Tuesday, September 23, 2014

An Historic Treaty Between Nations

An historic treaty between nations
Eagle down dancing by hereditary chief
On Saturday, while the rest of the world continued to fall apart, two groups of people with a history of warring, signed a peace agreement. A few outsiders showed up. The press did not. We were lucky to be amongst the outsiders.

The invitation said to wear "full regalia"

It was a potlatch, held by the Haida Nation with the Heiltsuk Nation as honoured guests. It was done in a traditional way in Old Masset, Haida Gwaii. Jack and I showed up 30 minutes early in order to get a good seat, but seats were hard to find by then. We stayed for over 10 hours, until my sciatic nerve was demanding more attention than the Heiltsuk dancers. It was exhausting, but I felt like a wimp, seeing the elders, some quite frail, sitting there patiently through the ceremonies, while I snuck out. We heard later that it wasn’t over until 5 am.

Hereditary chiefs wearing wool & ermineskin in an overheated gymnasium.
I’d heard of potlatches, but never experienced one. It is a super-human endeavor on the part of the hosts. In payment for witnessing an important event, guests are greeted, fed, given entertainment, fed more, given gifts and fed. Did I mention that they fed us? The apples were just to get us over the munchies until the elk stew which held us over to the main meal. It was my first experience with herring roe on kelp, (k’waak? I think it was called) plus halibut, potatoes, rice, smoked salmon, and then dessert. And a “guest” is anyone who shows up. There is no sense of gate-crashing.
Did I mention they fed us?
The peace treaty itself wasn’t the Israelis and the Palestinians, granted. These two groups haven’t been at war for a long time, basketball notwithstanding. They’ve intermarried, held other potlatches, worked together, but the formalized treaty symbolized a much larger notion. These groups have been treated badly by the powers that be for centuries. They are reclaiming the traditional ways, and finding power there. All the leaders, for example, both hereditary and elected, are great dancers. When anything of significance happens during the potlatch, people must dance it. (I would love to see this at City Hall, or Parliament Hill. If you make a motion, you and the seconder must dance it all around the circle.)

Elected leaders have to dance their agreements.

The importance of bearing witness
The significance of this treaty is a call to other first nations to do the same. By standing together their voices become louder and more powerful. The Haida’s effective control of their lands increases the volume of their voice as well.  Land and power go hand in hand, but the first nations assumption is that their treatment of the land and oceans would be more about stewardship than extraction. They’ve battled the logging companies on this land and see a bigger fight ahead about oil, gas, pipelines and tankers. A formal treaty can only help in that fight.
No one has a "YES TANKERS" sign
I’m sorry I didn’t stay long enough at the potlatch to get the gifts: a live baby cedar tree, a silkscreened copper print, and other beautiful and symbolic things. Ultimately, however, we gained something greater by simply witnessing this event.

You must dance your gifts too.

Ravens + Eagles = Haida

A mix of old and new tradition

Mixed marriages can work in the wild too
Haida Gwaii coin

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