Special to Coast Mountain News
Peter Siwallace was understandably nervous as his September 24th Wits’lks Potlatch drew near.
For three years no potlatches had been held in Bella Coola because of Covid. Now Peter and his wife Wanda were about to break the ice. They had been preparing all the little details for several years. Now the moment had arrived.
This would be Peter’s fourth potlatch. They chose the theme: honouring Peter’s late parents Lillian and Andy Siwallace.
In preparation for the event Peter reached out near and far to people with blood ties to his Siwallace family. These included people from the Hanaksiala (Kitlope) Nation and folks from Ulkatcho Nation in Anahim Lake.
Peter’s grandmother, Margaret Siwallace (nee Saunders), was from Kimsquit, and her mom was of Kitlope ancestry. The watersheds of Kitlope and Kimsquit are right next to each other.
Similarly, Ulkatcho people regularly travelled down the Dean River to Kimsquit and family ties naturally occurred there too.
It was Peter’s task to unravel these connections and invite family members to the potlatch.
One of the keystone ceremonies of the potlatch was to officially recognize Peter’s oldest son, Nelson, as Peter’s right-hand-person. Nelson would receive his regalia and his Nuxalk name, Lhaluuxmana.
Chiefs of the Hanaksiala, Nuu-chah-nulth and Nuxalk nations take their seats facing the audience in front of a long backdrop tapestry decorated with Nuxalk designs. To one side a group of drummers pound a log drum and sing with a powerful voice, augmented by occasional whistle blasts.
A “tutwinm” ceremony is performed for Nelson’s dressing as Wits’lks (Peter’s) right-hand-person. A Siki first comes out looking for an eagle crest which only he can hear and see. Once he finds the crest, he calls upon the chiefs to shroud with their blankets.
After circling the room once, the crest emerges and later leaves the area. Nelson is then walked around the room by Wits’lks. This is his last walk as Nelson.
From now on he will be known as Lhluuxmana engaged in the work of “uplifting his family” and taking his place beside Wits’lks.
A sacred cedar bark mat is placed on the floor purified with eagle down. Peter walks his son to the mat, and piece by piece, Nelson is dressed in his new regalia crafted from the regalia of his late grandfather Andy Siwallace. Nelson’s aunt Marilyn Siwallace blesses each piece of regalia as it is presented to him.
Then his name, Lhaluuxmana is officially proclaimed.
Later Nelson said he’s had that name for as long as he can remember.
“The name was given to me by my great grandmother Margaret Siwallace when I was born.”
Peter explains the significance of the name.
“Lhaluuxmana refers to the story of the first connection between the Kitlope and Kimsquit people. It goes back to the beginning of time.”
Decked out in his new regalia Nelson’s first duty is to dance with his father.
Iris Siwallace, the master of ceremonies for the potlatch, announced the next order of business was to “soften the seat” of Peter’s spouse, Wanda, so she can “work together with Peter and sit in her spot.”
Wanda, along with her children are given Nuxalk names to bind them to the Siwallace family.
In another part of the ceremony, Hanaksiala matriarch, Amalaxa (Louisa Smith), speaks about the family ties between the Kitlope and Kimsquit people.
“We are family with Kimsquit through Joe Saunders and Margaret Siwallace,” she says, as she presents Peter Siwallace with a blanket and a mask carved especially for the potlatch.
“We hope Peter will pass the mask and blanket down to his son, and his son to his son as a reminder we are family.”
Later in the potlatch, Ulkatcho member Jonathan McEwan is recognized as family. Jonathan’s grandmother Mary Jane McEwan and Peter’s grandmother Margaret Siwallace were both daughters of Joe Saunders.
A Nuxalk name is bestowed on Jonathan and he is invited to dance in recognition of being a family member.
Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow) used the potlatch as an opportunity to share news of his successful negotiations with the B.C. government to have a totem pole returned to the community from the Royal BC Museum.
The pole was originally taken from the village of Tallio at the mouth of the Noeick River in South Bentinck Arm.
“Our totem poles are our house markers and land markers and belong on the land,” he says.
With the ice broken for hosting potlatches in Bella Coola Valley after Covid, several families announced upcoming potlatches for this year and 2023. Numerous families stepped forward to show support for the potlatch by giving gifts and cash to Wits’lks. He in turn added all these gifts and cash to the gifts that he and Wanda had purchased and accumulated over several years as give-aways for the potlatch.
Following the evening feast, Nuxalk mask dancers performed. The highlight was the dancing of a white Thunder mask created by master carver James Mack Sr. The Thunder Dance is the most powerful and sacred of Nuxalk dances.
At the conclusion of the dances, the give-away occurred. Gifts and cash were given out and distributed to all the people who witnessed the potlatch. The Chiefs then sent the potlatch spirit back, to end the event.
The potlatch, the bedrock of indigenous governance, had once again been reawakened in Bella Coola following the covid shutdown.