On Tuesday 25 February members of the Kwakwaka’wakw community from the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada performed the Atlakim or ‘Dance of the Forrest Spirits’ ceremony at St Cecelia’s Hall in Edinburgh. This may only be only the second time it has been performed outside The Big House, in Alert Bay, on Vancouver Island.
Big Houses, where this kind of event would usually take place, are sacred spaces for the Kwakwaka’wakw – it is where the magic happens. On the outside Big Houses are painted to look like mythical animals and beings (the one in Alert Bay is a Killer Whale and to enter the building you have to enter through its mouth). Inside they include totem poles, curtains and collapsing walls that with smoke and fire enable this theatrical culture to come alive.
The Atlakim would typically be performed as part of a Potlatch Ceremony. Potlatch means ‘to give away’ and these ceremonies see a Hereditary Chief give away their treasures to those in attendance in return for an acceptance of their status and wisdom. Treasures can include things like coppers and blankets, but the story-telling, dances and music that comprise a ceremony like the Atlakim are also considered treasures in their own right and they belong to specific Chief. The Atlakim is part of Hereditary Chief William Hawkins Box of Treasures and it is thanks to his kind permission this ceremony was able to be performed. Throughout this video Hereditary Chief Alan Hunt and Patricia Nolie introduce each of the various sections. They tell the story of the Atlakim as well as providing insights into the broader Kwakwaka’wakw ways of life.