Coming Together: the Significance of Potlatch

Hanna Lalonde / October 1st, 2019

Potlatch is an integral community building form of governance.
(Matthew Pereira / BCIT News)

Potlatch is an integral part of Indigenous culture; it is a form of governance that varies between nations. However, it was once banned in Canada. Zaa Joseph, raised in the Tl’azt’en Nation Territory, is a BCIT Advisor with Indigenous Services. He describes Potlatch as family-based. 

“It’s much as a family would function, whether it’s hunting or fishing, supplies, or other things.” –  Zaa Joseph, BCIT Advisor with Indigenous Services

In the case of Joseph’s clan, a woman acts as the head. 

“We’re all matriarchs so that means that the leader of our clan – or house – is the oldest female.” –  Zaa Joseph, BCIT Advisor with Indigenous Services

Joseph emphasizes the differences that exist between the Nations. He explains that there are over 200 Nations in B.C. alone, and not all of them follow Potlatch.

“The Potlatch itself brings together, in my case, the four clans in different ways. That can be through the naming of people, the passing of people, other governance issues or challenges, or questions.” –  Zaa Joseph, BCIT Advisor with Indigenous Services

In the article, Looking Back to Potlatch as a Guide To Truth, Reconciliation, and Transformative Learning, authors Justin Wilson and Aaron Nelson-Moody detail the cultural significance of Potlatch. 

“In our potlatches, there is no such thing as a passive audience because you are an active participant of lived history experienced by the entire community.” – Justin Wilson and Aaron Nelson-Moody, Looking Back to Potlatch as a Guide To Truth, Reconciliation, and Transformative Learning

Wilson and Nelson-Moody consider Potlatch as an inclusive and all-embracing governance. 

“The method celebrates social cohesion when domestic, international, and Indigenous students believe they are truly heard, understood, and valued by those in positions of power and privilege.” Justin Wilson and Aaron Nelson-Moody, Looking Back to Potlatch as a Guide To Truth, Reconciliation, and Transformative Learning

This important governance can guide and unite a Nation.