A potlatch is a ceremonial gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the United States. The Canadian government’s potlach ban began in 1885, and underwent many amendments to strengthen it until its removal in 1951. Library and Archives Canada’s holdings include a wealth of material on the potlatch, including many letters and petitions on the suppression of the custom as well as efforts to continue it. Of special interest is the correspondence of Kwakwakawakw Chief Billy Assu, Indian Agent William Halliday, and British Columbia Chief Justice Matthew Begbie.
In the midst of the potlatch ban, Chief Billy Assu wrote to the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs, J. D. MacLean, in 1919, explaining the potlach or “our old custom of giving away.” In describing the roots of the celebration, and the desire to retain it, Assu stated: