Priceless Potlatch Figure returns home at last

By Morgan O’Neal

He was different from most cigar-store Indians of the early 1900s with their distinctly carved high cheekbones and brightly painted feather headdresses. He was short and curious-looking, with wide, thick eyebrows, a pillbox hat, and a bemused expression. His red cedar right arm had been severed and replaced with a crude limb proffering a fistful of cigars. He dutifully hawked tobacco, earned his keep, and kept his mouth shut. But in fact, he was no ordinary cigar-store Indian. The little wooden man was a potlatch figure of untold cultural and artistic value, belonging to the people of Canada’s Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. He was misplaced, forgotten, lost, but he had survived the rain and snow and the blistering sun and obnoxious Yankee children forever poking fun. He made it through the Great Depression when many cigar-store Indians were stolen and sold or broken and burned for firewood. He survived until the city grew prosperous again, and sidewalk obstruction laws put an end to the likes of him altogether. His origins are uncertain, and the name of the native carver unknown, so his safe return seems like an event of karmic justice and the triumph of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

It was an emotional homecoming when the figure was unveiled and presented to the community at the U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay. Elders wept and stroked the figure’s arms, embraced it. Michael Audain whose Foundation facilitated the return of the figure was surprised and moved by the reception. “It was very touching,” he said. For Audain, this was not just a matter of historical significance to Canada and First Nations people; it was something deeply personal. His great-great-grandfather Robert Dunsmuir had lived and worked among the people of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation in the mid-1800s when he first arrived from Scotland as an indentured coal miner. Andrea Sanborn, executive director of the Centre said, “We are proud of the fact that our culture is so strong that a carving like this can come back after everything it’s been through. It has come back to us, much like one of our warriors coming back to us after completing a mission. He was wounded, but he has been restored to a place of honour,” said Sanborn. “This figure is part of us telling our story again.”

The priceless potlatch figure has a culturally unique significance: the figure was most certainly used by the Kwakwaka’wakw people during potlatch ceremonies as a “speaker figure” to greet honored guests attending the feast. In a sense, the figure played a public relations role akin to the advertising and sales function of the appropriated life-size carvings that stood outside tobacco stores many North American cities. By the time this specific figure was returned to the people of Alert Bay by the current Michael Audain Foundation, it had most surely been around the proverbial block more than a few times, doing his storefront duty for many a small businessman hustling everything from snuff and plug to loose cigarettes and fancy highfalutin’ cigars.

Sanborn is fairly certain this figure was created originally for Charlie Nowell (hereditary chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw born in Fort Rupert in 1870). Specifically, the figure may have been created for the Nowell’s 1895 marriage potlatch. Charlie Nowell was being groomed for the office of Chief, but he was also afflicted with an adventurous spirit. Had the figure been created for anyone else, it may never have left its home in the first place. As it turned out, events would take both Nowell and the figure far from home.

After working for a while in the sawmills of Alert Bay, Nowell embarked on a great adventure as part of a popular traveling Indian act that entertained as far afield as Missouri during the1904 St. Louis Exposition (much like Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show with which the great Métis freedom fighter Gabriel Dumont traveled for a time). In St. Louis, Nowell and other tribe members dressed in full regalia and performed Bella Bella dances to delight crowds of up to 20,000. In his remarkable autobiography, Smoke From Their Fires: The Life of a Kwakiutl Chief, Nowell recounts that his show was very popular. “All the people that owned the fair came in and sat in the front end of the house,” he wrote. “All the ladies and gentlemen were sitting right on the ground with their silk dresses on—right in the dirt— because they were told by the guards that is the way Indians sit.” Andrea Sanborn theorizes that the potlatch figure left Canada with Nowell. “He was hired to become a specimen, an Indian on display, telling some of his stories. He may have taken the figure as part of his presentation,” says Sanborn, ignoring none of the tragic irony of this stage of Native oppression. “This is where the rhetorical function of the figure in its original context again becomes significant, for it illustrates that during that period of time it continued to do the same work it was originally created for: rhetorical introduction to ceremony of some type, even the base ritual of market buying and selling, including the kind of demeaning entertainment that was popular at the time.”

That the figure did not return for so many years may also be seen as an expression of the conventional aboriginal transformation myth, suggests Sanborn. Removed from its rightful place, it transformed from potlatch figure to cigar-store Indian in order to survive. In some magical but ordered way, it survived many challenges the Kwakwaka’wakw people themselves endured. One of the greatest tests of that culture was the potlatch ban imposed by John A. MacDonald’s Government in 1884. According to the law, “every Indian or other person who engage in or assist in celebrating the Indian festival known as ‘Potlatch’ or the Indian dance known as ‘Tamanawas’ is guilty of misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment.” The banning of the potlatch brought a period of darkness upon the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation during which the federal government confiscated many significant pieces of First Nations artwork and ceremonial objects. Still, the potlatch continued underground as a clandestine operation. According to hereditary chief Bill Cranmer, “the law made it illegal for first nations people to gather and practice their ceremonies, making speeches, dancing, distributing gifts. But many bands still held potlatches far away from the Indian agents that would report them to the RCMP.”

The word potlatch means “to give,” and festivities often lasted for several days, with much ceremonial feasting, dancing, and singing which, according to Sanborn, “is profoundly significant in our culture. [The potlatch] was where we conducted ceremonies of significant parts of our lives, the naming of our children, marriages, passing on of chiefdom.” Because the history of the Kwakwaka’wakw people was passed down orally, those who attended potlatches and bore witness to these ceremonies were “instilled with the responsibility of telling the story, of knowing what was true and passing that on.” In return, they received gifts from their hosts. Wealth in Kwakwaka’wakw culture was determined not by what you had amassed, but by what you gave away. To welcome guests, a potlatch figure (like the man in the pillbox hat) might be perched on the beach to greet guests who arrived in canoes. Every potlatch figure had a unique personality, whether aggressive or serene, friendly or mischievous, and they served numerous purposes at ceremonies. They might be placed inside the Big House to serve as a “speaker figure” with someone hiding behind it, speaking to guests or announcing their arrival.

In 1951, the potlatch ban was lifted in Canada. In 1953, both Sanborn and Cranmer attended a large potlatch celebration in Thunderbird Park for which Mungo Martin had created the totem poles. It would be another 50 years before the strange magic of the prodigal potlatch figure would finally come back home. Purchased by renowned first nations art dealer Donald Ellis and lovingly restored by Steve Brown, former curator of native art at the Seattle Art Museum, the figure was acquired by the Michael Audain Foundation in 2006. On Sept. 2, 2008, Audain entrusted the carefully wrapped figure to an associate who drove it to Port McNeill, where it was then transferred to the care of the U’Mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay. On Saturday, Nov. 1, the figure was finally unveiled to members of the community.

The return of the potlatch speaker figure was an emotional moment for many Kwakwaka’wakw elders. “He was like one of our own, back in the old days, that had been taken captive in a raid,” said hereditary chief Bill Cranmer, who attended the ceremony at the U’Mista Cultural Centre. “And like so many of them that were strong and made their way back to their villages and surprised everyone, he has made it home.”