Seattle Yacht Club Dons Faux-Native Costumes for Annual “Potlatch”

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:

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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.

50 thoughts on “Seattle Yacht Club Dons Faux-Native Costumes for Annual “Potlatch””

  1. I know this is a dead horse by now, but one last thought: have you ever thought this is one of the reasons Trump won?

    Go with me here for a moment on this; I didn’t vote for him either, but a lot of people did. They had all sorts of reasons, but I can’t help but wonder if one of them is that a lot of people (like myself) are fed up with Political Correctness, and folks getting themselves ginned up with a lot of ‘manufactured outrage’ over what, at the end of the day, is nothing; a bunch of piffle.

    People were fed up with self-appointed Social Justice Warriors with too much time on their hands running around calling people ‘racists’ and ‘cultural appropriators’ for harmless little dress-up games, whether it’s here or a college costume party. They’re tired of being shouted down as bigots, homophobes, etc., when they dare to raise reasonable concerns over changes in how we do things (see: transgender bathrooms, et al). They’re sick of being told: ‘You just don’t get it’ when they question why groups like Black Lives Matter try to make not only innocent victims of police brutality into martyrs, but thugs as well (Michael Brown, anyone?). And finally they’ve had enough with an elitist, out of touch City Council that views all the drug-addicted vagrants and thieves as ‘Urban Martyrs’ whose filthy tent camps and RV-cum-opium dens/stolen bike ‘chop shops’ are Urban Pietas that cannot be disturbed.

    So yes, voting for the Cheeto Bandito (oh, did I offend Mexicans? So what; grow a pair) will probably be a case of ‘cutting of their noses to spite their faces, but for some of them, looking at 8 more years of ‘same old, same old’ PC rubbish, I can see it.

    So congratulations, kiddies. Years of persecuting people who are too polite to tell you to MYOB and get real has helped bring us all to a place where you’re going to have a lot more dire things to worry about than a bunch of rich white yachties playing Indian. Hope you’re happy.

  2. European descendants who banned this now do it since the 40s because the aboriginals they tortured mentally and physically;
    Taking their children , banishing their culture .
    And passing down this hate to wealthy inheritors with no reason but their family practices in humouring it .

    Many native children lost their culture and so on.
    I don’t know anything about native culture or history because of these people who raped families of their children .
    We are the lost children to this day.

  3. So this silliness spreads from college campuses on to greater society?
    The left in this country is insane, and getting worse as time goes on.
    Liberals are intoxicated with the power of grievance.

  4. Everyone needs to relax, chill a little, and get some perspective. It was a bunch of folks playing ‘dress up’; it’s not like they were re-enacting Wounded Knee. I see nothing here to suggest they were trying to denigrate Native Americans. You have to consider intent.

    No one person or group can claim to own the rights to a ‘culture’. There are no Intellectual Property laws to enforce here. When you say these folks were committing ‘cultural (mis)appropriation’, what gives you the right to speak for all Native Americans? People have been borrowing from one another’s cultures pretty as much as long as there have been people. The Ancient Romans ‘culturally appropriated’ the Greek pantheon of gods, and gave them Roman names. And don’t get me started on our own culinary and musical heritage (calling Elvis!). Am I committing ‘cultural appropriation’ if I make yakitori (I’m not Japanese)?

    This is PC run amok; where do you plan on stopping? Will Ms. Barnett next be busting a kid’s Halloween party because some tot came dressed as a ninja or Pocahontas? I’m all for a society where we treat each other with dignity and respect, but when we become such a bunch of passive-aggressive, anally retentive, uptight PC busybodies and killjoys, then I think we’ve gone a bit far.

    I wonder if there aren’t some other elements in play here, like class envy, perhaps? Would this have been news if it didn’t happen at an upscale exclusive venue?

    1. This feels like an effort by a few to promote the college PC silliness in normal society.
      I love for some to question this tribal guy further…Ask him how wearing costumes at a party somehow denigrates his “tribal culture”.
      Not like they were running a casino and naming it after a tribe, complete with graphics, eh?

      1. if it was just silliness why did the Seattle Yacht Club stop allowing free access to the full album of photos of the picnic? Where they ashamed?

    2. Except that you want anyone who emigrates to America to abide by “American Culture”.

      Having pride in one’s culture and not wanting people to portray it using simple and closed minded props is not ridiculous.

      Pretty sure if Natives, Black people, Asians, or whomever threw a party and they all wore high water pants like Erkel and did the Carlton, White people everywhere would call “Foul!”.

