Rhubarb (part 2)

August 29, 2010

by Julia DeWitt

We had found our seats in the bleechers for the tea that followed the raising of the mortuary pole of deceased chief Niis Wes.  It was two o’clock and it seemed inconceivable that this would actually just flow into the potlatch slated to start at six.  It was two.

But then again, we don’t usually attend luncheons on bleachers, equipped with water bottles, and toting utensils and plates as if we were squatting there long-term.  And somehow the time just evaporated as I watched kids play manhunt around the outer edges and as the MC urged the packed gymnasium to please quiet down between dances and tributes.  We freely tuned in and out, snapped photos, took up side conversations, and sat quietly.  All the while we were fed, caffeinated, and watered, creating a steady stream of sustenance that is one of the things that potlatches are known for.  Repute and status are gained not just by what powerful people can take, but also by how much they can give.

(Just think about that for a second…)

Potlatches were and continue to be the time when all of the most important political and economic negotiations happen; it is parliament and a party in one.  Because these gatherings were so central to Coastal First Nations’ political unity, they were the first thing to be made illegal in the Canadian government’s push to annihilate indigenous identity.  (Divide by banning potlatches, conquer by sending kids away to assimilation schools.)

Yesterday, we got to witness the staying power of the institution.  The steady bump of the dancing and the revitalizing sweets kept hundred of people together for ten hour (and that was short compared to others that have lasted until dawn).  After the first three, we were fully settled in, nestled into the community as they became one sort of seething mass together, an organism tweaking its homeostasis.  Sitting out on the periphery as a newly born cell, sweating in the shared body heat and greeting new friends who have treated us like siblings and daughters and nieces, I almost forgot that I was not always from here.

By midnight, all business was settled and we all walked out with our towels and band-aids and pieces of pie, functional gifts distributed goodie bag-style as a thanks for witnessing the negotiations.

Tomorrow we take our gifts and gear and post cards and pictures and board the ferry for the mainland.  Phase three is up to Kitimat for the Enbridge Oil Pipeline protest.  From one classroom to the next.  The adventure continues.

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