The vibrant masks, dating back generations, are as living a presence as the people dancing in them. They are part of the Potlatch Collection, a group of masks belonging to aboriginal British Columbians that were confiscated by Canadian authorities in the 1800s.
“A lot of people might not know that this culture was banned by the Canadian government, and from 1881 to 1952, around that time, it was a criminal offense to dance and sing what you’re seeing today,” says an unidentified Kwakwaka?wakw tribal member in this video by the Aboriginal Tourism Association of British Columbia.
Normally held within the privacy of families within tribes, the masks were only seen during the traditional Potlatch Festival, which the Canadians banned. One woman shows viewers the actual mask that belonged to her grandfather and explains that each mask identifies a different family.
“Our culture goes back at least 10,000 years,” says an elder in the video, adding that it took years of negotiation to get the masks returned. The scene flashes to a store of artifacts and more modern souvenirs.
“The visitors are very important to us,” the elder says.”If we have something as valuable as this potlatch collection and if we want people to understand it and respect it, we have to invite them to come and visit us.”
You can start with this video, and then move on to the U’mista Cultural Society’s website.