The Hamatsa Society

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Wow. This is an great photograph. Photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1914

The Wikipedia page about Hamatsa is very interesting. 

The Kwakwaka’wakw are an indigenous group from the Pacific North West Coast (ie, British Columbia.) During the long, dark, wet winters, tribe members traditionally entertained themselves via ceremonies put on by different “secret societies.” These were documented back in the 1880s by Franz Boas, the famous anthropologist. (Modern Kwakwaka’wakw society is probably pretty different, given that life has changed a lot in the intervening 140 or so years.)

According to Wikipedia’s version of Boas’s account, there were four main societies: The war society (Winalagalis), the magical society (Matem), the society of the afterlife (Bakwas) and the “cannibal” society (Hamatsa). 

Hamatsa was the most prestigious. Whether or not they practiced literal cannibalism or something that just sounds like cannibalism remains a matter of debate, because their rituals were pretty secret. 

In defense of the “it’s just a symbolic ritual” argument, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ, followed by the congregation eating it, sounds a lot like cannibalism and has surely confused some folks over the centuries, but no serious Christian literally believes they are committing cannibalism. 

In defense of the “it’s totally real cannibalism” argument, real cannibalism is a thing that sometimes happens and that some anthropologists have been quick to cover up or downplay because they don’t want to say anything bad about other peoples. 

Here is Wikipedia’s account of the Hamatsa initiation rite: 

In practice the Hamatsa initiate, almost always a young man at approximately age 25, is abducted by members of the Hamatsa society and kept in the forest in a secret location where he is instructed in the mysteries of the society. Then at a winter dance festival to which many clans and neighboring tribes are invited the spirit of the man-eating giant [Baxbaxwalanuksiwe]  is evoked and the initiate is brought in wearing spruce bows and gnashing his teeth and even biting members of the audience. Many dances ensue, as the tale of Baxbaxwalanuksiwe is recounted, and all of the giant man-eating birds dance around the fire.

Finally the society members succeed in taming the new “cannibal” initiate. In the process of the ceremonies what seems to be human flesh is eaten by the initiates. Boas describes the hamatsa initiate as eating actual human flesh without chewing. After the ceremony, the initiate is forced to drink large amounts of sea water to induce vomiting, thereby voiding the body of potentially harmful toxins. All persons who were bitten during the proceedings are given expensive presents, and many gifts are given to all of the witnesses who are required to recall through their gifts the honors bestowed on the new initiate and recognize his station within the spiritual community of the clan and tribe.

Based on this account, if I may be so bold as to suggest anything after reading just a few paragraphs on Wikipedia, the ceremony sounds not pro-cannibalism, but anti-cannibalism. Cannibalism is the wild state from which the initiate is removed; he eats human flesh (or symbolic flesh) but is then made to vomit it up; he bites people, but then he apologizes. He goes from feral man-eater to civilized member of the society. 

The picture at the top of the post was taken by Edward S. Curtis, an amazingly talented photographer who documented Native Americans and life generally in the American West in the late 18 and early 1900s. 

Curtis made a film staring the Kwakwaka’wakw, titled “In the Land of the Head Hunters” aka “In the Land of the War Canoes.” It tells the classic story of jealousy over a woman leading to abduction and war. 

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The movie is a little slow, but picks up around halfway through.

According to Wikipedia

In the Land of the Head Hunters has often been discussed as a flawed documentary film. The film combines many accurate representations of aspects of Kwakwaka’wakw culture, art, and technology from the era in which it was made with a melodramatic plot based on practices that either dated from long before the first contact of the Kwakwaka’wakw with people of European descent or were entirely fictional. …

Some aspects of the film do have documentary accuracy: the artwork, the ceremonial dances, the clothing, the architecture of the buildings, and the construction of the dugout, or a war canoe reflected Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Other aspects of the film were based on the Kwakwaka’wakw’s orally transmitted traditions or on aspects of other neighboring cultures. The film also accurately portrays Kwakwaka’wakw rituals that were, at the time, prohibited by Canada’s potlatch prohibition, enacted in 1884 and not rescinded until 1951.[4]

The potlatch was (is) a related ritual involving feasting and gift-giving; a great deal has been written about potlatches–the Wikipedia page probably isn’t a bad place to start if you are unfamiliar with them.

The Canadian government saw them as wasteful because they apparently also involved the destruction of large amounts of property, and so outlawed them. This was an unproductive and stupid law, as Boas pointed out: 

The second reason for the discontent among the Indians is a law that was passed, some time ago, forbidding the celebrations of festivals. The so-called potlatch of all these tribes hinders the single families from accumulating wealth. It is the great desire of every chief and even of every man to collect a large amount of property, and then to give a great potlatch, a feast in which all is distributed among his friends, and, if possible, among the neighboring tribes. These feasts are so closely connected with the religious ideas of the natives, and regulate their mode of life to such an extent, that the Christian tribes near Victoria have not given them up. Every present received at a potlatch has to be returned at another potlatch, and a man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts. Therefore the law is not a good one, and can not be enforced without causing general discontent. Besides, the Government is unable to enforce it. The settlements are so numerous, and the Indian agencies so large, that there is nobody to prevent the Indians doing whatsoever they like.[24]

On the other hand, the destruction of property at potlatches sometimes included the destruction of slaves, at least among the Tlingit. I don’t know if this happened in every society that held potlatches, but killing slaves is a practice the government certainly had an interest in stopping. 

In Tlingit Slavery and Russian Empire: Indigenous “peculiar institution” as resistance to colonialism, 1741-1867, Adam Bobeck quotes Annie Constance Christensen, Letters from the Governor’s Wife: A View of Russian Alaska 1859-1862:

You ask if those [Tlingit] women were put to death? Forget now which of the many slaves you mean. But of course not. Thank God not one has been sacrificed since Hampus is Governor; he has purchased them free on the C[ompany] account, & one slave woman we purchased by a general subscription for 700 R[oubles] B[anco] or 200 R[oubles] S[ilver] — A few months ago the Indians hada great festival. You must know that the conclusion of building new houses, or Barabors as they call them, is a great fete with them, to which they invite all their neighbors at a great distance… Before parting they give away everything they possess, not only all their provisions, but blankets, in one word everything, so that they are quite, quite poor now. At the end of such a fete it is their custom to sacrifice slaves, but before these strangers arrived, Hampus called 7 or 8 of our Teone or chiefs, & forbade them to kill anyone. He promised to give them now & then some present, & to invite them each year to dinner, besides which positively told them, that the moment they attempted to kill one of their slaves, he would fire upon them & their village. The consequence of this was, that they liberated 19 slaves & gave them as a present to the Company. I went with Hampus to see some of them, & expected to see their faces radiant with joy over their liberty. But you could not have guessed they had been doomed to die. To me it was something wonderful as I gazed at them; one was a pretty little girl of 9 – 11 years old…

A little more googling suggests that the Kwakwaka’wakw did it, too, eg: 

The Kwakiutl [Kwakwaka’wakw] Winter Ceremonial changed when blankets replaced animal skins and human sacrifice. This resulted in the emergence of a secular potlatch sometime after 1862…

From Human Trophy Hunting on the Northwest Coast, an article by Joan Lovisek, in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians. It appears that with the arrival of interesting trade goods from whites, the locals had less reason to sacrifice slaves, and so switched (plus they were officially forbidden to do so.) Coppers–large pieces of copper obtained via trade and beaten into a rectangular shape–were sacrificed instead. Luckily for the coppers, they could be repaired and re-sacrificed, and became a kind of currency. 

Of course, destroying goods was never as important as giving them away.