Canadian Natives Were Imprisoned On Christmas Day For A Gift-Giving Festival

By | December 2, 2019

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Kwakwaka'wakw transformation mask. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the early 20th century, the Canadian government banned potlatch in an effort to destroy Native culture, depriving a generation of Tribal members of an important tradition. In British Columbia, the Pacific coast Indians had celebrated the potlatch, a gift-giving and community-building festival, since before the arrival of the Europeans. With the passage of the Indian Act in Canada, an act designed to assimilate the Native peoples, the potlatch was made illegal because it was seen as wasteful and was one of the most formidable obstacles standing in the way of converting Indians to Christianity. One strategy the Natives used was to hold potlatch ceremonies disguised as Christmas celebrations, but in 1921, a raid on a large Christmas-day potlatch resulted in numerous Kwakwaka’wakw Tribal members doing jail time.

Participating In Potlatch Was A Crime

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Dancers at the last Tlingit potlatch in Alaska in 1904. Source: (reddit)

The Indian Act passed in 1884, but was not effectively enforced for nearly 30 years. According to Section 3 of the act, anyone participating in a potlatch or the Indian dance, Tamanawas, was guilty of a misdemeanor and would be sentenced to two to six months in jail. Other potential reasons for outlawing the potlatch include the anti-capitalist implications within the redistribution of wealth that was an essential part of the celebration.