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White gift: the potlatch and the rhetoric of Canadian colonialism, 1868-1936 Bracken, Christopher Joseph


This dissertation examines the irony of Canada's discourse on "Indian affairs" by reinterpreting the postal literature generated around the banning of the potlatch in British Columbia from 1868 to 1936. To explain the logic behind the antipotlatch law, the first section, "Folding," examines a set of texts which draw an absolute limit between Europe and the coastal First Nations. The gift is the privileged sign of this limit: it divides the societies which potlatch from a Euro-Canadian society which claims to be a system of exchange. Ironically, the moment such a limit is put into writing, it folds together everything it sets apart. The second section, "Giving," situates the antipotlatch literature within the context of this ironic fold. By banning the potlatch, Canada aimed to Europeanize the coastal First Nations: to collapse them into the white collectivity even though that collectivity defined itself by excluding them from its borders. To kill the potlatch was to erase the gift, the mark distinguishing Canada from the cultures it wished to absorb. Yet the potlatch which Canada banned did not correspond with the potlatches which the First Nations performed. The legal text gave its own potlatch to the world. The dissertation is, above all, an attempt to explain the mechanics of this textual gift. The antipotlatch law also banned something it called the "Tamanawas" dance, which was alleged to be a form of ritual cannibalism. Section three, "Eating," argues that the effort to kill the potlatch was an act of cannibalistic white nationalism. The two authors of the only serious attempt to enforce the law—William Halliday and Duncan Campbell Scott—interpreted Canada's relation to the First Nations as a relation of incorporation. Their texts think whiteness as an act of mourning, where to be white is to belong to a nation that recalls itself to itself by interiorizing the memory of an aboriginal other who has died. Yet the other refuses to die. The thought of whiteness finds itself tied to, and opposed by, the memory of a death which is projected onto the horizon of an endlessly deferred future.

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