Negotiating Protocols Within vs without Indigenous Communities

The Lalakenis Feast, 15 January 2016

Before the Lalakenis Feast, I had heard some people refer to it as a potlatch. “Potlatch” is a chinook jargon word, which is used to describe a ceremony where gifts are given. Yet it means something very different depending on where you come from. A Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch follows a strict set of protocols. Every person who attends one must be aware of, and respect the protocol and usually the only people who may attend the potlatch are those who are invited, and most are from the Kwakwaka’wakw tribes. Songs and dances can only be sung and danced by the families who have the hereditary right to them, or whom have been granted permission to use them.

The Lalakenis Feast was not a potlatch and was never called one by the hosts. Yet, there were many elements of a potlatch in it. Initially I felt concern that some Kwakwaka’wakw protocols were being broken. For example, in Kwakwaka’wakw culture it is common for someone to pass on their Kwakwaka’wakw name to a baby, but this is done so with much deliberation and consideration, because the name that goes to that child is their responsibility. Yet at the feast many children were given names, without knowing the child. Another example is that on the tentative schedule that we were sent before the feast the “hamatsa dancers” were listed. This concerned me because the hamatsa ceremony happens during the Tseka ( or Cedarbark ceremony) part of the potlatch, this is considered a very spiritually charged part of the potlatch. This dance cannot be performed outside of the potlatch and should stay within the bighouse. However, the Hamatsa dancers were not part of the feast.

The event was in the AMS Student Nest not a bighouse. It was an open invitation event so many in attendance didn’t know Kwakwaka’wakw protocols. Moreover, Beau involved many other indigenous and non-indigenous ceremonies and presenters in the event. My initial concern about protocol is a result of growing up in a Kwakwaka’wakw community, and having these protocols instilled in me from a young age. Yet, when I moved passed my concern, I was very aware of the uplifting and healing nature of the event.

I moved to Vancouver from my small Kwakwaka’wakw community on northern Vancouver Island to study at UBC. In my two years here, It’s become apparent to me that there is a privileging of western knowledge over indigenous knowledge systems within the institution. Beau’s feast made space for our Kwakwaka’wakw knowledge systems as well as other indigenous ways of knowing. These ways of knowing value relationships, between each other and the natural world.

I think perhaps we need to consider that events that happen within our Indigenous communities for our communities specifically, will have a different set of protocols, or will negotiate protocols differently than an event that is for those from outside communities. So how do we negotiate this respectfully and without creating conflict?

For more information about the feast check out the presentation:

Lalakenis Group Presentation Slides

You can also read Eliana’s blog post on Beau Dick and the Lalakenis feast here:

Eliana’s Post




5 thoughts on “Negotiating Protocols Within vs without Indigenous Communities”

  1. I was in the same boat as you, Lucy, I was unsure of what the feast would look like outside of the gukwdzi and spent a lot of time reflecting on protocol. I feel that I am not in a place to say what is right and wrong (is there even a strict “right” and “wrong”?) but I do agree, negotiating protocol is very complex and difficult, especially with something so sacred. Despite all this, it was sure nice to hear our language and songs, and see our dances and family so far away from home! You said, “Yet, when I moved passed my concern, I was very aware of the uplifting and healing nature of the event.” I feel the same, that the overall intention of the feast and what took place outweighed the questions and concerns.

  2. Lucy and Rebecca,
    Thank you for sharing your insights and feelings; it is nice to hear how witnessing Beau’s feast was for those of you inside his community. The feast certainly gave a different impression for each witness depending on where the person came from and how familiar they were with the events. It is also interesting to be aware of the “balancing act” regarding protocol that needs to happen in the organisation of such an event, and I enjoyed reading and hearing about both of your journeys of processing the feast in the realms of protocol, tradition, and meaning. It is especially nice to hear that, despite some initial confusion, you were able to view the Lalakenis feast as an act of healing and of making space for Indigenous ways of knowing.

  3. Hi Lucy!
    I really appreciated your reading of the feast as a Kwakwaka’wakw woman. I myself am ignorant of much of the protocols surrounding the Potlatch, especially of the differences in Potlatch protocol from Nation to Nation.
    For reference, I was the person who wrote the tentative schedule. I did so essentially taking dictation from Beau, and separating each event out into time slots that we worked out roughly together. I had assumed that at the time of the writing of the first version, that there would be an opportunity to revise the contents of the schedule at least once more (significantly), but it never formally happened.

    I did notice that the schedule that was emailed out en-masse was different than the one I had initially drafted and revised lightly once later. I am not sure who did the final edit. A note that from the onset of my involvement with the planning of the Feast to the actual event itself, the itinerary was constantly in flux. The roster of people involved grew substantially and many people ended up being involved in ways different than initially expected and some withdrew their involvement entirely due to circumstance.

    I think that perhaps part of the reason that protocol was not adhered to as strictly as may have been ideal is because (in addition to time constraints and the huge variety of people in attendance) ultimately the event wasn’t supposed to be, as you said, a Potlatch, but a call to action and acknowledgement. You also rightly mentioned that Beau never said or supported notions that the Feast was a Potlatch. I imagine people attached this label to the event because it was so many things to so many people, and difficult to categorize/conceptualize for many of the guests who lacked a grounding in Northwest Coastal First Nations political and cultural traditions.

  4. To give input to your question of how to negotiate protocol both within and outside of a specific Indigenous community in a respectful manner is to go into it similarly as you did with the Lalakenis Feast. Though my input will clearly not solve all issues, as I would need much more time to write to even give that a fair go, I believe that the way you went into the event (similarly as if you went into a discussion of protocol) with a deep understanding of your own protocol but willingness to witness (or listen to) others is crucial. That you were hesitant of the practices that were not following what you knew but then with a closer analysis, and possibly trying out a different perspective, you were able to view the feast as a space for your and your community’s Kwakwaka’wakw knowledge systems as well as other indigenous ways of knowing. Though head on conflict isn’t something I know how to address I think creating an event for both Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal people something that can be done in a similar fashion to your thought process described in your post.

  5. Thanks for this very insightful post on the protocols of Kwakwaka-wakw Potlatches. It is interesting to learn about the difference in protocols – such as naming.

    I am highly concerned over the underrepresentation of Indigenous pedagogies, students, faculty, and the present racist University ideologies. When Indigenous pedagogies, protocols and discourses are not represented with the University (and other institutions) – it becomes very telling as to why UBC has this underrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. Yet, UBC (and other post-secondary institutions) indirectly states that Indigenous students are low-achievers and thus the best way to gain Indigenous student numbers is to create lower standards for enrolment (a 2.0 GPA rather than the standard 3.0GPA for all non-Indigenous students). When Universities blame Indigenous students’ achievement rather than their own problematic regulations and ideologies, the colonial legacy continues.
    We need to create University spaces where Indigenous voices and perspectives are acknowledged as important and concrete sources of knowledge – I believe by adopting Indigenous pedagogies into mainstream curriculum there will be more respect for Indigenous peoples and culture, and more opportunities in the future.

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