Dispatches

Blind Man Dance

Randy Fred

In March I had the huge honour of receiving my first traditional Nuu-chah-nulth name, given to me by my ten-year-old granddaughter Christina Howard. The naming ceremony took place during our family potlatch, hosted in a hall in Port Alberni as a memorial to three of my siblings and one brother-in-law who all passed away in the past three years. The potlatch started at 1: a.m. on Saturday and finished at 6: a.m. on Sunday. We fed four hundred people for lunch and six hundred for dinner, and provided sandwiches and snacks throughout the morning.

Traditionally, Nuu-chah-nulth people receive several names throughout their lifetime. New names are given at various stages of life, including puberty, adulthood, old age and important or critical incidents. Most families have a bank of names from which to choose.

Christina gave me the name “Wickee Cussee,” which translates to “No Eyes.” This is certainly not a traditional name, but I like it. I even prefer it to the word that translates to “blind.”

At the potlatch, my daughter Teoni was also given a new name, which translates to “Openit Woman.” My late mother-in-law, Ida Shish, used to smile whenever Teoni, as a baby, used to say “open it.” Ida was raised near Hotsprings Cove, on the Openit Peninsula; openit is a Nuu-chah-nulth word meaning “place of calm waters.” At the age of twelve Ida went through a rigorous twelve-day ritual when her father gave her the chieftainship for the Manhousaht Nation, whose home was at Openit and Hotsprings Cove.

Due to a strange situation with my tribe, Tseshaht, many of our songs cannot be sung in public. So my nephews, Martin and Aaron Watts, composed new songs and adapted old ones for our family potlatch. For me they used a traditional hand drum and beat to accompany everyone singing “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. The song was sung during my dance, which we called the “Blind Man Dance.” I danced with Christina, who guided me. Traditionally, four witnesses are selected to remember given names. My four witnesses danced blindfolded behind me, each with a guide. At the end of the dance each witness had to use the white cane they were carrying to find the gift we gave them for being a witness. It was unusual for a potlatch, but it was fun. After all, the purpose of memorials with my people is to end the tears and mourning for the loved ones who are being memorialized.

Many potlatches are held in Port Alberni by families from all over Nuu-chah-nulth territory. Besides memorial potlatches, others are hosted for name giving, passing on of chieftainships, celebrations for a variety of events or occurrences. In the past they were also hosted for political and economic activities but these do not take place anymore as Nuu-chah-nulth tribes are governed by the Department of Indian Affairs, today administered by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

Before Contact only chiefs hosted and organized potlatches. They would be held over four days. The host chief would give away everything they owned. They would leave the potlatch with nothing. They had faith their territories would provide everything they needed. Every song was a prayer to the Creator. Every person had a specific place they sat. Children were expected to be quiet and well-behaved.

What made our family potlatch so pleasant this year was that we had signs made up to ask for people to be quiet; at most potlatches I’ve been to that task is left to men with very loud voices, constantly yelling, “Be quiet!”

At the age of sixty-eight, I am so honoured to finally have a real name. It doesn’t matter to me it is not a traditional, passed-on family name. What is more important to me is that my ten-year-old granddaughter gave it to me and that she danced with me.

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Randy Fred

Randy Fred is a Nuu-Chah-Nulth Elder. He is the founder of Theytus Books, the first aboriginal-owned and operated book publishing house in Canada. He has worked in publishing and communications for forty years. He lives in Nanaimo.

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