Potlatching in school: a celebration of education

It’s a celebration of education for nearly 100 students, staff, and Saik’uz First Nation elders gathered at W. L. McLeod Elementary

Facing the centre, the frog clan is seated along the edge of the gymnasium by two attendants. Drinks, soup, and bannock are served in succession by the hosting grouse clan. Money, counted by the head table, is paid to teachers and those who hosted.

The scene may seem like another potlatch, a gift-giving feast hosted by a First Nation clan when one of its members died, but most participants were not First Nation.

It’s a celebration of education for nearly 100 students, teachers, staff, and Saik’uz First Nation elders — including Chief Stanley Thomas — gathered at W. L. McLeod Elementary on May 25.

“At this potlatch, we honour the teachers, the principals, and vice principals,” said Karen Thomas, Carrier language and culture teacher at W. L. McLeod and Nechako Valley Secondary.

The event an opportunity to teach students the Carrier culture and how First Nation communities are governed, the event had all the components of previous potlatches, Thomas explained.

A term from the Chinook trade language, potlatch is also called balhats — which means “to give” in Carrier.

Food essentials are gifted to participants by the hosting clan, teachers are honoured with $1,000 mock payments, and servers are the last to receive their share of goods.

Those who spilled their food are also required to pay with mock money for disrespect.

Preparations for the event started in January, as students learned about First Nation clan systems, how potlatches work, and their purpose, as well as gathered materials for the event’s various aspects.

Students were divided into two groups: the seated frog clan — Noolhkaih Whut’en — and the hosting grouse clan — Tachek Whut’en.

For Grade 4 student Theo Clarke, who was part of the grouse clan and was serving food to the seated participants, it was a fun experience.

“I learned that it’s hard work, and you need a lot of food,” Clarke said. “I was glad that workers get to eat…I was getting jealous.”

Grade 6 student Sarah Mushumanski was also part of the grouse clan.

“I learned that when you are working, sometimes you get some food,” she said. “I thought the workers wouldn’t get any food, so it surprised me.

“And you need a lot of patience to get through [potlatches.]”

Grade 4 student Reuben Daniel, part of the seated frog clan, spilt his soup during the event.

“You cleaned it up and you paid the money because I had to say sorry for respect,” he said. “If you make a mistake, you have to pay for it.”

Building on this year’s success, a potlatch — to be hosted by the frog clan —  will take place next year in Nechako Valley Secondary, with potentially more participants, Thomas said.

This first school potlatch was supported by the school district, Nechako Valley Secondary, and Carrier Sekani Family Services.