Photograph by Aaron Johanson

Witness (Quamichan Potlatch, 1913), 2014

Witness (Quamichan Potlatch, 1913),
Image:: 7 × 8 in.
Paper: 12 × 12 in.
Copperplate etching, ed. 10
Printed at the Sitka Center for Art & Ecology by Julia D’Amario / Kathy Kuehn
Photograph by Aaron Johanson

This image is drawn from a 1913 photo of a First Nations Quamichan Potlatch, off Vancouver Island. A potlatch is a ceremonial tradition shared by Coast Salish Indigenous people who traditionally occupy the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada and United States. In Chinook jargon, “potlatch” (or patchitle) means “to give”. I like the vision of ecstatic giving, as some potlatches were rumored to have so many gifts, particularly folded and stacked blankets, that they actually would touch the ceilings of the longhouse.

Potlatches were and continue to be part of the Coast Salish economy and a means for displaying wealth and prestige in the community. In 1913 this was also a demonstration of civil disobedience, as Potlatches were banned by the Canadian and US governments from 1885 to the 1950s. In this image, a blanket is literally flying in the air, as the host family casts gifts from a rooftop porch to the crowd below. I have come to think of blankets as transportation objects, both physically and metaphorically. When I look at this image and think of others looking at the image, we inadvertently join the crowd and become witnesses to this ongoing tradition. This print was a study for a larger hand stitched work titled Witness.