As a part of a special exhibition, Orcas: Our Shared Future, in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon, there was an exhibit of a Killer Whale Potlatch Feast Bowl carved by Kwakwaka'wakw artists Mungo Martin (1879-1962) and Henry Hunt (1923-1985) in 1960.
One of the cultural features of the Northwest Coast First Nations’ cultures is the potlatch: a ceremony featuring songs, dances, rituals, feasting, and the formal gifting of goods. The potlatch itself often lasts for days with special songs for greeting the arriving guests and large quantities of food. During the several days of the potlatch, the hosts provide the guests with two large meals per day.
The food served at the potlatch came from all of the territories of the house and by consuming this food the guests acknowledged the house’s right to these lands and resources. Not only was food important, but there were also eating contests. The large bowls holding the food were family heirlooms which were named.
With regard to the Killer Whale Potlatch Feast Bowl displayed at OMSI, the description states:
“A bowl such as this would brim with the sea’s richest delicacies, like salmon and eulachon, provided by the host for everyone to share. The Killer Whale is a crest of the host and both symbolically provides the wealth of the ocean and demonstrates the wealth and generosity of the chief.”
The potlatch was attacked by Canadian authorities as being wasteful and destructive of moral and economic initiative. The Canadian government felt that it stood in the way of development and modernization. In 1883, the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs John A. Macdonald defined the potlatch as
“the useless and degrading custom in vogue among the Indians … at which an immense amount of personal property is squandered in gifts by one Band to another, and at which much valuable time is lost.”
In 1884, the Canadian government formally outlawed the potlatch. From a Native perspective, this meant that they could not celebrate the birth or naming of their children as required by traditional law, nor could they end their mourning after death.
The following year, the Canadian government amended the law against the potlatch to outlaw Native participation in the ceremony. The law stated:
“Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ or in the Indian dance known as the “tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemenour, and shall be liable to imprisonment.”
The potlatch ban was repealed in 1951. Mungo Martin hosted the first potlatch after the ban was lifted.
More about the Northwest Coast
Indians 101: The Northwest Coast Culture Area
Indians 101: A very short overview of the Northwest Coast Potlatch
Indians 101: Northwest Coast House Panels (Photo Diary)
Indians 101: Northwest Coast Masks (Photo Diary)
Indians 101: The Northwest Coast plank longhouse (museum diary)
Indians 101: Chilkat Dancing Blankets (photo diary)
Indians 101: Some repatriated Tlingit artifacts (photo diary)
Indians 101: Tlingit clan hats (photo diary)