On a recent trip to the Museum of Anthropology on the scenic UBC campus, I became more Canadian. As a new citizen but a long-time inhabitant of Canada, I have slowly begun to feel a sense of national pride. More specifically, being present amongst two hundred-year-old Haida and Musqueam totem poles at MOA reaffirmed my sense of awe for Canada’s first peoples. It was therefore particularly hard for me to remain my calm tranquil self (note the irony) when my international tutoring student proclaimed that, compared to Europe, Canada had no history. Still on a Museum of Anthropology high from the previous day, this statement propelled me into a heated dissertation on the historical foundation laid on these lands long before European settlement.
Though I had been to the museum nine years prior and had been duly impressed, last Saturday I connected more with the exhibits, perhaps because of my new B.C. residence status and my previous work with Cree First Nations in Alberta. What was particularly striking was the many nations tradition of the Potlatch. The Potlatch was, and is again, a festival of gift giving at moments of rites of passage. Dishes the size of canoes would be filled with food for all those who were in attendance. The number of people at these gatherings were large because the more people who witnessed the rite of passage, be it marriage, birth, or death, the more it authenticated the passage. As a result, the Potlatch became for those who practiced it, a legalization practice. The act of the Potlatch was misunderstood by the European colonizers and seen as a threat to imperialism thus the Potlatch was prohibited from 1884-1951 and thereby a whole generation of Coastal First Nations people missed-out on this important aspect of their culture. Fortunately, the Potlatch is back with a vengeance and is being revitalized by today’s youth.
For an incredible interactive look at how the Salish First Nation lived before colonization see this SFU Virtual Museum: A Journey into Time Immemorial