Bringing the potlatch home

Museums, repatriation and the Cranmer potlatch.

By Matthew McRae
Published: June 12, 2018

A black and white image of an elderly woman with white hair holding a mask that is shaped and painted to represent a bird’s head. It features a long beak with an open mouth and feathers attached to the top of the head. The woman is looking directly at the mask she is holding. Partially obscured.

Photo: Courtesy of the U’mista Cultural Centre, Vickie Jensen

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This is the story of the Cranmer potlatch and the long struggle that happened after it ended. A potlatch is a ceremony practiced by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada and the United States. Bill Cranmer, of the Kwakwaka’wakw people of northern British Columbia, describes the significance of the potlatch. 

“Every important thing that happens in the community was marked by a potlatch or a feast. It was also a way for our people to keep our history alive, because every time you held a potlatch, you invited people to be witnesses – and they kept our history going by remembering what they witnessed at the potlatch, as we had no written language at the time.”

The Cranmer Potlatch

Bill Cranmer, an older man with gray hair, stands facing the camera. He is wearing a fringed blanket over his shoulders that decorated with geometric designs. He is also wearing fur hat with a shiny square metal centrepiece and a large necklace made out of a thick cord.

Chief Bill Cranmer is the son of Dan Cranmer, who hosted the 1921 potlatch now often referred to as the Cranmer Potlatch. 

Photo: Courtesy of the U’Mista Cultural Centre

On Christmas Day in 1921, Bill Cranmer’s father Dan hosted a potlatch. Now often called the Cranmer Potlatch, it was held in the village of ‘Mimkwamlis on Village Island, British Columbia. There were at least 300 guests, making it one of the biggest potlatches ever held on the British Columbia coast. Despite its huge scale, the Cranmer Potlatch was held in secret – and that’s because, in 1921, potlatching was against the law in Canada.

Chief Bill Cranmer is the son of Dan Cranmer, who hosted the 1921 potlatch now often referred to as the Cranmer Potlatch. 

Photo: Courtesy of the U’Mista Cultural Centre

From 1885 until 1951, the federal government banned the potlatch as part of an effort to destroy Indigenous culture and religion.1 The ban was part of the Indian Act, which was meant to control the lives of Indigenous people and was used as a tool of assimilation.2 When local federal officials heard about the Cranmer Potlatch, they were determined to punish those who had participated. They charged 45 people under the potlatch ban.3 

What officials really wanted, however, was to end potlatching entirely. They offered those accused a chance to avoid jail time – but only if the whole community would agree to two conditions. First, all participants had to promise to give up potlatching; second, the community had to hand over all dancing masks, costumes, headdresses and other items used in potlatches. Most of the community agreed to surrender their possessions in order to save the accused. Despite this, 22 people were given suspended sentences and 20 men and women were sent to prison in Vancouver for short sentences of two or three months.

In all, officials confiscated 750 potlatch items. Most ended up in three museums – the then‐National Museum in Ottawa (now the Canadian Museum of History), the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Museum of the American Indian in New York. For their collection of artwork and sacred objects, the Kwakwaka’wakw were paid about $1,400 – though years later some Elders would recall they had never seen any money at all.

My father never did talk very much about the potlatch because he felt so bad about what happened to a lot of our people, the chiefs, the relatives that were sent to prison, as a result of his potlatch.

Chief Bill Cranmer

The quest for repatriation

The federal government dropped the potlatch ban in 1951, as part of a partial reform of the Indian Act. Despite the passage of years, the Kwakwaka’wakw had never forgotten the loss of their potlatch items. In 1958, after the potlatch ban had ended, members of the community began pushing to have the items from the Cranmer Potlatch repatriated. 

To “repatriate” something means to return it to its rightful home – and the Kwakwaka’wakw people feel that the true home of the Cranmer Potlatch items is their community. Their position is supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Article 31 of UNDRIP declares that Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.

After many years of negotiation, repatriation finally took place in 1979 and 1980. The Kwakwaka’wakw and the federal government agreed to house the repatriated collection in two new institutions: The Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre in Cape Mudge, which opened in 1979, and the U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, which opened in 1980. These were the first facilities of their kind in Canada, designed specifically to house the repatriated collection in a First Nations community. 

A repatriation ceremony

A group of older men and one woman sing while standing in front of a large wooden building. One man is playing a drum. The singers are wearing long shirts or blankets that feature patterns made from buttons.

A repatriation ceremony in Alert Bay, British Columbia. The return of sacred objects asserts Indigenous political and cultural rights. 

Photo: Courtesy of the U’mista Cultural Centre, Vickie Jensen
A large rectangular white building sits on a slight rise. The front is painted with stylized representations of a bird sitting on an aquatic creature. The beak of the bird is three-dimensional, coming out of the building’s wall. There is a single white door in the middle of the front, bisecting the aquatic creature and sitting directly below the bird’s feet.

The U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay is one of the two institutions created to house repatriated Cranmer Potlatch items.

Photo: Courtesy of the U’Mista Cultural Centre
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Our goal in having our treasures come home was to rectify a terrible injustice that is part of our history.

Gloria Cranmer-Webster, founding director of the U’Mista Cultural Centre

This was only the beginning of the process of repatriation, however. In 1988, the Royal Ontario Museum repatriated its portion of the Potlatch Collection, and more items were repatriated from the National Museum of the American Indian in 1993 and 2003. Even today, there is at least one item that has not yet been repatriated, although it is currently on loan to the U’mista Cultural Society. 

