This is an extraordinary photograph taken on a warm summer day in 1907 on the Nisqualy delta. It shows the give away during a potlatch of Nisqually and Puyallup people. At the time, potlatches were marginally legal social practices that were outright illegal in some political juristictions and condemed as a pagan ceremony from many pulpits.
In the picture, the woman sitting at the table is sharing her wealth with a large assembly of family and neighbors. The standing man is distributing coins and cloth wrapped gifts according to the names being read and recorded by the men seated at the table. In the foreground are the gifts in folded cloths and baskets and in the background, under the shade of the trees, are the people who share her community and respect her act of generosity.
After the Canadian government criminalized potlatches at the end of the 19th Century, American policy toward native people in the Pacific Northwest followed with regulations against cultural give away gatherings, native language use and even home or public schooling for native children. By the time this picture was very privately made, folks were dressed in western style clothes, shaded themselves from the hot sun under smart umbrellas and kept time with fine gold watches. But my eye is drawn to the proud, dignified lady seated comfortably on a cushion in the lower right. She seems to be guarding tradition from behind a gaze that has seen history and found wisdom and she is certainly not shy about having her picture taken breaking somebody else’s law.Potlatch

Written by tacomahistory

This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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