants and demanded the surrender of all masks and regalia used in the Potlatch. This included over 750 items which ended up in various museums around the world. Through Halliday, some items made their way to the Royal Ontario Museum. Thirty pieces were sold to George Heye, the founder of the Museum of the American Indian. Eleven were kept by Duncan Campbell Scott, superintendent of Indian affairs in Canada who was largely responsible for the policies surrounding residential schools. After the Potlatch ban was lifted in 1951, the Kwakwaka’wakw fought to have the Potlatch masks and other objects repatriated to be housed in the U’mista Cultural Centre near Alert Bay, British Columbia. The idea of museums is a colonial introduction. Kwakwaka’wakw people did not have museums as they considered elders and the stories they passed down through oral tradition to be more important for preserving their history than to display items. This is why when the U’mista Cultural Centre was built, the style of architecture was carefully in the style of Northwest Coast rather than Euro-Canadian architecture. The design of the cultural centre is inspired by traditional cedar houses and treasure boxes. Treasure boxes are common in Northwest coast artistic traditions and are usually covered with designs of family crests. They can be used to pass down family heirlooms or give gifts at Potlatches. 

The U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia was founded by the Kwakwaka’wakw people to house the repatriated masks from the Cranmer Potlatch.
The U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia was founded by the Kwakwaka’wakw people to house the repatriated masks from the Cranmer Potlatch. (Image Source: TripAdvisor) 

The Strength of Indigenous Traditions 

Visitors to the U’mista Cultural Centre can view the masks on display. When it is time for a Potlatch, the masks are taken off display and still used by the Kwakwaka’wakw people to continue the tradition of the Hamsamala dance and their other ceremonies. A large cedar house known as a bighouse is used to host Potlatches in the Kwakwaka’wakw community near Alert Bay, British Columbia. The Potlatch was forced underground and the Canadian state attempted to punish anyone who participated in the tradition for over 60 years during the Potlatch ban. The Kwakwaka’wakw people fought for their rights and for their masks to be repatriated. Now, they proudly continue the traditions of their ancestors and are determined to maintain it for generations to come. 

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