The Potlatch system ensures Nuxalk laws are developed and adapted over time and continued on to new generations. Traditionally, the potlatch is an event where the laws of the Nation are recognized and affirmed. Potlatches are a gathering between various villages to mark significant events in the community, such as births, memorials, marriages, recognition of hereditary chief titles, to induct new members into various societies and the affirmation of ancestral names.
Prior to colonization, in the Nuxalk Nation there were hundreds of different dances and songs that were performed by various individuals belonging to numerous secret societies. However, due to diseases and deaths, the smallpox epidemics of the 1860s reduced the Nuxalk population from over 50 villages to 1, the present settlement at Bella Coola. With the deaths went much of the intellectual property that demonstrates Nuxalk worldview, such as knowledge about songs, masks, stories and ancestral names.
Despite the importance of the potlatch in Nuxalk society, they were outlawed for nearly 70 years, from 1884 to 1951. The attempted assimilation strategies of the Indian Act and the residential school system put considerable stress n the potlatch system, as they devalued and criminalized our way of life. Although potlatches still took place during the ban, they were difficult to
organize, could not be carried out in full potential. Often, different potlatches were combined to meet several purposes at once.
Today, potlatches take place mainly during the winter months between October and February. Hereditary Chiefs host a potlatch that includes a community feast, usually for about 500 people. Traditionally, the feast and potlatch would have taken place in a family house, sometimes referred to as ‘big house’ or ‘long house’, as the cedar homes were often large and accommodated many people. Today, potlatches are usually held at the Nuxalk Community Hall. Memorial feasts are similar to potlatches, but are hosted by immediate members of a deceased relative, and not a hereditary chief. A traditional feast almost always includes some type of salmon, depending on the time of year and availability, usually spring salmon, sockeye or coho.
Following the feast is a series of speeches to address the family’s business, the reason they have held the potlatch or feast. As stated previously, potlatches mark significant events in the community, such as births, memorials, marriages, recognition of hereditary chief titles, to induct new members into various societies and the affirmation of ancestral names. The grand finale of the evening is the last ceremony and celebration of the family’s hard work: traditional dancing. Nuxalk cultural dances include dances for children, women, and men, as well as the mask dances.
Following the evening’s speeches and cultural ceremonies, a huge give-away is held for the witnesses of that family’s important business. Household items, food, cash, clothing, jewellery and other items are given to all witnesses as payment for their obligation to validate the events of the potlatch. If somebody does not support the business conducted at a potlatch or feast, they are obliged to say so at the event publicly, otherwise, it is assumed that with their presence, they are upholding the business of that night. Traditionally, food and subsistence items were the primary give away items- a great way to redistribute wealth within the community. Sometimes, items of great value (such as canoes and stores of ooligan grease) were destroyed by a chief at a potlatch as a public expression of wealth and power. However, such acts were not commonplace.
Although the potlatch has changed due to many outside influences, we maintain our identity as Nuxalkmc through upholding our traditional culture and governance.