Johnstone Strait The Broughtons

Alert Bay

Monday, August 02, 2010S.V. CAMBRIA

The U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, Cormorant Island.

Today we took the ferry to Alert Bay to tour the village and museum. The U'mista Cultural Centre was born under extraordinary circumstances. In 1921, a large potlatch was held on nearby Village Island where forty-five people were arrested. Potlatches are social occasions given by a host to establish or uphold his position in society, usually marking a significant event in his family – the birth of a child, a rite of passage, a wedding, or a funeral – where guests are invited to share food and receive gifts. Although protocol differs among tribes, the potlatch will usually involve a feast with music, dancing and spiritual ceremonies, the main purpose of which is the redistribution of wealth obtained by the hosting family.

Seen as the primary impediment in converting natives to Christianity by missionaries and government agents who considered it a useless custom that was wasteful, unproductive and hedonistic, potlatches were made illegal in Canada in 1885 with the US following suit shortly thereafter.

For years potlatches went underground to avoid prosecution, usually being held during winter storms when neither the police nor the Indian Agent could travel by sea as was the occasion on Village Island in December of 1921 when Dan Cranmer became famous for hosting one of the greatest potlatches in coastal history. After 17 years of preparation, the large gathering attracted the attention of white authorities under the direction of William Halliday, the Indian Agent in Alert Bay, and forty-five arrests were made. Twenty of the participants were sentenced to Oakalla Prison Farm on Vancouver Island while the rest were given suspended sentences on the condition that they surrender their potlatch regalia including coppers, masks and whistles.

The ceremonial regalia was then gathered up, inventoried and crated before being sent to Ottawa. There, the collection was divided between the National Museum of Man in Ottawa and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Some objects were set aside for the personal collection of Duncan Campbell, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. And approximately thirty objects were sent to George Heye, a collector from New York, before the material left Alert Bay.

When the Indian Act was revised in 1951, the anti-potlatch section was deleted. Since 1921, those who'd lost their family treasures hadn't forgotten and the first attempts to repatriate the items began in the late 1960s. A few years later, the Board of Trustees of the National Museums Corporation agreed to return the part of the Potlatch Collection held by the National Museum of Man conditional on the construction of museums in Alert Bay and Cape Mudge to house the artefacts. On November 1, 1980, the U'mista Cultural Centre opened in Alert Bay with considerably help and guidance of Dan's daughter, Gloria Cranmer Webster, where part of the collection now lives and efforts to bring home remaining items continues.

It's a fascinating and emotional museum experience, especially the Potlatch Collection, that will stay with us for a long time to come. As always, we were struck by the similarities between the Native and Polynesian cultures, particularly the Maori from New Zealand; but beyond that, the arrogance and ignorance of our forefathers in their dealings with other cultures. It's a very old and familiar story: one that continues today....

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