A section of the Oakalla Women's Prison in the 1950s. In 1922, 22 Kwakwaka’wakw were sent to Oakalla Prison Farm for participating in a potlatch. BC Ministry of Justice

Imprisoned in Burnaby for dancing: the prisoners of the potlatch ban

101 years ago, 22 Kwakwaka’wakw served prison sentences at the infamous Oakalla Prison Farm. Their crime? Attending a potlatch.

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September 29, 2022 | 5:00 am

Warning: this story contains details of colonial violence, racism, and discrimination against Indigenous people that may be distressing for some readers. If you are feeling distress, you can call the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which offers counselling and crisis intervention 24/7 to Indigenous people across Canada, at  1-855-242-3310. You can also connect to the online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

101 years ago, 22 Kwakwaka’wakw were shipped down from their territories on what we now call Northern Vancouver Island to Burnaby to serve prison sentences at the infamous Oakalla Prison Farm.

Their crime? Dancing and feasting at a potlatch—a word from Chinook meaning “to give”.

The Canadian Encyclopedia describes potlatches as feasts and celebrations practiced by many Indigenous peoples in Canada and the Pacific Northwest to mark a variety of occasions, from weddings, to births, or the raising of a new house and more.

It is a particularly important tradition for the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Kwakʼwala-speaking peoples of a number of tribes from northern Vancouver Island and the central coast.

“We dance to celebrate life, to show we are grateful for all our treasures. We must dance to show our history, since our history is always passed on in songs and dances. It is very important to tell the stories in exactly the same way,” writes the U’mista Cultural Centre, which aims to ensure the survival of Kwakwaka’wakw heritage and culture.

“We put our stories into songs and into dances so they will not change. They will be told the same way every time. We use theatre and impressive masks to tell our ancestor’s adventures so the people witnessing the dance will remember it.”

Another key aspect of potlatches is gift-giving—people who attend potlatches are given gifts for being witnesses to the event.

Historian Daniel Francis wrote in 2013 that the dancing, speaking, feasting, and gift-giving often went on for days at potlatches, which were “at the heart of Indigenous governance and social structure”—and perhaps that’s why European settlers and the Canadian government were so “appalled” by the practice in the late 19th century.

“The government may not have understood what the potlatch was, but knew very well what it stood for – the intactness of an Indian culture. For different reasons both whites and Indians agreed on one thing – the potlatch was the essence of Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture,” writes the U’mista Cultural Centre.

In 1884, the Canadian government amended the Indian Act to make engaging in a potlatch a misdemeanour punishable by up to six months in prison. The original legislation was written in such a vague manner that it was practically unenforceable, and so the Kwakwaka’wakw continued to potlatch.

As lawyer Ludmila B. Herbst noted in a 2021 issue of the journal The Advocate, the law was later revised to make it an indictable offence to engage in, or assist, or encourage “any Indian festival, dance or other ceremony, of which the giving away or paying or giving back of money, goods or articles of any sort forms a part, or is a feature, whether such gift of money, goods or articles takes place before, at, or after the celebration of the same”.

Even after the law was revised to make it more applicable in a court of law, Francis said the Kwakwaka’wakw continued their potlatches with “particular tenacity”—even if they did so in a more underground manner, to escape the notice of the area’s Indian agent.

A potlatch held in 1921 by ’Namgis Chief Dan Cranmer on Village Island, however, caught the attention of Indian Agent William Halliday, who felt that the potlatch “was a particularly wasteful and destructive custom, and created ill-feeling, jealousy, and in most cases great poverty…”.

Forty-five people at the potlatch were arrested and charged with such crimes as dancing, giving speeches, and carrying or receiving gifts and 22 received suspended sentences of between two and three months, served at Burnaby’s Oakalla Prison Farm.

But there was a catch.

Halliday struck a deal (outside of any existing legal process) with the Kwakwaka’wakw. If they were to surrender their incredibly significant potlatch possessions—including “coppers, dancing masks and costumes, headdresses and all other articles used solely for potlatch purposes”—to the Department of Indian Affairs, the 22 people who were convicted would receive suspended sentences.