While the Potlatch Collection items are almost all home, there are still many other cultural artifacts missing from west coast Indigenous communities. Many artifacts were taken from Indigenous peoples by anthropologists, explorers and opportunists, who would then sell those items to museums or private collectors.4 The hunt to locate these items is ongoing. The Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre recently repatriated three masks and not long before that, they repatriated the human remains of ancestors removed from the community.

"Nowadays, the quest for repatriation can even take place online. Jodi Simkin, the former director of the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre, describes how an app that is being created by the Office of Repatriation at Klahoose First Nation, in partnership with the Royal British Columbia Museum, will allow the public to help in the repatriation process.

“With the app, anybody can sign up and register as a cultural detective – and when you stumble upon a piece of potlach material, you'll be able to register that, which will help ensure it gets to the right community. That way the public can start to help support the idea that pieces need to be brought home, that this process of reconciliation and repatriation is not just connected but essential to moving the communities forward. So we're really excited about that.”

We have to start changing the kind of narrative and dialogue that occurs between the museum community and the First Nations community, if we hope to make those relationships better.

Jodi Simkin, former director of the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre

Towards a better future: museums and Indigenous cultural heritage

The story of the Cranmer Potlatch and the repatriation process is not just the story of an injustice and the quest to right that wrong. It is also a story about the role museums have played in Indigenous communities. In the past, many museums housed and stored Indigenous cultural artifacts without the consent of the communities to which those artifacts belonged. Recent years, however, have seen more and more museums collaborating with Indigenous communities to protect Indigenous heritage. Greater collaboration between museums and Indigenous peoples was actually one of the 94 calls to action made in the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 

Jodi Simkin says when it comes to hosting and protecting Indigenous heritage, museums must allow Indigenous communities to lead the way. In the past, many museums took potlatch items, along with other artifacts, in part because they believed Indigenous culture would disappear and so they felt they were preserving it. 

That is not what happened, however, and now Simkin feels museums have a responsibility to work with Indigenous communities to return their heritage to them.

“The reality is that First Nations didn’t disappear – and they're more than capable of maintaining and controlling items of cultural heritage. The museums have not caught up to the fact that we have Indigenous cultural centres and we have institutional capacity and community capacity that will enable those pieces to be returned home.”

Bill Cranmer, an older man with grey hair, holds a cloth and fur headdress. It features a painted round face carved from wood. To the right of Cranmer is Aube Elléouët, an older woman with short hair. She is wearing a dark jacket.

Chief Bill Cranmer (left) celebrates the return of a headdress in September 2003. Aube Elléouët (right) returned the headdress, which had been in the possession of her father. 

Photo: Courtesy of the U’Mista Cultural Centre

In the case of the Potlatch Collection items, repatriation had a tremendous positive effect on the community. At the opening of the U’mista Cultural Centre in 1980, Bill Cranmer highlighted the right of all Indigenous people to have access to, and control over, their own cultural heritage. In a speech at the time, he said “It’s important to know your past if you are going to fight for your future.”

Some 27 years later, Bill Cranmer is still deeply affected by the repatriation of the items from his father’s 1921 potlatch. Cranmer feels a personal and a spiritual connection to the potlatch items. He is excited to share his cultural heritage with others and he believes it is important to the upcoming generation of Kwakwaka’wakw youth.

Chief Bill Cranmer (left) celebrates the return of a headdress in September 2003. Aube Elléouët (right) returned the headdress, which had been in the possession of her father. 

Photo: Courtesy of the U’Mista Cultural Centre

I just want to let everyone know the real history of our people and that we are getting back to where we used to be with our ceremonies, songs and dances. We are very proud of our young people who are learning these songs and dances because we need to continue our ceremonies.

Chief Bill Cranmer

The story of the Cranmer Potlatch is shared in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, in the Canadian Journeys gallery. The Potlatch Collection items are now nearly all located at the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre in Cape Mudge, British Columbia, and the U’mista Cultural Centre, in Alert Bay, British Columbia.

Ask Yourself:

  • What would you want to pass down to future generations?

  • What kind of cultural heritage is important to you and your community?

  • What role can museums play to help preserve and protect heritage?


  • [1] Missionaries and federal officials wanted to see the potlatch banned. In their view, it challenged non‐Indigenous forms of authority and prevented assimilation. See Douglas Cole and Ira Chakin, An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre), 15–20. See also Ronald W. Hawker, Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922–1961 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003), 19, and Daniel Raunet, Without Surrender, Without Consent: A History of the Nisga’a Land Claims (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1996), 70.
  • [2] Historian John Milloy has explained that the Indian act “blanketed communities with regulations in an attempt to establish Canadian economic and social norms throughout community life.” He also states that “The Indian Acts of the pre‐Second World War period allowed that First Nations people could join the national community only as enfranchised, assimilated individuals.” For more information read John Milloy, Indian Act Colonialism: A Century of Dishonour, 1869–1969 (West Vancouver: National Centre for First Nations Governance, 2008).
  • [3] The amendment to the Indian Act, which went into effect in 1885, stated that “Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlatch’ or in the Indian dance known as the ‘Tamanawas’ is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than six nor less than two months in any gaol or other place of confinement; and any Indian or other person who encourages, either directly or indirectly, an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or celebrate the same, or who shall assist in the celebration of the same is guilty of a like offence, and shall be liable to the same punishment.” For more information, see Keith D. Smith, ed., Strange Visitors: Documents in Indigenous‐Settler Relations in Canada from 1876 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division, 2014).
  • [4] See Janet Catherine Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips, “Our (museum) world turned upside down: Re‐presenting Native American arts,” in The Art Bulletin, March 1995, 77/1, 6.

Suggested citation

Suggested citation : Matthew McRae. “Bringing the potlatch home.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Published June 12, 2018.