    3. OK I’m Haida, my Mother was Haida and born in Hydaburg. She was one of the three founders of the Seattle Indian Center. I am a card carrying Native American. I am offended, I could point you at any number of PNW Coast Natives that would be offended. Would you have a Blackface Picnic? this is no better than that. The Seattle Yacht Club members dressed in plains indians costumes for a culturally very important event as far as a PNW Coast Native is concerned. A Potlatch is very important in all the nations along the coast, it is a time of name giving, contract signing, weddings and many many other events and not just a drunken costume party. Did you invite any Native? Why are you so angry, is it because you know that there was something inherently wrong with what you did?

    4. You do realize that Potlatch was specifically outlawed for actual American Indians (like the ones these idiots are mocking) until the 1970’s, right? Like, I mean we all know white people are rootless and cultureless and have no real substance (bland…) so they have to go around playing dress up with REAL humans’ identities because they’re just kind of lost…but really?

      Did you ever learn about the history of what happened to LIVING people from potlatch cultures? If it werent for the abuses these people endured (which…belive me…makes the Auschwitz seem like a luxury resort) there wouldnt be a “so rich we’re stupid and insensitive” class. Like…I wonder how many of these people have ancestors who owned slaves and killed indians…

      Even the fact that you bring up socioeconomic “class’ is such a profound projection of YOUR cultural values (because white culture really has nothing else really to value except money) thats its ludicrous.

      Dont get me wrong, these folks can keep White peopling as they do; we’re used to it..

      Im still going to think theyre idiots and never invite them to a REAL tribal ceremony.

      You have to have something called humility if youre ever going to be accepted at one of those.

      A few spare IQ points wouldnt hurt either.

      P.S; intellectual property is a thing and IS THE FOUNDATION OF POTLATVH CULTURE.

      Friggin White people…jesus…and you wonder why 5/6ths of the world HATES having ya’ll around.

      1. Wow. You had me until your “friggin white people” comment. So we’re all the same? That’s not right, either.

      2. @Sam George,
        I forgot to clarify; whiteness as an identity is rooted in racism. It was an intentionally created identity, meant to unite fair-er skinned Europeans of various social classes in the combined effort to subjugate darker-skinned people.
        Folks of European descent who don’t engage in racist behavior aren’t “white”; they’re folks of European descent.
        They either maintained their actual cultural identity, or if they weren’t able to,wish to distance themselves from the legacy of white supremacy.
        My grandma is of European descent, but her brother is white. It’s a choice in mentality and values. Do you see what I mean? I just forget to clarify when I’m annoyed.
        You should read up more on the distinction though. It’s legit.

    5. You’re right. We should all go around in black face, and you can wear KKK hoods, because hey, it’s just dress up, right? !?

  5. Wait, wait, wait.
    Transmen can pretend to have a cock and that’s supposed to be 100% ok and EVERYONE just has to accept it… but you think you’re going to stop rich white people from pretending to understand native american culture? DON’T OPRESS MY ADOPTED IDENTITY! lol. You people are a hoot.

    1. Somebody totally scored in the lower ranges of the Cognitive Abilities Test…

  6. Hi! I was a Camp Fire Girl, starting in about 1962. The entire paradigm is based on Native American culture. We wear ceremonial gowns with symbols, we earn beads by doing good things, we sing songs, we have campfires, and here is our motto: “Worship God, Seek Beauty, Give Service, Pursue Knowledge, Be Trustworthy, Hold on to Health, Glorify Work, Be Happy.” The major focus is love and appreciation of nature. Is this a horrible thing? Are Camp Fire Girls ripping off the Native Americans? Or are we sharing a good thing? SYC has done the Potlatch for 70 years – probably longer by generations than most Native Americans were even aware of Potlatch. It is simply a family gathering. Why, in this time of conflict, are people getting worked up about this? Why don’t we all just share a good idea – just like the concept of Potlatch!!

    1. Whether or not Camp Fire Girls are horrible is neither here nor there. And who is getting “worked up?” I found this to be an outstanding example of journalism putting the spotlight on a specific local example of a larger societal issue. This story was not written with the smug outrage of some disdainful activist, it was reported respectfully and with actual interviews with relevant people. Cultural appropriation is the kind of thing that is hard to see as problematic when it’s not bothering you, like being “color blind” as an approach to racial inequality (aka ‘all lives matter’). But even long standing traditions, or flags, can be offensive.
      A couple other thoughts: You don’t have to talk about Native Americans in the past tense, they exist. Coll Thrush’s book Native Seattle examines the fact that they have helped shape urban Seattle from the beginning, and still do, despite what little credit they’re given. Those costumes serve to perpetuate a stereotype of Indians who exist only outside of our modern city.

      1. Thank you Cam! I use the term in past tense because it was the rituals from the past that created the symbolism that was imitated. The present rituals would not inspire something like Camp Fire Girls.

