restricted access The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History (review)
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The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History. By Christopher Bracken (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997) 276 pp. $40.00 cloth $16.95 paper

Bracken’s purpose in providing a “reading” of the potlatch papers is “to disable a particular mode of Canadian racism—one that is still in circulation, moreover” (246). He analyzes what he calls an “archive of postal literature,” most of which sought “to define, to regulate, and ultimately to destroy the social systems of the British Columbia First Nations” (1). He takes readers on a paper chase of the official correspondence, judicial decisions, and other commentaries on what came to be known as the potlatch practices of Northwest coast Canadian Indians. A linked practice, tamanawas dances, also attracted the eye of officialdom, and elicited [End Page 357] its own colonialist discourse, which Bracken also subjects to close scrutiny. This review focuses on the potlatch.

Both practices were banned by the Canadian government in 1885; the bans were lifted in 1951. The banning of native customs deemed barbarous, or as impediments to the spread of Western civilization, was a practice that came naturally to believers in the “white man’s burden,” in the survival of the fittest, or in David Livingstone’s trilogy of Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce. Bracken’s volume is part of a broad postcolonial riposte that the imperialist emperor had no clothes—that the rationale for subjugating much of humanity was spurious, self-serving, and internally contradictory. A by-product of this unmasking is to elevate the status of, and appreciation for, the formerly subjugated “other.” In a way, the postcolonial analyst performs a contemporary version of what many anthropologists did in the imperial era—they defended and explained the practices of “their” tribe against the insolent and ignorant interventions of those in charge. The difference is that although both side with the subject peoples, the postcolonialist does more. He/she removes/smashes the pedestal signifying superiority on which the governors, district officers, and imperial magistrates stood as they paternalistically surveyed the subject peoples below.

Bracken’s methodology is simple in form and arduous and exhaustive in practice. Informed by Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man, whose understandings of language, of meaning, of signs, etc., provide interpretive frameworks, the author provides a nuanced analysis of a wide range of texts that tried, and failed, to understand practices viewed as antithetical to the values of white society. Was the potlatch a gift, a system of exchange, part of a redistributive welfare state, a practice that wantonly destroyed property, an occasion for licentious behavior, or what? The one essential feature, according to Bracken, was that it had to be defined so as to maintain the “otherness” of First Nations; without that contrast, Euro-Canadian superiority would disappear (64). On the other hand, the inability to define what the legislation banned, meant that initially words, not practices, were banned (77). Subsequently, when definitions were supplied, missionaries and Indian agents warped the behavior that they observed to bring it into concordance with the requirements of the law that they sought to enforce (124). In time, potlatch became a label applied across cultures, albeit one with differing shades of meaning between its practitioners and outsiders (108).

At the broadest level, this volume is an extended essay about the cultural determination of misunderstanding. Bracken is explicit that administrators did not/could not accurately define the activity that they were banning. There was no concrete, bounded referent capable of singling out a behavior, known as potlatch, that was similarly understood by its practitioners, by judges and juries, by administrators, and by the public. The ban was supported by the fundamental assumption of white superiority, the taken-for-granted belief that Western civilization was in the vanguard of humanity, justifying the marginalization and dispossession [End Page 358] of native peoples. The imperialist mentality also explained the administration’s disregard of Indian attempts to justify the condemned behavior. Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs, informed critics who accused the government of ignorance that “we probably know more about the aboriginal custom of the potlatch than do the Indians themselves” (220).

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