Potlatch at Songhees Village, Victoria

Date:
1874
Record:
PN06810
Materials:
photographic print

“Potlatch” was a Chinook word referring to a “give away” or gift. Its origin is Nu-chah-nulth; this early image of a First Nations potlatch ceremony in Victoria was taken by Richard Maynard, one of BC’s first photographers. It was part of a series that he photographed before the ceremony was banned by Canada’s Indian Act on January 1, 1885, a restriction that remained in force until 1951.

This control by a federal Act of Parliament is symbolic of the colonial experience of First Nations peoples in BC. But the control was incomplete: the government’s poor understanding of the potlatch resulted in an ill-defined restriction; potlatch ceremonies were too fundamental to indigenous culture to eliminate them at the swipe of a pen; and First Nations communities were too diverse and dispersed across a vast region for government officials to truly monitor, let alone control, local activities.

During the restriction, many First Nations communities continued to practice in secret.

Two studies – Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin, An Iron Hand upon the People: The Law against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast and Christopher Bracken, The Potlatch Papers – give detailed depictions of the symbolic control of First Nations communities embodied in the potlatch legislation.

Maynard’s Photographic Gallery was one of Victoria’s first photography stores, portrait studios and photography galleries. It was established in 1862, when the Maynard family arrived in Victoria from England via Bowmanville, Ontario.

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