    2. What part of native people to the area don’t you understand?
      Potlatch was a ceremony that was appropriated from the natives and your groups/clubs of people have completely given their friends and yourself included misguided representations of the cultural event.
      As far as the other non potlatch related items you covered. That’s another rip off and misrepresents a lot of sacred items in the native culture.
      Native people were here long before you and I.

    3. Shannon, as far as to Natives not knowing what a Potlach is, could it be because it was outlawed, was it because they had their language and culture beat out of them like my mother did at Sheldon Jackson? I ask you a simple question, at any time in Girl Scouts did you have a Native American teach you any of those skills? Did you even have any Native American speak to you during your time in the Scouts?
      “Worship God, Seek Beauty, Give Service, Pursue Knowledge, Be Trustworthy, Hold on to Health, Glorify Work, Be Happy.”
      Am I suppose to worship a god that did everything in his earthly power to eradicate us? Seek Beauty, close your eyes and tell me what you see…. I see my Naan I see my Chan I see my aunties. Give service, my mother was one of the three founders of the Seattle Indian Center and taught me to give and support all people with a loving and open heart. Pursue Knowledge well your post pretty much sums up what you think of that. Be Trustworthy that’s a good one. Hold on to Health another good one. Glorify Work the last good one. Be Happy, does that mean that you have to put down other people to be happy? My people, the Haida Nation, have been doing Potlatch since we where put on this earth and there are many culturally important processes that go into making a Potlatch and it has a very specific meaning to PNW Coast Natives.
      What would your reaction be if a group of Natives sitting around a fire happened to start that fire with an American flag? It wouldn’t happen because Natives have an understanding of the importance of and legalities of burning a flag and it wouldn’t have the implication that it does it the states we wouldn’t do it OUT OF RESPECT.

      1. I would not care if anybody burned an American flag. It means nothing to me. I was not in Girl Scouts. I have no idea about your past – because my family was in Sweden! We got here pretty recently, and had our own issues that caused us to leave our “homeland”. Personally, I don’t believe in god, so I can’t speak for your interpretation. When I was 8, 9, 10, it was just a framework for guidance. That’s all. I’m just old enough to be able to report what was happening – not defending or explaining or taking credit or blame. I truly hope your practices make you happy. Mine do.

    4. I too was in campfire, though I dont remember any of the nonsense you describe. Then again, we had legitimate Native Americans in our group so maybe the troop leader knew better thanto make up some BS and write it off as “native american”.

      I mean, natives arent the only humans to have beads and most indigenous cultures (plurl there sweetie) don’t have gods anyways. Being happy isnt necessarily a requirement to being indian either…

      I get that you have happy (deluded) memories of what you think American Indian cultures are all about, but its part of the White People Problem; you guys turn us into charicatures and dehumanize us in the most degrading ways.

      1. Hello, Bella! I’m looking at my copy of Book of the Camp Fire Girls, 1962. The “nonsense” I describe is actually written in this guidebook – there was no fabrication of rituals, or writing them off as anything. It’s an insightful look into the culture in 1962 – believe me I am not saying it is right, or wrong, or defending it, especially considering I was apparently about 8 years old when I participated. It looks like a framework for organizing young women in activities. That’s all. No caricatures (please note spelling, sweetie, as well as “plurl” – plural, “isn’t” with a contraction and apostrophe), no dehumanization, no degradation. I’m from Capitol Hill in Seattle. Our group was multi-cultural, and, as was common then, we didn’t even know who was which race or religion. That was irrelevant. Like John Lennon says, Imagine!

      2. @ Shannon (cowardly? Can’t let me reply to your comment?)

        I’m typing from a phone, and sometimes my fingers slip; however, being multilingual I’m not too concerned with the spelling of English words (it’s just an illiterate offshoot of Latin anyways).
        I looked Campfire Girls up; you’re correct…it is supposed to be a rather nauseating heap of trash. My suspicion that our troop leader dialed down the racism due to a lack of future racists to indoctrinate must not be too far off. It was 2003 after all (yeah you old bag; you’re too stupid to have figured out its not Ok to play dress up with other people’s race and you’re pushing 60? Wow…)
        I don’t understand why you’re having a problem with being called out for your innate tendency to dehumanize people like me; peace love and cookies or not, misrepresenting indigenous cultures and ascribing Eurocentric nonsense to them isn’t helpful. It’s yet another way white people use and abuse people from other cultures. Why cant campfire girls be described as it is? A Eurocentric Christian association for young women to learn community and outdoors safety; why the racial component? What purpose does teaching false and misleading BS serve? I’ll tell you; it’s because racists like you ted to ascribe mythical magic and shit to us, which appeals to your young and impressionable. We may as well be unicorns to white people.
        You’re the one who should be on the receiving end of snarling disdain, not I for having to point it out to you.

