Historical ban on potlatch ceremony has lingering effects for Indigenous women, author says

The effects of a decades-long ban on a traditional First Nations ceremony that dates back to the 19th century are still being felt today, particularly by women, say some Indigenous leaders and activists.

The 1885 to 1951 ban has led to a patriarchal culture where women are excluded from leadership: Sylvia McAdam

A photo taken in 1914 by Edward Curtis of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch ceremony. The potlatch was outlawed in Canada for decades, and some Indigenous leaders and activists say the ban's effects are still felt today. (Edward Curtis/Historica Canada)

The effects of a decades-long ban that dates back to the 19th century on a traditional First Nations ceremony are still being felt today, particularly by women, say some Indigenous leaders and activists.

The ban on the potlatch was legislated under an 1884 amendment to the 1876 Indian Act by the Canadian government, which came into effect in 1885, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia

The legislation made it a criminal offence for anyone to participate in the potlatch, a gift-giving feast that was traditionally used to mark a variety of important milestones and occasions in West Coast tribes and customs, and as a way of celebrating life.

Events like "marriage, transferring of rights and chieftainships, the naming of children, coming of age for young people," were all very important milestones and reason to celebrate, according to William Wasden Jr., a hereditary chief of the Kwakwaka'wakw from Alert Bay, B.C.

But one of the long-lasting effects of the potlatch ban, which was lifted in 1951, has been a lingering patriarchal culture, says Philip Brass.

A traditional sweat lodge. Indigenous peoples were banned from taking part in sweat lodges and sundances during the potlatch ban. (Barefoots World)

Brass is a traditional knowledge keeper from Peepeekisis First Nation in Saskatchewan. During the time of the ban, First Nations were policed by an "Indian agent" who governed the community.

Brass thinks a patriarchal culture exists around ceremonies today because men would tell the agents that they were going "hunting," when in reality, they were practising ceremonies in the bush.

"The men, back at that time during the ban, would go out into the bush under the excuse that they've gone hunting, and women would have to stay home," said Brass.

This led to ceremonies being practiced with only men in attendance.

"After doing that for 70 years, the ceremonies became very male-centric" said Brass.

"So nowadays, you see the women off to the side, they're excluded, they've lost a lot of ceremonies around their moon times and all of those things that would have been in place. I think that's a huge loss that's not spoken about a lot," he said.

Exclusion from leadership

The potlatch ban's lingering effects can also be seen in the exclusion of many First Nations women from leadership positions in communities, says one Indigenous author and activist.

"Prior to treaty, women were the ones that held the ceremonies. They were the doctors and the healers. All of that has been flipped now," said Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum).

Saysewahum, from Big River, Sask., is an author and a co-founder of Idle No More. She said the ban has led to the ongoing oppression of Indigenous women.

"There are several women's lodges that are still in the memory of my people but are no longer practiced," said Saysewahum.
Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum) said that the potlatch ban is responsible for the loss of many women's ceremonies. (Madeline Kotzer/CBC)

According to Saysewahum, some of the ceremonies and lodges that were affected by the ban for the Nehiyawak, or Cree, in Saskatchewan were the medicine lodge, law lodge and the clan mothers' sundance lodge.

She said her own community of Big River First Nation has yet to elect a woman to the chief and council system.

A lot of fear was instilled in our people. A lot of our tribes were isolated so they went underground to continue on their ceremonies.- William Wasden Jr.

And Wasden Jr. said the effects of the ban were widespread and deep.

The potlatch ban was originally intended for First Nations on the West Coast who practiced the ceremony, but it eventually extended to people across the country, particularly in Western Canada.

"A lot of fear was instilled in our people. A lot of our tribes were isolated so they went underground to continue on their ceremonies," said Wasden Jr.

He recalls a story of Coast Salish people being arrested and made an example of for practicing the potlatch ceremony.

Upon arrest, many of the men and women "were stripped and hosed down when they first got there," Wasden Jr. said.

"A lot of them became really broken-spirited because of the way they were treated."


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.