'We took a giant leap forward': Northern B.C. First Nation holds 1st potlatch in 73 years

For the first time in more than seven decades, the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation hosted a potlatch celebration on its traditional territory.

More than 200 people gathered at the Uda Dune Biayo, House of Ancestors in Prince George for the historic event on Friday. 

Potlatch, also called balhats, is a spiritual and cultural ceremony integral to governing, sharing wealth and strengthening clans. 

The ceremony was banned by the Canadian government from 1884 to 1951. Though it was a criminal offence to take part in a potlatch feast, some communities still hosted small ceremonies in secret.

Elder Clifford Quaw, 70, is a residential school survivor and didn't learn many of his nation's traditions growing up.

"I never expected the potlatch to be reintroduced into our community," Quaw said.

"We took a big giant leap forward to try and unify the nation as a nation."

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In order to plan for the ceremony, Quaw and several other Lheidli elders met with neighbouring nations to learn and share knowledge about potlatch traditions. 

"It's very humbling to see that, and I want to see more so we can unify the Lheidli community," he said.

Friday's ceremony was the first potlatch for many people who took part.

Francois 'Guy' Prince, from the nearby Nak'azdli nation, helped guide the proceedings and explain potlatch traditions. 

Prince said potlatch ceremonies have many strict protocols that dictate where people sit, how food is served and how gifts are given. 

"Those things are all going to fall into place through time, but today is a special day for bringing it back to Lheidli and having a celebration," said Prince.

"We need to be very forgiving."

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Student focused

This particular potlatch focused on strengthening the partnership between the Lheidli T'enneh and the school district in Prince George.

"This is kind of a contract," said Lheidli T'enneh Chief Clay Pountney. "Everybody witnesses that we're in it together, and our kids are going to be well taken care of."

As part of the ceremony, principals from schools located on traditional Lheidli T'enneh territory were given nation flags and plaques recognizing the relationship. 

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Pamela Spooner, director of Aboriginal education for School District 57, said it's an important commitment.

"Children are an investment for Indigenous communities," Spooner said. "It's powerful for Lheidli to help build them up and create stronger students for the future."

Spooner said Friday's potlatch is even more significant in light of the B.C. government implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The bill mandates the province to bring its policies and laws into harmony with the aims of the UN declaration.

"School District 57 will always involve Lheidli in any discussions that have to do with their kids," she said.