Excerpt from Au Pays de l’Ours Noir,
Dispatches of a Missionary 1897, by Father
Adrien Gabriel Morice
Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan
Ceremonies: The Potlach
Physically the Babines have many points of resemblance to the Chilcotins.
Morally (sic) the Babines are noisy, great talkers and more rooted in the past customs than any other Déné tribe. This latter trait of their character is the cause of their lack of advancement in the evangelical path and the worry that they have always caused to the priest who has been put in charge of them.
Their social organization is identical to that of the Carriers, who have borrowed theirs from the maritime tribes through their intermediary, and the customs which retarded their spiritual progress and which it is good to know in detail to be able to appreciate the difficulty with which the missionary has to struggle, are also almost all common to both tribes. These customs had only grown stronger roots among the Babines, among whom they flourished.
I have already mentioned several of them while speaking of the Carriers. I need to complete the details I have given on their religious system, their shamanism, their cosmogonic ideas and that of all their traditional practices which have most barred the road to Christian perfection: I mean the potlaches (1) or ceremonial feasts. It is with this last point that I will begin.
They hold on so much to this institution that in certain districts it still survives despite all the prohibitions of the civil and religious authorities.
You (may) remember what has been said about the title of toeneza or leading person and about the manner in which it passes from uncle to maternal nephew. It is only inherited by a whole series of potlaches or ceremonial banquets, all the details of which are important to know if one wants to understand the reasons for their prohibition.
The first potlach, given in honour of a dead toeneza, must take place three of rour days after the arrival of the guests. Its importance is secondary; they call it liz thoer hanat’soelhih or the carrying away of the ashes, which means that the mortal remains of the toeneza are taken away from the hearth where they were to be resting since his death. It is the inheritor who gives this feast. The following ceremonial is observed also in the other banquets.
While everything is being prepared in one of the great lodges, the nephew of the presumed inheritor goes off to call each of the guests. The members of his clan honouring the feast with him enter by themselves. The call to the guests is done by the young man who, armed with a ceremonial baton goes without saying a word to strike the ground at the feet of the person thus honoured. After the commune vulgas (ordinary people) are assembled, the prominent persons are then presented by the master of ceremonies; this latter (person) designating with his baton each toeneza, calls him at the same time by his hereditary name shouting for example: “Qi! qi! Barul. Qi! qi!”
Then the meal begins, or rather the distribution of supplies. A double or triple portion is given to the notables present. The whole meal is accompanied by copious libations of bear fat.
At the end of the banquet, the aspiring toeneza tears a few tanned pelts into strips to make mocassins, taking care to give a width at least double to the notables than the strips given to the other people there.
The second potlach only distinguishes itself from the first by its goal. With it they celebrate the deposition of the remains of the dead man at the place of honour. This takes place although the corpse has already undergone cremation. Up until now the inheritor is still considered as a simple aspirant to the title of his uncle.
The third banquet called tzoez toezdillih (the imposition of the down) is the most important of the series. It is in this banquet that the inheritor takes his place definitively in the tribe. After a great quantity of foodstuff and tanned pelts have been prepared under the orders of the aspiring toeneza, a group of men who are strangers in his clan, surround with a palisade, the place where the remains of his uncle had been consumed by the flames. Since cremation has been abolished, this enclosure takes the form of a little house of many colours that they erect on the tomb of the dead man.
Then the distribution of provisions is done. The the greater the abundance of goods, the more the influence of the future toeneza will be powerful. The population of all neighbouring villages, and sometimes even far off villages is called together for this feast. Everyone having retired, the aspiring toeneza and his clan who have remained by themselves count the pelts that will be distributed the next day and come to an agreement on the number and quality which should please each guest. Then leaving in single file, they silently go and place some swan’s down on the head of those whom they must honour the next day. Those who are thus designated will offer in return a sumptuous feast to the hosts.
The following day sees the proclamation of the new toeneza, From morning the population gathers, as is usual, in one of the most spacious places. there the aspiring notable dressed only in the bare necessities stands silent in front of the pile of prepared pelts which soon he is going to distribute. When everyone is at his/her place, his assistant who has the role of Master of Ceremonies takes a few pinches of swan’s down, which he keeps in a pouch made of the skin of the neck of this bird, and spreads it slowly on the head of the new toeneza, blowing on it to make it undulate into light, white clouds, a symbol of his new dignity. Next, seizing the first of the pelts which have been piled, he places it like a coat on the shoulders of the recipient. He repeats the same ceremony for each pelt, taking care that those present can count them all.