      3. Bella? Bella? Am I just an idea for you to spew hatred at? I’m well into my sixties and if you knew me as a person, you would probably die of embarrassment for your little fit of hate. But go ahead, you need to know that you are the one with hate in your heart, not me, so really describe your disdain, go for it! I don’t know why you can’t respond to me other than calling me a coward – I don’t work computers well and I don’t have to. Not my problem. When you think of hating me, dream up the person you hate the most – and then imagine that I might be the opposite and you are reflecting in that mirror as a sad, sad person. Get help.

    5. OHMYGOD!!!!!!!

      What unbelievable crap thinking….Do you live under a rock?

  7. I lived right up the road from them from age 8 to 18 and 22 to 23 ish. They had a private playground only for members we couldn’t play on. And they forced the park next door to tear down the beautiful gazebo so it wouldn’t attract more park goers. They also fought a legal battle with parks and recreation over a patch of shoreline. I let my short corgi dog under their fence to poop on their lawn because of how lame they were.

    1. Wonder if they will figure out who I am. Either way, you guys could have seriously been cooler neighbors instead of suing everybody. I mean come on, we might not have paid you dues as members but it sure helps to be a good neighbor.

  8. I was at this event and I can attest to the fact that there was absolutely no mockery of any First Nations People. Potlatch by definition is when members of all kinds different tribes come together to feast and celebrate. The costumes were worn to celebrate and were not meant to represent any one specific tribe or region. These are simply what is available to purchase at local costume shops. In past years there has been performances at this event by actual Native American Tribal Memberswho gave the Yacht Club their blessing and saw the event as something positive. It saddens me that someone with a cynical attitude has nothing better to do than attend this event, take photos of their fellow club members and then go on to publically criticize a positive family event.

    1. Seriously?

      Next time we decide to “honor” black people I’ll be sure to host a minstrel show (seeing as you are part of the African American club, whatever that is).

      And stop calling this BS a “potlatch”.

      Those were outlawed for us legit natives until the 1970’s.

      This is so offensive on so may levels, for reasons none of these ignoramouses would ever willingly understand.

    2. Potlatch is when the wealthy in the tribe, as a sign of their wealth, give everything they own away for the benefit of the tribe or those in need. Did you give anything, not everything, but anything away. A Potlatch is also a religious celebration. Are you guys going to do a Jewish celebration next year and dress up like stereotypical Jews. Finally, The Headdress is an extremely sacred object and is equivalent to a Purple Heart received by wounded serviceman/women. Will you be wearing fake Purple Hearts next year?

    3. next year are they going to have a Blackface picnic? I’m sure that all of those mistral singers didn’t mean to represent any specific nation or men. The fact that you used Potlach and dressed up as Plains Natives and then say you are honoring PNW Coast Nation, really?? There are many many dance groups in the Seattle area that would perform for you, did you ask any? Your definition of Potlatch is so off of the mark. It was not a “Potlatch by definition is when members of all kinds different tribes come together to feast and celebrate” and if you asked any PNW Coast Nation you would have found that out. It was not a party or feast, it had cultural and economic power far beyond any party. It was so powerful that Canada outlawed the practice and was heavily discouraged if not outright outlawed by the United States. They don’t do that for “just a party”.

    4. Well AfricanAmerican Club Member you need to do some more research because you have no idea what a Potlatch is, not what a Potlatch was, as you put it because Potlatchs are still an important part of Native Life now. The thing is that it was a club member and they thought that they were “celebrating and honoring” the yacht club.

  9. “Though I wear a suit and tie, I’m still a Red Man deep inside.”

    Why are they wearing suits and ties? That’s offensive to Euro-Americans.

    1. Blatant genocide is to blame for Eurocentric standards of dress being imposed upon native (an all) people 😉

      If I could be seen as equally professional in my cultural dress, I would.

      But white people and their racist ways kinda ruins that for us.

  10. Is dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians on Thanksgiving a similar offense?

    1. Yes.

      There’s lot of literature out there on this if you have five minutes to google it.

  11. check out the SYC’s power boat event with Mariachi band, pinatas and margaritas … they are truly oblivious, for them its still 1963.

    1. But I’m sure they all think the Washington Redskins is a racist name for a baseball team….

      1. No, actually.

        I’d prefer to be poor and a decent human being.

        Now I’m an upper-middle-class decent human being. I was born poor though.

        Pretty sure I’ll be “wealthy” in the next 15 years at this rate.

        Yeah, I titally preferr being brown and aware of the deluded perspectives plaguing the innately racist white upper class in society…

      2. No I have no envy of the Seattle Yacht Club at all. I sail on a ship that dwarfs anything that any member has. I have a rich and varied Native culture. I have no need to denigrate anyone else or their culture to feel better about myself, I find myself fulfilled as a human being by being curious about other cultures and learning about them.

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