Secret Life of Canada

The Potlatch Ban

The nearly 70-year ban on the potlatch continues to have ripple effects on many First Nations along the Pacific Northwest decades after it officially ended.

The Canadian government outlawed the traditional ceremony from 1884 to 1951

A photo taken in 1914 by Edward Curtis of a Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch with dancers and singers. 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)

In 1921, Chief Dan Cranmer held a secret Potlatch — a ceremony celebrated by many First Nations along the Pacific Northwest.  But because the ceremony had been banned by the Canadian government, authorities arrested people and confiscated many ceremonial items. These items then ended up in private collections and museums all over the world.

This episode traces the winding journey of the ripple effects of a ban that lasted almost 70 years. We sit down with Dan Cranmer's son Bill Cranmer from the U'mista Cultural Centre to learn about his father's story and the long process of repatriation by the Kwakwaka'wakw people of these precious items.

Robert Davidson, 22, (right) and his grandfather Tsinii on the day of the pole raising. (National Film Board)

We also speak with educator Sara Florence Davidson to talk to her about the book Potlatch as Pedagogy, what she has learned through the Potlatch and how her father, Haida artist Robert Davidson, worked to reclaim ceremony and artistic practice after the ban. 

With guests Chief Bill Cranmer and Sara Florence Davidson.

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