Culture Blog

Carrier 101 - Basic Potlach Protocols

Carrier 101 - Basic Potlach Protocols

May 20, 2016
Category: General Carrier 101 

An important part of the Carrier Sekani Family Services mandate is to provide culturally relevant services for our citizens. It is our great honor to uphold this mandate and ensure that our non-indigenous staff members, community partners, and the general public have access to the rich and diverse cultures of our member Nations.

So you've been invited to your first potlatch (bah'lats). Yes - this can be very exciting! It can also be a bit intimidating if you have never attended an event like this before.

Many of our non-indigenous friends, allies, and service providers feel very honored and excited to be invited to attend a cultural event such as a Potlatch. As exciting as this can be, well-meaning folks may end up breaking potlatch protocols if they are not informed of them beforehand.

This post is intended to provide you with some important 'beginner protocols' so that you can uphold and respect them while attending a potlatch. This is certainly not meant to be a definitive potlatch guide; it can take many years of training to learn all of the potlatch protocols for an individual Nation. There are also differences between Nations as to how potlatch business is conducted.

The protocols outlined in this post are meant as a basic guideline, and are followed by our CSFS member Nations who practice potlatch.

The first and most important thing to understand is the purpose of the bah'lats. The bah'lats is organized around the clan system and is the core economic, political, social, legal, and spiritual institution of Carrier people. The Bah'lats is much more than just government as viewed through a western perspective; it represents a holistic, evolving approach to relationships within the Nation and with other Nations. All formal business in the bah'lats is conducted in an open and transparent environment where clan members are witnesses to transactions such as the assigning of a Chief's name, the solidifying of Carrier laws, conducting justice ceremonies such as shaming, the announcement of births, marriages, and adoptions, or the commonly held funeral, or the headstone potlach. Most of our Member Nations still hold regular bah'lats, although some do not.

As witnesses, individuals are expected to commit to memory the details of what takes place at the Bah'lats. In the case of Hereditary Chiefs, it is their responsibility to recount in oral histories the transactions at future feasts when those transactions are relevant. There are several principles that flow from accepted Carrier laws that are intended to govern the conduct of individuals, including respect, responsibility, obligation, compassion, balance, wisdom, caring, sharing, and love. No one principle is understood to have greater significance than any other principle.

Here are some basic protocols to remember for your first potlatch:

  • When you arrive at the doorway, wait to be seated. You will be asked what clan you belong to. If you don't have a clan you will be seated with a clan and that will be where you sit for all future bah'lats. Please note that you may not be seated with the people you came to the feast with. Follow the designated person who will show you to your seat. Only sit in the seat you have been assigned to avoid sitting in a Hereditary Chiefs paid seat.

In this photo Hereditary Chief Herb Williams of Lake Babine Nation holds a tus, which he uses to seat guests at the feast. 

  • Stand during opening and closing prayer.
  • Be very careful not to spill any food or drink. The clan you are sitting with will have to pool funds together to pay the host clan for any spills to erase the shame. 
  • It is very important that you accept all of food and gifts offered to you; this is a sign of respect. It is considered disrespectful if you refuse the offerings of the host clan (you may put items away in a container and/or take it home afterwards). Remember, you are being paid to remember the business that is being conducted. Acceptance of gifts can also be considered an endorsement that the business has been conducted correctly.

Pictured above are the food and gifts in the center of the feast hall, ready to be distributed. 

  • Stay for the duration of the potlatch business and listen to learn. Avoid participating in a side discussion while there are speeches and/or business being conducted.
  • Songs, dances, and stories belong to the person who performs them so recording is generally not allowed unless the host clan has granted special permission.
  • It is always good to bring money in denominations of $5, $10, or higher. Clans may be called to dance in to their clan song or others. The clan song is like a National Anthem to the clan; singing and dancing takes place with great pride. Clan members and guests who are sitting with a clan will dance with money in their hands to pay for the drummers, as there may be a container or blanket sitting in front of the drummers. There may be other times that clan members and guests are invited to contribute funds as well. You may also be offered a blanket to dance in with.

In this photo, clan members dance in to the feast hall to their clan song. They are holding money to pay the drummers. 

  • Refrain from sudden movements or staring at hereditary chiefs.
  • When CSFS hosts a bah'lats style feast it is called an 'All Clans Feast' to distinguish it from an event which is being hosted by a clan.

We hope that having access to these basic protocols will help you to attend your first potlatch with a little bit of basic information that can help you to participate fully, and lessen any pressure you may feel.

The Carrier clan members and Hereditary Chiefs seated near you will want you to take in the potlatch as well and are often happy to see non-indigenous people taking the time to learn about their Culture. They may even quietly explain things to you, offer you tips, or translate from Carrier to English so you can keep to up to speed with what is going on.

Most of all remember to relax and take in the event to uphold your role as a witness to the business that is being conducted. 

© Carrier Sekani Family Services, 2016. Written by Marlaena Mann. All rights reserved.

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Last modified: Wednesday 03-Apr-24 12:36:28 PDT