Chief’s feast

🕔Jul 21, 2008

Kii’iljuus, or Barb Wilson, a matriarch of the Cumshewa clan, sits behind her sewing machine. She is picking up small squares of coloured cloth and running the edges through, forming the pieces into rich patterns for quilts that will be given as gifts at her brother’s September feast.
Giitsxaa, also known as Ron Wilson, is the next Chief Cumshewa. An artist, carver and toolmaker, Giitsxaa was formally named as successor to the hereditary title by his Uncle Charlie Wesley at a potlatch held in 1996.
Charlie Wesley passed away two years ago, and now it’s time for the oldest nephew to take on the ancient responsibilities of this role.
Although the family now lives in Skidegate, they come from Cumshewa, a Haida village on Moresby Island to the south. Like other Haidas, the people of Cumshewa moved after outbreaks of smallpox and other diseases decimated the population. The families at Cumshewa held out as long as they could, but by 1905 the last few inhabitants were being encouraged by missionaries to move to Skidegate.
George Dawson, a young geologist employed by the Geological Survey of Canada, sailed to the Islands in 1878 and described the Wilsons’ ancestral home:
The village generally known as Cumshewas is situated in a small bay facing toward the open sea, but about two miles within the inlet to which the same name has been applied. The outer point of the bay is formed by a little rock islet, which is connected to the main shore by a beach at low tide . . . There are now standing here twelve or fourteen houses, several of them quite ruinous, with over twenty-five carved posts. The population is quite small, this place having suffered much from the causes to which the decrease in numbers of the natives have already been referred.
Disease, loss of language, residential school, and conversion to Christianity are just a few of the changes that have had an impact on Haida culture in the few centuries since Europeans first starting trading and then living on these shores. All this notwithstanding, Kii’iljuus and her brother are piecing together the rich traditions of their ancestors in order to honour their lineage at Cumshewa’s potlatch.

Potlatch protocol
“In the old days, a young man would know from birth that he would be chief some day, and the family would get ready his whole life,” says Kii’iljuus, who only visited Cumshewa for the first time 18 years ago.
But families are scattered now—“if,” as Kii’iljuus says, “we are fortunate enough to have them.” Neither her mother, nor her maternal aunties are still alive, and a quick head-count reveals that the clan of Eagles from Cumshewa numbers only 36, including those adopted into the clan. Her father, Niis Wes (Ernie Wilson), is the hereditary chief of the neighbouring village of Skedans, but since his potlatch was almost 30 years ago and she was not around at the time for the preparations, she has little experience planning these ancient traditions. Her father is helping with protocol, but there is still a lot to learn. “We learn by doing,” she says.
As the matriarch, it’s Kii’iljuus’s job to ensure the clan observes protocol and that the people who should be invited have been properly notified. It’s essential, she says, that the head people of the Raven clan are there to act as witnesses to the event, so she’s consulting with her Raven cousins about who to invite.
The potlatch is a legal process—a way of validating a chief, she says. When an invited guest comes to sit at the chief’s table, the guest is paid with gifts. Accepting these giftss means the guest agrees to take on certain responsibilities. In other words, they agree to become witnesses and remember what has happened in the feast hall.
Then if someone speaks badly of how things went or questions the protocol, the witnesses can say, “No, I was there and this is what happened,” explains Kii’iljuus.
Many believe that a chief gives away all of his possessions at a potlatch, making him destitute, says Giitsxaa. But this is not so.
It’s about witnessing, and paying your witnesses, Kii’iljuus says.
Still, a modern-day potlatch can cost thousands of dollars once food, gifts and cash payments to Ravens who have done work for their opposite Eagle clan are tallied up. But it’s well worth the effort, she says.
It’s not just who is invited; how they are invited is important too. In the old days, a representative of the Chief, usually a nephew, would be sent from village to village to invite those he’d been directed to find. People would then gather the appropriate regalia and make their way to the host’s village. For Chief Cumshewa’s potlatch, invitations are being written, many of which will be delivered by hand.
The invitation list includes chiefs of other villages along with others who Giitsxaa respects, and those who mean something to his family. But it’s not open to just anyone who wants to experience such an event. “It’s a very private thing,” he says.
His sister agrees. “It’s not about the outside world; it’s about a culture and customs that are thousands of years old,” she says.

The term potlatch is not Haida, but is a Chinook word used by nations up and down the coast to refer to ceremonies held for important occasions like the ascension of a chief, births, passage into puberty, inheritance of names, and more. According to the Skidegate Haida language program’s glossary, the Haida word for potlatch is WaahlGahl, although it changes when talking about giving one or going to one.
In 1885 the potlatch was deemed illegal and outlawed until 1951. Missionaries were the most vocal proponents of the ban, feeling as missionary William Duncan did in 1875 that the potlatch was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians or even civilized.”
Those found guilty of holding a potlatch could be taken from their communities and imprisoned for two to six months. During those 70 years, says Kii’iljuus, no one on Haida Gwaii openly had a potlatch and important matters were often carried on under the guise of Christmas, Easter or other acceptable European celebrations.
“That’s a couple of generations,” she says, “and a lot has gone by the way.”
In 1973, Chief Skidegate Dempsey Collinson was the first since the ban to publicly uphold the ancient chief’s potlatch tradition.
As part of the upcoming ceremony for Chief Cumshewa, Giitsxaa will raise a 10-foot pole in the Skidegate cemetery to honour his mother and uncle, along with two headstones for his brothers.
Later, members of his clan and the clan opposite, along with honoured chiefs and ladies of high esteem, will fulfill their ancient roles. By the end of the evening he will have been given his chief’s head-dress and robe, and his chief’s name: Gitkinjuuwaas. From that point on he is expected to represent his clan at all important public functions, and he must maintain the honour of that name.
That said, Giitsxaa thinks many people misunderstand what it means to be chief. “I’m not the boss, but I’m the guy responsible,” he says.
Knowing that clan members will come to him when there is a dispute or a question to resolve, Giitsxaa decided to take courses on mediation in Vancouver to prepare for his role, but found that most of what they tried to teach he’d known since childhood.
He’s aware that being the chief does not mean he’ll be making unilateral decisions, and he’s happy to consult with his clan on important matters. But, he says, understanding what makes someone a good leader is not easy. When his Uncle Charlie approached him years ago to let him know he was the next in line, Giitsxaa asked what he needed to know to become a good chief.
“He couldn’t tell me.” So the chief in waiting went through his own learning process to get ready for the coming day.
One of the things he’s realized is that, while the chief may be the figurehead, the clan system is and always has been matrilineal.
“Women, in their wisdom, have pushed the men out in front to take all the crap,” he says with a laugh.