Potlatch

Seton Lake, British Columbia

Seton Lake, from the top of the mountain ridge north of the lake. Anderson’s party walked along the north or left shore, toward the camera from the place where Seton River flowed east into the Fraser.

As Alexander Caulfield Anderson made his way along the north shores of the lakes later named Seton and Anderson Lakes, he wrote of the Natives’ welcoming ceremonies. The day before at the Upper Fountain, on the Fraser River, he had noted that “Indians are assembled around us at this place where we are encamped, but they behave very peaceably, and seem overjoyed at our arrival.” These Natives were used to the fur traders, as this was the place where the Kamloops men came to trade for salmon. However, there seems that there was no gifting of food-stuff here.

It is not until he reaches Seton Lake and travels half way down its north shore towards Seton Portage and Anderson Lake, that he mentions the local Natives. He is now among the Stl’atl’imx, a group of Natives that are not particularly familiar with the fur traders. As far as the fur trade is concerned, he was in the middle of nowhere, with no defenses but the fur trade guns that were better than those the Natives carried.

Yet, he says, “We are encamped near an Indian village, containing at least 100 men, with a proportionate number of women & children. These one and all express their delight at our presence by every possible demonstration. So much so, indeed, that what with hand-shaking and laudations of every conceivable description, I am heartily wearied out…”

At the end of Seton Lake they ran into “another camp of Indians at the upper end, who, like the rest, received us with every demonstration of welcome.” At the bottom of the Lake, “Another camp of Indians here, who received us like the rest.”

Ten or more years later he added to the store of information about this exploration down the Fraser. He wrote this, though looking at it now it appears he writes more about the Nlaka’pamux on the banks of the Fraser, then the Stl’atl’imx. Except there were no villages on the west side of the river where he was, it seems — or none mentioned at least. He only met the Stl’atl’imx on Seton Lake, and it will be for the modern-day Stl’atl’imx to determine whether they might have “celebrated” a potlatch-type gifting celebration in this way.

Anyway, here are Anderson’s words, and he definitely mentions his 1846 exploration here:

Congregated for mutual protection in villages, frequently pallisaded, they had, until lately, a very limited intercourse with the whites…. Yet, while exploring with a small party toward Fort Langley in the summers of 1846 and 1847, I was received among these people with the kindest demonstrations, certainly at the time sincere, and whereof the notion is still possibly undisturbed. Man, woman and child at every village, brought a trifling present of welcome, whether of fish, wild fruits, or other local production. It was of course impossible to convey away the enormous piles thus accumulated; so after a present of trifles in return, the offering remained for a general scramble on our departure. Everything was couleur de rose on these occasions; but then one felt constantly as if seated on a powder magazine which a spark might at any moment ignite.

He did not mention that the Stl’atl’imx villages were palisaded; but then again he never mentioned that the Nlaka’pamux villages were, when he saw them in 1847. But Potlatch… this was celebrated up and down the British Columbia coast and in the interior, too, as well as in the United States. It was banned by the colonists many years later, for various reasons, but the Natives continued their celebrations in secret. Potlatch was important to them. It was the way they told their stories and kept their culture alive. Moreover, Potlatch generally included the “giving away” of food, as the Natives did here. But it also included the giving away of all other possessions such as blankets, and it was celebrated with dances and songs. Did dancing occur in the villages that Anderson camped close to — he does not say. If not, was this a potlatch, as suggested by a historian somewhere? Or was it just a welcoming contribution of foods and gifts, to a visitor who was a stranger to them? I don’t know.

[Update, September 2015] As I am reading the Fort Alexandria Journals once again, I find a evidence of potlatch among the Dakelh and Secwepemc people who lived around Fort Alexandria. This is what Anderson wrote in his journals:

As we are at present situated here, the whole of our business depends chiefly upon Indians upon whom our trust will be placed. For a while they may go on well — then and only a caprice upsets everything. In order to enable them to do the duty, some little supplies are necessarily given in advance; a turn at the family tables leaves them in puris naturabilus as before, and then adieu any benefit to be derived from them. [Fort Alexandria Journal, 1845-48, B.5/a/7, fo. 36, HBCA]

“In puris naturabilus” translates as “completely naked.” I think it might mean that the Native men he supplied with clothing and whatever, gifted it away in a potlatch and were then unable to do the work they were paid in advance for. How interesting. I will keep my eye open for further possible potlatches, as I go through my papers once more for my new “Brigades” book.

But to keep you entertained in the meantime, I have included below some good sites on Native Potlatches, for your perusal.

The first is from Harvard, and called Gifting and Feasting in the Northwest Coast Potlatch: http://peabody2.ad.fas.,harvard.edu/potlatch/default.html

The second is written by the U’Mista Cultural Society at Alert Bay, British Columbia, and is at: http://www.umista.org/collections/

As always, there is also the Wikipedia entry, found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch

As I have said, I don’t know if the Natives’ welcome might be considered a real “Potlatch,” but I find the giving of gifts of food and other items interesting, and suggestive of that. It was a historian that suggested the Potlatch theory, in writing of Anderson’s journey along Seton Lake. It might in fact have been generosity — a tradition of feeding and celebrating and checking out the stranger passing through. Once Anderson reached the Lillooet River, on  the other side of the height of land that separated Anderson Lake from the Pemberton valley, he met a different group of Natives. There were no gifts of food from the Lil’wat people — they were starving.

To go back to the beginning of this series, “Following A.C. Anderson around British Columbia,” click here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/pathfinder/ I think this series might be a book sometime in the future. The stories that this series follows are told in my first book, The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West. Softcover copies of the book are available here http://www.heritagehouse.ca/author_details.php?contributor_id_1=2447  I also have copies for sale, if you contact me.

My next book — Working Title: “York Factory Express,” is in the hands of my editor. I have already begun writing the third, which will use many of the stories in this series. Its working title is: “Brigades.” Its exciting, and exhausting, and hard work, to start a new book, but writing the third book is, oh, so much easier, than writing the first! (AT least, so far it is).

Anyway, I have given you plenty of reading, and, I hope, a little bit to think about. Enjoy. The next post brings you to a different form of Native spirituality — the sasquatch!  http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/sasquatch/

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2014. [Updated August 26, 2015] All rights reserved.