Let’s Potlatch!

What a gift I was given back in January of 1999 when I was awarded a small contract to organize the first Commissioner’s Potlatch. So, two questions must come to your mind:

  1. What is a Commissioner?
  2. What is a Potlatch?

The first one is simple and easy to explain, the Commissioner of the Yukon is the Governor General (GG) of Canada’s representative. The GG was the Queen’s (now King’s) representative. Now a mostly ceremonial position signing laws and bills, the position ran the North up until representative government in the 1970’s. At the time of my contract, the Commissioner was a lovely lady named Judy Gingell. Commissioner Gingell, or as I knew her, Judy, was also the Grand Chief of the Yukon when the Umbrella Final Agreement and Lands Claims Agreement were settled with Yukon and Canada, granting indigenous governments full powers to draw down, plus land and cash settlements. Judy is a lovely lady but not one to messed with. Commissioner Gingell wanted a celebration, through her office, which honoured First Nation culture, much like she did with teas and balls and other events. So, thanks to Judy, the Commissioner’s Potlatch was born. the Yukon Government threw her $5,000 and she hired me. We will get to the part where a white woman ends up in this prestigious role later…

Me with Commissioner of the Yukon, Honourable Judy Gingell, & Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nation, Shirley Adamson at the Commissioner’s Potlatch Feast

The second question is a bit more complicated; a Potlatch, meaning “giveaway”, is a time-honoured tradition celebrated in the Pacific North-West. Potlatches are spiritual and often were for economic exchange, as well as being used to celebrate or honour important events such as marriage, births and deaths. Unfortunately, the Canadian government banned potlatches long ago, in their efforts to control native spirituality, and the act of Potlatching was deemed a crime and punishable with prison sentences. Reversed in 1951, potlatches began again, usually for funerals, but celebratory potlatches never made a big come back in the Yukon. So, when I took the $5,000 contract to organize the Commissioner’s Potlatch, I was about to organize a celebratory potlatch that had not occurred in the Yukon since 1905 and the days of Chief Jim Boss.

Me with Grand Chief Shirley Adamson, the Honourable Commissioner Judy Gingell and family of Commissioner Gingell at the Commissioner’s Potlatch Feast.

So off I went across the Yukon with Judy, her mother, and my young son, telling every community that would listen that we were having a Potlatch on June 21, National Aboriginal Day, six months away. I told everybody to come, that there will be dancers, drummers, that we will feast and celebrate and of course, that there will be a give-away. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the Yukon Government viewed the Commissioner’s Potlatch as some sort of afternoon tea event. Judy and her colleagues had other plans. Her colleagues, equally powerful women, included: Shirley Adamson, Grand Chief of Yukon First Nations; Maria Benoit, future Chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and Pauline Frost, future Yukon Minister of Justice. By the way, all members of the Crow clan… this will make sense eventually. Stick with me. Stay tuned.

Honourable Commissioner Judy Gingell, Right Honourable Governor General Romeo Leblanc, plus family and friends for the Whitehorse, Yukon visit of the Governor General of Canada (I am in the top right corner)


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.