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Dedication Potlach: The Honoring of Ancient Traditions
By Bill Hupe


August 20, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - The sky was cloudy and grey as I arrived for the Dedication Potlach at the Totem Heritage Park on August 6th. Arriving early, there was ample opportunity to examine the clanhouse and the totem poles. One particular pole always demands my attention - an eagle above a man - standing near the water's edge, with Tongass Narrows as a scenic backdrop. The day was a rare treat, as Potlaches are normally held after the last harvest rather than in Summer. This meant many more family members and dance groups, including the Haida Children's Group from Prince of Wales, could attend and the event could be held outdoors.

jpg Dedication Potlach - Wrapping in Blankets

Totem Heritage Park; Dedication Potlach; wrapping in blankets
Photograph by Bill Hupe©

The people coming to witness the Dedication Potlatch poured into the makeshift ampitheatre, first filling the available chairs, then surrounding the recently completed Clanhouse, and finally spreading out along the other new structures. As one of the elders pointed out, a handful of people were expected, not over 500.

The ceremony began with a backdrop of bald eagles calling from the trees and to the beat of drums. Many of the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian peoples present were in ceremonial regalia and entered in a Grand Entrance, displaying their primarily black robes. These robes represent "Clan Crest". The gathering became silent as the Potlach opened with a prayer.

The spokesperson for the Potlach, Norman Arriola, welcomed everyone, and thanked us all for attending as witnesses to the Dedication. The Potlach was dedicated to Alyce Argel, as well as a celebration of the carvers, and the community connection. An Elder for each of three of the tribes present (the fourth, the Tongass Tribe, was in mourning and thus could not participate.), spoke in turn, introducing family and clan members, and then led their clan in song and dance.

The first, One Raven (Chaz Edwardson), of a Raven Clan explained to everyone the nature of the day's gathering, and that the men yelling "HOOO" was their way of showing their male prowess, much to everyone's amusement. He then gave a blessing, and a Tsimshian song was sung - "The Friendship Song"- in which participation was strongly encouraged.

jpg KIC Intertribal Dance Group

Totem Heritage Park; Dedication Potlach; KIC Intertribal Dance Group
Photograph by Bill Hupe©

The second elder, Julian Argel, led a Haida Welcoming Song. Pat and Tedi Moore, and their son, Kanoe, are responsible for the development of the Park, and were asked to come to the front, where in song & dance, they were ceremonially wrapped in a blanket from Pembleton, Oregon. This was symbolic of the love that the clan were wrapping them in. Other clan members came forward who had traveled from Oregon, Washington State, and Hawaii, and performed the Potlach Song, in recognition of reconnecting with family near and distant, and in honour of the park, the carvers, and Kanoe and his family.

The third elder, from the Tlingit Tribe, then gave his thanks and his welcome. Teri Burr, a Tsimshian Killer Whale, spoke next of the history of Totem Heritage Park and how it came to be; how the owners, Pat and Tedi Moore, sought out the local peoples for input and help, and how the park should be considered a place of preservation of the local culture, and that the poles and structures were replicas of historical items, and that the principal carver tried to remain faithful to the traditional designs, as well as add a little of her own ideas.

jpg Totem Heritage Park

Totem Heritage Park; Dedication Potlach
Photograph by Bill Hupe©

The principle carver, Brita Alander, an Eagle who started carving in 1996, then performed The Carving Song after a speech of thanks and welcoming was read for her. Her dance was intricate and fascinating, using the carver's blade as a prop. The features and details of the totem pole at the front of the clan house were then explained to the gathered crowd:

The top figure is a Raven, ready to take flight; next is a Man, coming out of the dark of the clamshell, the Raven aiding in his release to the world; then a Wolf stands, his stomach full of salmon; and finally, the Eagle, majestic, bold, and powerful.

Name Givings followed. This is a special occasion normally reserved for a private ceremony, but it was held at this Celebration so that many family members who had traveled such great distances to attend, could be there. Chaz Edwardson gave out the names and adoptions, the names being conceived by residents of Hyadburg, mostly relatives of the recipients: Kanoe and three girls: Nicole. Bianca, and Crystal; followed by the adoption of Kanoe. Brita and Broch were also given names by the Elders from their family.

The Potlach continued with more songs and dances, including a new composition, "The Sweetheart Song", where men showed off for the ladies, and the ladies ignore them, much to their consternation, and our amusement. A blanket was laid out as "The Gambling Song" started, where everyone could come forward, join in, and contribute some money towards the expense of putting on the Potlach, especially with so many people present. And the humour continued with "Afraid of the Night", which was dedicated to Brita, the carver, where the ladies are afraid that their husbands might look them in the eye and will be able to see where they have been.

jpg Gift Giving

Totem Heritage Park; Dedication Potlach; Gift giving
Photograph by Bill Hupe©

The KIC Intertribal Group and the Hotem Tsimshian Group brought the singing and dancing to a close, performing "The Peace Song" and "The Women's Song." This song was about the Matriarchs growing older and passing their mantle to the younger women.

This part of the Dedication Potlach came to an end as payments were made in the ancient tradition, and the people who brought food were given gifts, officially recognizing their contribution to the Potlach. We were then all invited to the shed below our temporary ampitheatre, where a feast had been prepared for everyone; grilled hamburgers, hotdogs, salmon, and a variety of salads. The line was long as the day started to heat up with the emergence of the sun, but it was well worth the wait; a perfect end to the Dedication Potlach, as everyone ate and visited with friends, neighbours, and family. It was an immensely enjoyable afternoon; one that I hope to be blessed with again sometime in the future.


Authors' Note: Special thanks to Teri Burr, Brita Alander, and Gloria for their assistance with names and spellings and other aspects of this article.

Bill Hupe is a resident of Ketchikan and Faulconbridge NSW, Australia. Most of his writing is with Susan Batho (also a resident of both places). Known by most people as "The Twins", they are a writing and photographic team and specializing in photography of Alaska and Australia. Their website features some of their work, and they can be reached through
Bill Hupe ©2006

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