An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast


230 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88894-695-3
DDC 390'.089'972





Reviewed by James S. Frideres

J.S. Frideres is Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Social
Sciences at the University of Calgary and co-author of Prairie


This book’s thesis is that the antipotlatch law, while an instrument
of coercion, has been overemphasized in past research. The authors point
out that demographic and economic factors reduced the number of Natives
participating in the potlatch more severely than did Section 149 of the
Indian Act. The standard analysis suggests that Native people were the
passive objects of external influences. Rather, as the authors note,
Natives were active participants, shaping the government’s responses
to the potlatch.

The authors begin by providing a historical context for the potlatch
and for the Tamananawas, explaining who they were and how they operated.
The book then traces how the potlatch became an object of hatred to some
Indian agents, how this feeling was transmitted to government officials,
and how the seemingly benign activity (which actually fits into the
capitalist mode of thinking) became the focus of the Indian Deputy
Superintendent. The authors contend that one major reason certain
individuals were against the potlatch was that they felt it promoted the
prostitution of young Indian girls.

Using various published and unpublished archival materials, the authors
provide an account of how Natives were charged, prosecuted, and judged
by Indian agents, then sent to prison even after juries “of their
peers” had refused to find them guilty.

Not surprisingly, the book raises questions it cannot answer. The
authors point out that each Native group adapted differently to the
Europeans’ intrusion regarding the potlatch. Why some groups were
ready to give it up while others persisted in carrying out this illegal
activity remains to be investigated.

An Iron Hand Upon the People provides a detailed history of the
implementation of the antipotlatch law of 1885, which remained part of
the Indian Act until 1950. The authors have captured the Native
people’s bewilderment when the law was implemented and enforced. The
book illustrates how a subordinate group resisted the actions of the
dominant group, but were eventually forced to acquiesce.

This short, well-written book would be an excellent choice for anyone
interested in the potlatch and in the government’s reaction to such a


Cole, Douglas., “An Iron Hand Upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,