National Aboriginal Day in Old Masset: The Potlatch
On the sidewalk, outside the Old Masset community hall, people were milling about and talking to relatives and neighbours. Ramsey, a large bear of a man, caught my eye and gave me a familiar greeting. We banter back and forth for a while and he laughs his warm, wheezy laugh. The Haida Bear Crest covering his chest bounces up and down as he chuckles. “Going inside?” he asks and gestures to the door. Wondering if I have time, I mention that I am on my way to the pole raising, but he assures me that there is plenty. It then dawns on me that in addition to the pole raising, there must be other festivities planned in honor of National Aboriginal Day.
For those of you unfamiliar with National Aboriginal Day, it is a day that recognizes and celebrates the vibrant culture of the First Nations Peoples of Canada. And in Northern British Columbia, in the remote first nations community of Old Masset, the Haida were in the process of observing the occasion through a traditional feast with singing, drumming and dancing.
As I walk into the hall, a deep reverberating drum echoes through the air. The hall, brimming with people, was filled to the rafters. The entire community of Old Masset had descended on the community centre and it was humming lively with activity. People of all ages, dressed in their finest Haida regalia, lined row after row of tables.
I climb up the rafters to find a seat, while the dance troupe who are dressed head to toe in traditional regalia enter the hall. They are draped in beautifully embellished Haida blankets and wear elaborately woven cedar hats and detailed headbands. As the dancers glide gracefully past, I study the blankets in trying to name each ornately buttoned animal crest. The flow and ease of their movements seem beautifully matched to the melodic chanting in a language that was only a decade ago alarmingly close to extinction.
After a number of traditional dances, the women are all called to the floor to take part in an all female dance. They all look beautiful as they parade past and I can’t take my eyes off their brightly coloured head bands lined with fur. A friendly neighbour urges me to join them, but I am transfixed and can’t put down my camera. As the dance slows and comes to an end, the men are then called to the floor. Young children, boys and men all show off their dancing prowess. The pace quickens and the song and dance reach a frenzied pitch; everyone is lost in the moment. Then the tempo slows to conclusion and eventually applause. Represented on the floor was all generations of Haida standing proud and celebrating their culture. It was an amazing sight to behold and it gave me the chills to be a part of it.
The last dance of the evening was a celebration of the pole being raised after the Potlatch. Two dancers carrying a miniature totem enter the room. They walk the room’s circumference and place the pole in the very centre of the hall. The drumming quickens and Donnie Edenshaw, the master carver, dances round the miniature. He’s animated and full of energy. Everyone’s eyes are on just him, but he seems unfazed by this attention. As the drumming slows and ebbs away to applause, there is an obvious look of pride across his face. Then the announcement comes that the pole was now en route to the Elder Centre. The drumming starts up again as everyone makes their way to the doors and funnel into the street….
Part 2: “The Pole Raising” to come.