Community support revives with potlatch: northern B.C. elders

As part of Drug and Alcohol Awareness Week at Saik’uz First Nation, elders shared their knowledge of the Carrier clan and potlatch systems.

Jeff Thomas

Reviving the clan and potlatch system will help provide built-in social support and regulation for indigenous communities, Saik’uz elders say.

As part of Drug and Alcohol Awareness Week at Saik’uz First Nation, Jeff Thomas, Hazel Alexis, and elders Margaret Antoine, Sam and Marlene Quaw shared their knowledge of the Carrier clan and potlatch systems with the community on Nov. 23.

“How potlatches [started] was people want to keep our community healthy against disputes between families,” said Marlene Quaw of the grouse clan. “We’d hire five to six watchmen and these people control the community, not allowing anybody to cause mischief.

“We also used to have a curfew.”

Within the clan system, family counts beyond blood relatives and includes the rest of the clan. Saik’uz has two clans, frog and grouse, and used to have four in the past — the reason of the loss is unknown.

“We’re one big family and clan members support any family that have someone lost or sick or in hospital,” Quaw said. “If someone loses their mother, we help the father, or the widow, do their house keeping.

“We are taught how to prepare meals for our elders, deliver meals to them, and take care of their firewood.

“There was so much that worked well for our First Nations people, as everybody is raised by the community.”

Potlatch ceremonies, used as part of the indigenous governing system, are gift-giving feasts where business and assistance between clans are recognized and paid back, and all attendees are witnesses. Potlatch is a Chinook, or trading language, word for bah’lats, which means gift-giving in the Carrier language.

Now usually held when a family loses a loved one, bah’lats involve gifts that ranged from cattle and cured furs to household groceries and were banned under the Indian Act from 1880 to 1951, continuing underground during those years. In the past at Saik’uz, potlatch gifts included up to 50 head of cattle, many cured hides, handmade items, and moose or rabbit stews, while items given out now are predominantly store-bought, Jeff Thomas said.

“That’s part of the strength of the system back in the day, when everything and everybody was respected,” he said. “Lots of things are forgotten, but can be relearned to grow our future.”

While some of the ceremonial requirements were forewent at times due to their expense, bah’lats reinforces respect within the community, as children were taught to sit quietly with their grandparents and young helpers who participate in bah’lats preparation needed to earn their role.

Quaw’s mother was five when she was initiated into the bah’lats system, and Quaw was about eight years old.

Helping with different aspects of preparation and gathering materials, Quaw did not realize that she was in training until her mother told her to dress in regalia for the event — grouse blanket, moccasins, talking stick, and drum.

“Aunts and uncles usually have a meeting amongst themselves on which child they’ll sit down and train,” she said. “Moms and dads were watching us all along.”

Margaret Antoine of the grouse clan is Saik’uz’s oldest elder and has held seven potlatches.

She advises the community to not wait for one year — as is the practice now — to host a potlatch.

“I never wait a year to pay out,” Antoine said. “My dad tells me you pay out as soon as you are ready, as you never know what’s going to happen.”

Currently, the year-long wait for potlatch after a death is time used for grieving family and clan members to keep busy and heal, said Mel Labatch.

“The potlatch after a death is to repay the debt to those who took care of your loved one and your family when a death occurs,” she said. “People from opposite clans are hired to send messages, dig a grave, build an outer coffin box, cook for family and workers, stay awake and prepare the body, and other related assistance.

“When people are hired, the family can just grieve and be taken care of.”

Hazel Alexis has held one bah’lats for the passing of her husband. “I tell my kids to carry it on,” Alexis said. “Don’t let it go, stand by each other, and help each other.

“That’s what the system is all about.”

Levi Vickers, 26, watched several bah’lats in the past, but would like to learn more about its setup and processes — a manual for potlatch organizers can be created for future reference, he said.

“Even though I want to leave and better myself, this is where I grew up; this is my home,” Vickers said. “I want to see this place do good and I know it can.

“I’m part of the age group that needs to learn this kind of thing  and we need to learn from our elders.

“[For example,] I’m native but I can’t speak my native tongue; education is very important.”