Samuel potlatch fills Alberni Athletic Hall

With hundreds in attendance, the Alberni Athletic Hall vibrated with Nuu-chah-nulth culture on Saturday, Oct. 21 as the late Wally Samuel Jr. was honoured with a potlatch.

The celebration came just over a year after Samuel’s passing on Oct. 1, 2016 at the age of 48. With parents Wally Sr. and Donna Samuel overseeing the cultural activities, songs and dances filled the afternoon and evening, running into the early morning hours of Sunday.

Performances came from the Samuel family’s Ahousaht First Nation, as well as a group that travelled nearly 2,000 kilometres from northwestern B.C. to represent Donna’s  Gitxsan Nation. As the event took place on Tseshaht traditional territory, performances began with the local First Nation’s singers and dancers. Ditidaht, Hesquiaht and Mowachaht Muchalaht also honoured the Samuel family with songs and dances.

“It’s an opportunity to thank the people that helped us,” said Wally Samuel Sr., adding the potlatch required almost a year of preparations. “This is a way of people celebrating what they remember.”

Born on Oct. 20, 1968 in Prince Rupert, Wally Sr. recalls his late son growing up in the northern B.C. city and Port Alberni at a different time, when children were more apt to engage in physical play.

“He was a fun little boy, a good teenager, playing games, always outdoors [with] sports, bike riding, in a different generation than now,” he said. “They were still outdoors [back then], running around, playing hockey in the street.”

As the potlatch began Cliff Atleo of Ahousaht explained the significance of the event.

“This exercise is really important for our ways, it’s a form of healing,” he said, noting that the potlatch allows Wally Jr. to carry on with his journey “on the other side.”

“There is no separation between us and the other world,” added Atleo. “It’s connected; we are one.”

Wally Jr. came from the marriage of people from two different regions when his father met Gitxsan member Donna Marsden while they attended the Alberni Indian Residential School. The institution brought a variety of First Nations people from across the province to Alberni, resulting in intermarriages and lifelong connections, said Wally Sr., who was at the Alberni school for seven years.

“People don’t realise how many of us still have that friendship,” he said.” That’s the one good thing about residential school. We have lifetime friends; we survived together.”

To recognize the Marsden family’s connection, 18 people from Kitwangak, Kitwancool and Kitseguekla in northwestern B.C. were invited, travelling 1,900 kilometres to participate in the potlatch. The Gitxsan group, who belong to the House of Guxsan, raised over $6,000 to cover the cost of the trip, said Liz Williams, a relative of the Samuel family. The song and dance group practices every week, she said.

“There’s about 90 of us together, but we could only bring a few,” said Williams. “We were taught to make sure that our language and our culture is preserved and passed on to the next generation.”

Gitxsan and Nuu-chah-nulth were spoken throughout the potlatch, showing an important connection to the nations’ ancestry, said Wally Sr. He learned how to speak Nuu-chah-nulth during his childhood in Ahousaht. Fortunately, by the 1960s elders had moved to Port Alberni to support cultural preservation.

“Since the 1960s, we’d go to the Friendship Centre, that’s where we would practice our culture,” said Wally Sr. “My own uncles and aunts were still alive in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. We were always there learning, that’s how we kept it alive, our Ahousaht culture.”