Let’s Potlatch! Part 2

Lesson: It’s good to be outside your comfort zone.

As mentioned in a previous blog, Yukon Commissioner, the Honourable Judy Gingell, her mother, my young son and I headed out to let everyone know about the upcoming Commissioner’s Potlatch as we all dug into the work of planning a big celebration just a few months away. The all-female planning committee, which met regularly in the Grand Chief’s office (with my young son sitting on the couch reading Southern Tutchone language books) were also all members of the Crow clan. If you are not familiar with the First Nation culture (also known in other countries as ‘Indian’ or ‘Indigenous’ or ‘Aboriginal’) of the Northwest, there are two clans- Wolf and Crow.

Within this matriarchal society you are born into either the Wolf clan or the Crow clan and there are many rules and protocols that govern traditional life – Wolf can’t marry Crow, Crow can’t marry Wolf, children follow their mother’s lineage. If Crow plans a Potlatch, Wolf does the work and so on, reversing itself as needed. As a matriarchal society, the role of women is very important and very powerful. Women are the strength in the community, and Elders of greater influence. When it comes to the clan system…if your mom is Crow, you are Crow. If your mom is Wolf, you are Wolf. It is a beautiful system and works to protect families, the culture and more. The joke amongst our working group was I was Wolf, since all the women on the planning committee happened to all be Crow. They were having a Potlatch and I was doing all the work, so I was, by default, Wolf. With that, the affectionate title of White Wolf began, originally in Tlingit, and it spread across the North. I loved it, it made me feel I was affectionately part of the group. The one thing that I always maintained while doing these projects knee-deep in the First Nations culture, I was always true to myself and my family’s culture, while really not being very involved living 3,000 miles from home. I was always a go-between, an important connector of cultures and really belonging to neither but respectful of both. I always remembered the importance of that role through the years and into my work in the mining sector.

The Potlatch was a huge success, with about 3,000 showing up from all walks of life and cultures. We had a day of traditional activities, dancing and drumming, a feast and gifts.  I found myself alone in the park at 11 PM the night before, elbow deep soaking a moosehide for an Elder so she could get some rest before fleshing the hide the next day. All of this wonderful celebration was on a beautiful sunny day by the Yukon River set off by an eagle that flew over before the day started. A wonderful sign.

My favorite part of the day was in the evening during the blanket dance at the end of the feast. A matriarchal society, the blanket dance is the one dance to celebrate fathers and their nation. The dancers and drummers from Teslin, Yukon lead the dance, calling people up by the nation of their father. This was also the part of the Potlatch where you thank the cooks, and put money or gifts onto a blanket with the proceeds going to pay the cooks. The Teslin group worked their way through nations and races but I could see people attending the Potlatch from outside the First Nation community did not know how to conduct themselves. They were reserved and sat watching, not participating as was the intent of the celebration.

I spoke with the Grand Chief and Commissioner and said this wasn’t going the way we wanted it to go, we wanted people to feel part of the Potlatch and not like observers. So, I grabbed some money and jumped out front of the stage (see picture).I started dancing like an idiot, devoid of any dancing skills whatsoever. I looked so silly, thinking I was doing a great job I was letting it all go and embarrassing myself as much as possible, letting others know it’s all okay… just dance. I had also inadvertently danced like a man and later after the laughter ended I learned how and why men and women dance the way they do. But before that I had people in tears laughing so hard during my dance, only to be topped off when the Teslin group calling me back for an encore-which I happily gave them.

Janet doing her best dance moves at the Commissioner’s Potlatch

At the end of the blanket dance the leader of the Teslin group explained to everyone that the proceeds usually go to the cooks but today 50% of the proceeds would be going to dance lessons for Janet.

It was all a great day and the lessons learned have been carried with me into my work in the mining sector. I truly was blessed to have the opportunity to work with amazing people to make the Commissioner’s Potlatch a reality. I also hope I have honored all the time the ladies spent with me to teach me their culture by carrying that respect and understanding into my work and life.

Throughout this entire experience I had no idea the impact this was having on my son.  


About the Author

Janet Sheriff

An innovative entrepreneur, Janet brings her extensive experience in all aspects of strategic planning, management, indigenous affairs and communications to start ups, new ventures and the mining & exploration sectors. Janet focuses her entrepreneurial spirit, leadership skills and vision to create new opportunities, award-winning innovative programs and new ways of conducting business. Her strong commitment to community engagement, sustainability and inclusion provides her the proven ability to work effectively and respectfully in cross-cultural environments.