I. Understanding Eurocentrism
II. The Potlatch ceremony
III. The 1884 government ban on the Potlatch ceremony
Eurocentrism: a Focus on the 1884 Government of Canada Ban on the Potlatch Ceremony
Eurocentrism is the belief that the culture in European countries is superior to other cultures. People judge the cultural practices and beliefs of others by the standards of their own culture and conclude that their culture is better than the others. Societies have different cultures based on different factors that make people come together and adopt a certain custom that evolves into a tradition, which is passed down from one generation to the next. When people from different societies come together, they face traditions they are not used to and the most common reaction is to judge the other person’s culture based on the one they are used to. This is how Eurocentrism rises when the people in the European countries view the cultures of other societies as inferior. It arises not only in culture but also in products that may be believed to be of superior quality based on their origin; a European product may be viewed as superior simply because it is from a European country.
In the 1880s, the Canadians had a practice performed by the North-West Coast Natives, where they celebrated the hereditary name of the host, as well as presented gifts of possession (Robbins and Dewar 2011: 4). This ceremony was called the Potlatch ceremony and its aim was to, “maintain the strength and social unity of the group” (Steckley and Letts 2011: 83). The rank of the party hosting the ceremony was established based on the quantity of the gifts they gave away; the more the gifts the host gave, the higher his rank in the Native Canadian society was deemed to be. The ceremony was, however, banned in 1884 by the Canadian government. This ban was declared after numerous protests by the church and a spread of rumors that the natives were becoming hostile. It all began when the Canadians started using the European products and the natives started competing for hierarchy (Aikenhead and Michell, 2011: 34). The competition led some of the natives to destroy their property in the belief that their wealth was so much that they had no need for some of it.
The church was against what they considered to be pagan practices and it strongly objected the practice that encouraged pagan traditions. The church viewed the indigenous practices as inferior because they were alien to the Christians; the native people used instruments such as drums and masks, among others and had unique dances (Steckley and Letts 2011: 86). This difference unnerved the Christians, who reacted by protesting against the practice and claimed it was not right. The protests contributed greatly to the banning of the ceremony in 1884. Decades after the practice, a group of people who were top ranking members of the Kwakiutl were arrested and a great number imprisoned (Robbins and Dewar 2011: 6). Their possessions were given away to museums and people who collected art. In 1951, the ban on the Potlatch ceremony was lifted, but the property remained in the museums until 1975 (Aikenhead and Michell 2011: 43).
The church and the western community at large rejected the practices of the natives of North-West Canada because they were not in line with their norms, which they believed to be superior and correct. They did not understand the traditions of the natives; therefore, they dismissed them and made all efforts to eliminate the traditions. The ban on the Potlatch ceremony is a good example of how Eurocentrism affects culture.
Aikenhead, Glen and Herman Michell. 2011. Bridging Cultures: Indigenous and Scientific Ways of Knowing Nature. Don Mills, Ont., Can: Pearson Education.
Steckley, John and Guy Kirby Letts. 2011. Elements of Sociology: A Critical Canadian Introduction (2nd ed.). Don Mills, Ont., Can: Oxford University Press.
Robbins, Julian A. and Jonathan Dewar. 2011. “Traditional Indigenous Approaches to Healing and the Modern Welfare of Traditional Knowledge, Spirituality and Lands: a Critical Reflection on Practices and Policies Taken from the Canadian Indigenous Example.” The International Indigenous Policy Journal 2 (4).