The first skin is no sooner placed on the shoulder than a singer who is a stranger to his clan intones the family chant of the deceased notable. An entire pelt is his reward. The hymn which is intoned is chanted by the whole assembly except the close relatives of the dead man who simultaneously commence a concert of deafening lamentations.
The new dignitary dressed in numerous coats is finally delivered of his load. That is the signal for silence; the chants and lamentations cease immediately. The Master of Ceremonies then helps to distribute the pile of tanned pelts, not forgetting to make a double width for the absent notables, if there are any. The aspiring toeneza of a while ago is from then on accepted as a notable by the tribe; but to enjoy the prerogatives of his rank he will have to make three new distributions.
The first is natladita or the throning of the notable. The new distribution of the pelts or of effects which then takes place is regarded as the tribute paid for having the right to be seated at the traditional place of the predecessor. This distribution is done on the occasion of a banquet given by a notable of a different clan and at which the new toeneza is present. When he enters the ‘feast hall’ the latter is followed by his wife who is carrying the pelts that he is going to distribute. Some young people count them end to end in a line so that the crowd can count them. then one of them cries:
“These pelts he will distribute to celebrate his throning!”
The crowd replies with noisy acclamations:
“Saemotyet! Saemotyet!” (Chief! Chief!)
Once the distribution is done, the notable sits at his place of honour.
The fifth potlach takes place in the winter, if the last of the six required banquets to celebrate the memory of the deceased notable must be given during the summer. The new toeneza is seated with a group of young people inside his residence whose door remains closed. All the people from the village headed by the notables gather outside. To a given signal, the crowd burst into applause and noisy shouts and the troupe of young people inside intones a chant accompanied by tambourines.
Then a toeneza wearing the insignia of his rank, the wig and ceremonial apron, entere dancing, bowing deeply in front of his host and comes to take a place near him. All the notables present follow the same procedure. If there is a woman among the notables, she goes before any person in the gathering who does not have a title.Instead of the wig she wears a headdress in the form of a crown laden with the skins of her heraldic animals. The woman toeneza does not dance while entering the lodge but she marks time with her high headdress to the sound of the tambourine.
When the whole assembly is thus gathered among the masters of the dwelling, the latter serves a frugal meal to everyone and everyone retires.
Finally comes the last of the six ceremonial banquets. Before the feast the inhabitants of the neighbouring village build a new building as big as possible for the new toeneza. During this time the notables present go off no the woods and far from all indiscreet glances they make two masks out of wood bearing the face, one of a man, the other of a woman. For their part the most able workers from the village sculpt two enormous grouse of two gigantic toads according to the clan to which the new toeneza belongs.
During the night everyone gathers in the new residence. Hidden behind a screen made by curtains of pelt, the notables who made the masks put the two wooden masks on two young people whose bodies remain carefully hidden under covers. The curtain is raised; the notables dressed in their insignias advance to the middle of the assembly, beginning to dance in a group while the masked young people make all kinds of bizarre movements with their heads.
A new mask is added at each banquet given in the series by the same notable and thus the number of actors present indicates the number of banquets given by the notable since her has replaced his uncle.
The following morning begins the great feast which last sometimes until the end of the day. That day the personal goods of the deceased notable which have not been touched until then, are revealed one by one. It is also then that his bones kept in the widow’s pouch are suspended temporarily from a beam of the new dwelling.
Then during the distribution of supplies, the new master passes his greasy hands on the hair of the widow and covers with a new covering of which he makes her a gift saying:
“You are now free to return to your people and get married if you so desire.”
Another particularity of this final distribution is that the sculpted image of the totem, once placed on either side of the entrance, each newcomer from another clan has to offer clothes or hunting instruments which become the property of the new notable who in turn divide them among the members of his clan.
After the great distribution of pelts and other effects, the host divides the personal goods of the deceased among the relatives of the predecessor. He even gives his own clothes reducing himself to a state of almost complete nudity.
(1) “Potlach” is a Chinook word which means “to give”