British Columbia

Lheidli T'enneh First Nation to hold first potlatch in 73 years

With the help of neighbouring nations, the Lheidli T'enneh are preparing to revive the potlatch tradition Nov. 29 in Prince George, B.C.

Nation to bring back tradition banned by Canadian government for more than a half century

Dancers at a Lake Babine Nation potlatch in northern B.C. (Carrier Sekanni Family Services/Contributed )

For the first time in 73 years, the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation will hold a potlatch.

With the help of neighbouring nations, the Lheidli T'enneh are preparing to revive the tradition Nov. 29 in Prince George, B.C.

Traditionally, potlatch, or Balhats, was a spiritual and cultural ceremony integral to governing, sharing wealth and strengthening clans. 

Fundamental to some Indigenous cultures, the potlatch was banned by Canada for more than half a century. It was a criminal offence to take part in a potlatch feast.

"A lot of people said we lost it," said Lheidli elder Clifford Quaw. "I said, 'No, we just forgot it.'

"We forgot about our traditions, our language, and we are slowly revitalizing all that we had forgotten."

Lheidli elder Clifford Quaw is helping plan his nation's first potlatch in more than 70 years. The Lejac residential school survivor said he didn't get much chance to learn his culture. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

Now 70, Quaw has never experienced a potlatch in his home community.

He said he didn't learn many traditions because he spent most of his childhood at Lejac residential school.

Help from neighbours 

The last Lheidli potlatch was held in 1946, but locals say it was organized by another First Nation to mark a death in Lheidli territory. 

The Lheidli will now be following many other northern First Nations in reviving the tradition, and have asked them for help.

This week, elders from the neighbouring communities of Yekooche, Tl'azt'en, Saik'uz, Nak'azdli and Nazko travelled to Prince George to share their knowledge.

Nazko elder Monica Paul says teaching youth traditions like potlatch will help get them off the street. 'We need to teach them to bring them back home,' she said. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

"We need to bring our potlatches back to our traditional way," said Monica Paul, an elder from Nazko, near Quesnel B.C., one of 20 elders who came to talk about the feast ceremony.

Paul thinks such traditions will help get youth from her community off the street. 

"We need to bring them home ... we need to teach them our ceremonies to bring them back," said Paul. "They need to learn what they missed and start working with them to remember."

Lheidli T'enneh Chief Clay Pountney looks out over the Fraser River on reserve land near Prince George. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

'Get back to our roots'

Youth will be the focus of the Lheidli's milestone potlatch, with Indigenous students at the heart of the ceremony.

"It's important to get back to our roots," said Lheidli T'enneh Chief Clay Pountney. "We were noticing there were some problems with our kids getting educated properly." 

In the Prince George public school district, just over half of Indigenous students graduated from high school in 2016. That graduation rate has since improved to almost 66 per cent. 

A handmade dreamcatcher hangs from a tree outside the Lheidli T'enneh health centre, just north of Prince George. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

Pountney said his community is working with the school district to encourage principals, staff and teachers to attend the potlatch.   

"We're entrusting our children [to them]," he said. "We want to have them witness this." 


Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.