The Seattle Yacht Club, a nearly 125-year-old pleasure-boating group that hosts events around the region, recently held its annual “Potlatch” event on Bainbridge Island. Billed as an homage to traditional First Nations potlatch feasts, the event features food, boat races, a potluck dinner, and children’s activities. In a 2009 blog post describing the history of the event, one club member and potlatch organizer wrote, “Believe it or not, in the mid-1940’s members of the Seattle Yacht Club chose this tradition on which to base a family event to be held at their newly acquired property on Bainbridge Island in beautiful Port Madison.” The Port Madison Reservation is home to many members of the Suquamish Tribe.
If you’re starting to cringe a little at the notion of a bunch of wealthy, apparently all Caucasian yacht owners appropriating a tradition from the Native people their great-grandparents forced from their ancestral homes, read no further. Instead, have a look at these images, taken during the most recent Seattle Yacht Club potlatch and posted online:
Gabe Galanda, a tribal attorney best known for his legal advocacy against tribal disenrollment, says his reaction to the images was “to kind of literally shake my head—and I’m not a guy who gets particularly offended by this stuff. It happens all over the place to any non-majority race or ethnicity in the US.”
Galanda says that while some tribes west of the Plateau (which extends to what is now central Washington) did wear buckskin dresses, the overall mishmash of war paint, headdresses, drums, and vests that the yacht club members wore to celebrate their own “potlatch” could be summed up as “stereotypical Indian.” Or, to put a finer point on it, “making a mockery of Native Americans.”
“I think this is sadly typical. There’s been an appropriation, or misappropriation, of tribal customs and traditions and ways, really, since 1492,” Galanda says. And although Galanda says he’s “somewhat cynical regarding these controversies,” he adds, “this one did strike me as ridiculous. To think that presumably progressive, affluent members of the majority society in a very liberal place like Seattle would dress up and behave like this sort of shocked me.”
Shawn Otoroski, a longtime member of the Seattle Yacht Club who returned my call to the organization, calls the annual event “a celebration of family and gift-giving” that commemorates the Native potlatches that were banned by the Canadian and US governments in the 19th century. Asked about the outfits in the photos from this year’s yacht club potlatch, Otoroski notes that “inland tribes also had potlatches,” and says she “didn’t sit and call everybody who may or may not have been involved” in planning this year’s event. The yacht club did not put me in touch with any of the individuals pictured in the photos, nor did a yacht club member who provided a link to the images know any of them personally.
Is it offensive for a group of (presumably, and by all appearances) non-Native people to put on buckskin, face and belly paint, and feathers and dance around a fire pit in their own interpretation of Native traditions? Otoroski pauses. “I can see that that may be the case, but I’ve never been told that by a First Nations person,” she says. Otoroski adds that she was not involved in the planning of this year’s event and says she didn’t know much about how and why the costumes were chosen.
“Every Native American growing up probably felt ashamed of their skin, culture, or class as a result of being poor and Indian,” Galanda says. “I guarantee you at some point in every Native American’s life, every single native has had this moment of truth where, because to their race or class, they have been discriminated against by those in power. … ‘I couldn’t wear my eagle feather to graduation.’ ‘I didn’t know what to say to that cop when I was falsely arrested or even falsely imprisoned.’ And that gets internalized.”
Galanda says it isn’t a single event like the yacht club’s potlatch, but many events over the course of life as a member of a minority culture, that causes injury. “And when you add up the insult, and what may be benign injury over the course of one’s life, it does have an effect,” he says. Seeing white people emulating Native traditions by dressing up in cheap costumes and posing in front of totem poles, for example, “may not cause profound injury in that moment, but over the course of time, [that sort of thing] does cause damage,” Galanda says.