“On April 10 [1922], Sergeant Angermann escorted those convicted to Vancouver on the CPR steamer Beatrice. They were then jammed into trucks for the drive from the port to Oakalla; the trucks kept breaking down (with flat tires) given that so overloaded, and ultimately they walked the rest of the way,” Herbst wrote.

“Their time in prison was humiliating, and some never recovered from it; one of them organized a “grease potlatch” on their return home as a form of cleansing.”

Oakalla was a prison farm built in 1912 right next to Burnaby’s Deer Lake. As Heritage Burnaby notes, it was originally intended to house just 150 men and 50 women—although over the next few decades it would come to have a population of well over 1000.

“Although hailed as a modern and progressive institution when first opened, the prison later developed a reputation as a particularly rough prison, where some prisoners endured isolation and forced labour,” reads a history guide from Burnaby Village Museum.

“Up until 1959, executions took place at the prison. Among the many people who served time at Oakalla were political prisoners, including labour activists, religious minority groups, and Indigenous people who refused to obey discriminatory laws.”

An overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison, an issue that persists today as a result of systemic discrimination in the justice system, was visible in the prison even from its early days.

A WWII veteran named Dick Patrick, who won a military medal for his valour in Europe, met with King George at the time and asked for his help in advocating for Aboriginal people in Canada.

When he returned home, he was repeatedly arrested for sitting down at a diner in Vanderhoof where Indigenous people were banned. He was sent back and forth from Oakalla in Burnaby, convicted of disturbing the peace—reportedly spending 11 months out of one year in prison.

A Queen’s University thesis by Madelaine Christine Jacobs in 2012 notes that Indian Agents in BC could commit convicted offenders directly to Oakalla for infractions of the Indian Act without sending them to a magistrate or judge first.

“In one instance, a father and daughter were both serving sentences, one for six months of hard labour and the other for three, for possessing intoxicants,” Jacobs wrote.

“… Attempts were made to coordinate plans so that inmates could be met by a Vancouver Indian Agent at the time of discharge and put on boats to their reserves.”

In the female prison, meanwhile, Vancouver journalist G.E. Mortimer reported in 1958 that Aboriginal women comprised up to 60 percent of inmates—although they represented just two to three percent of the general population of British Columbia. Many were convicted of liquor-related violations of the Indian Act.

Oakalla was known as a “rough” place, and Indigenous inmates formed associations and unions to assert their rights within the prison. In 1981, a group of inmates held a hunger strike protesting for their right to hold pipe ceremonies and sweats.

Indeed, Herbst writes that Dan Cranmer felt “lifelong anguish” for the role he played in sending the 22 Kwakwaka’wakw to Oakalla, and his wife Emma reportedly met the inmates immediately upon their release and paid for their travel back home.

“By the time those convicted were released from Oakalla, Halliday was still sorting through the spoils,” she wrote.

Halliday sold much of the confiscated potlatch paraphernalia—approximately 600 masks, rattles, and family heirlooms among other items—to museums, collectors, and bureaucrats across North America.

“Very little was paid for the items to their actual owners; no compensation was paid for coppers and perhaps under $1,500 in total for the rest,” Herbst said.

In the years since, the Kwakwaka’wakw have repatriated many of their sacred and significant objects to their rightful owners—one of the main missions of the U’mista Cultural Centre.

Many of the repatriated items are now on display in the U’mista.

“Negotiations continue for the remaining 24 artifacts. The last remaining artifact (a transformation mask NMAI catalogue number 11/5224) was transferred November 16, 1936 to the Cranmore Ethnographical Museum in Chislehurst, Kent, England. From there it was transferred to its current location, the British Museum. This mask is now on long-term loan at the U’mista Cultural Centre,” the centre writes.

“In July of 2000 the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian Board of Trustees agreed to return another sixteen pieces from the Potlatch Collection still in New York. These artifacts were returned in 2002 and are now on display here at the U’mista.

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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