A Haida Potlatch


81 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-88894-438-1





Reviewed by Thomas S. Abler

Thomas S. Abler is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo and the author of A Canadian Indian Bibliography, 1960-1970.


On November 6, 1981, some 400 Indians from up and down the coast gathered in the Haida village of Masset in the Queen Charlotte Islands. They had been invited by the Haida artist Robert Davidson to witness his adoption of Joe David of Clayoquot, Vancouver Island, as a brother. It was also an occasion for bestowing Haida names on the junior members of the community and for the public distribution of gifts to those who came as guests and to those who helped prepare the affair. Robert Davidson characterized the events: “For the last two nights we have celebrated our forefathers, and we have celebrated the future by giving names to our children” (p.79).

Ulli Steltzer was invited to the potlatch by Davidson and his family. She recorded with her camera the preparations for the doings, both the making of gifts and the gathering of foods, and later the potlatch itself — the speakers, the singers, the dancers, and the spectators. Nearly two years later she obtained the co-operation of Davidson and others in producing this book. Her 59 photographs reproduced in this volume are illuminated by excerpts from interviews conducted by Steltzer with participants and by portions of speeches given at the potlatch, which had been recorded on videotape.

The result is an impressionistic view of Robert Davidson’s potlatch. There is no detailed narrative of the events, nor is there an analysis of the relationships among participants. It is not a work of social anthropology. It is, though, a convincing documentation of the vitality of Haida culture and of the energy the Haida place in maintaining their identity. Its photographs are a pleasure to view and the commentary is a delight to read.


Steltzer, Ulli, “A Haida Potlatch,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/37795.