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Hydah Indian Potlatches, Dancing, and Totems

This custom of distributing property prevails more or less among all the northwestern tribes. The potlatch is usually preceded by a feast, also provided by the donor. They are never prompted by a spirit of unselfish generosity, but are given as a means of acquiring popularity and influence, for the compensation of labor performed, in satisfaction for injuries done, and sometimes as a means of revenge. The greatest potlatches are given by the chiefs, either for the purpose of obtaining or retaining the chieftaincy. On such occasions the feasts are sometimes prolonged for days, and hundreds of blankets distributed. Whenever a great house or carved pole is erected, there is a feast and potlatch for all who assist in the work. They are also held on occasions of tattooing, when females arrive at maturity, and as a part of the funeral ceremony. In most instances a record is kept of the property dispensed, and an equivalent, if not already received, is expected at some future potlatch.

Dancing and Masquerading

The Hydas are fond of dancing, and display great ingenuity in devising many grotesque and fanciful costumes for wearing upon such occasions. Every beast, bird and fish almost of which they have any knowledge, is represented in some form--the heads of bear, seal and other animals are worn upon their heads, and also hideous masks, with moving eyes and lips The costly "na-xin", or blanket, woven from the wool of the mountain goat, is thrown over the shoulder; curiously carved rattles are held in their hands, whistles imitating owls, wild geese, loons, eagles and other animals, are blown, drums are beaten; castanets, small hoops upon which numerous puffin beaks are suspended--shaken, birds' down is scattered until it fills the air and covers the performers, who, with a swinging, slouchy movement, dance for an hour at a time, rattling, whistling, singing and grunting. There are reception dances "Skaga" and "Hi-ate" house-building dances "Skadul", the "Kata-ka-gun" dance when the house is completed, and the "Skarut" dance, preceding a distribution of property and also on occasions of tattooing and death. The latter is performed by a single man, naked with the exception of a breech-cloth, wearing a hideous mask on his head. He runs at large through the village, and simulating an infuriated wild beast, seizes dogs, tears them in pieces, and eats the raw flesh. Nearly all these dances have been abandoned at Massett and Skidegate, but most of them are still practiced in those villages not yet reached by the missionaries.

Totems and Crests

There are five separate totems or crests among these people, established, apparently, to avoid too close blood relationships. These are "Koot", (eagle), "Kooji", (wolf), "Kit-si-naka", (crow), and "Sxa-nu-xa", (black bear and fin-whale united). The several tribes are supposed to have been originally about equally divided under these different totems. Marriage between those of the same totem is forbidden, and the system is perpetuated by the children adopting the totem or crest of the mother.

Official Report of the Exploration of the Queen Charlotte Islands for the Government Of British Columbia, 1884

 

Hydah Indians


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