Owen Walker wrote a blog last week about the Potlatch and what it is today and historically on the North West Coast of North America. Last night we attended a kind of Potlatch. Saturday night, December 10th was the annual Stonington Gallery Celebration of the Holiday Season in downtown Pioneer Square, Seattle. Gallery owner Michael Bonsignore invited artists and friends of the gallery for an evening of supper, conversation and live music.
Traditionally Potlatches have that same venue of food, conversation among visitors, talks or speeches by those of authority, music and dancing. A delicious Buffet was provided and a 3 piece band played great Samba and Cha-cha music while we feasted. Michael Bonsignore welcomed all the artists and friends of the Stonington Gallery and gave a brief history of the gallery and his 10 yr. involvement. He thanked the staff of the gallery acknowledging the immense job that they do. At this point he introduced the long time gallery friend and artist wood carver, Duane Pasco, who told a great story of fishing on the Olympic Peninsula and finding a hidy-hole of Kokanee Salmon. Duane displayed his carved cedar mask of the Salmon fisherman. He then introduced Bill Holm, Professor, teacher, wood and silver carver, author, artist, & etc. who is always The Authority on Northwest Native Art. We were all very well treated to extraordinary stories and songs sung at Potlatches that Bill has attended in his extensive history among the NW natives. Bill had with him his beautiful wife, Marty and a large Hamatsa Crooked Beak mask carved by master carver, Willie Seiwed.
Fred and Ivy Fulmer and their family did a wonderful song and dance from their native Tlingit culture and included all of us. Fred displayed a maskette that he had carved and invited the men and women to learn different parts, follow them in singing while he danced, and we were led in song by Fred and his daughter Yolanda singing and drumming.
Toward the end of the evening, master carver Scott Jensen showed some great old slides of the first Potlatch he had ever attended on Cormorant Island with the Kwakwak’awak people in 1974. Bill Holm knew so many of the people in the slides that he could name these old friends and explain the dances and masks being displayed. It was a rare treat for us to witness this slice of history. These photos were taken by Owen Walker when we were able to attend the Potlatch to celebrate the reopening of the Big House in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, BC, Canada.
The show that the gallery has had up since the first of the month is focused on Masks; the masks displayed in the gallery carved and made by current artists, Bill’s teaching us about the Hamatsa Crooked Beak and Hok Hok Bird Masks and Scott’s historical slides all blended together to create a wonderful experience for those attending. We went home from this wonderful evening of good visits, good food and good learning glad to have been able to attend this Potlatch. Many thanks to the Stonington Gallery!
It is interesting to me that the word potlatch has become part of white mainstream Pacific Northwest culture. In 200 years of living as neighbors we can see that there is cultural exchange going on. 200 years ago everyone on the coast spoke Chinook jargon to communicate between the 100 or so languages spoken here (whites included). The word potlatch in Chinook jargon means to give. Today a person from Seattle might invite his friends to a holiday potlatch, meaning a gathering with food to celebrate anything, or any event. It is, of course, not a potlatch at all in the traditional sense, but is certainly a party!