Kathryn Southworth


Canada  Christmas 1891

Dear sir you are most welcome to Memkumbli,
may the spirits of my longhouse light upon you.

‘Tis pity you cannot abide potlatch,
 – a sorry offence against all virtues
of economy and improving labour.

Won’t you, just this once, sit down and eat with us?
Join with our dance, bear spirit guide your steps.
Stay for the gifting – or if you will have no gifts
then I’ll destroy my copper shield, worth all of two canoes.

No wonder native peoples’ degredation!
throwing away a fortune just to mark
another girl’s first bleeding!
– Yes, I have heard such sentiments before.

But sir, remember your own Jesus and his story
about the merchant who gave everything for one choice pearl:
such is my honour, and my gifting
honours you and all our company here.
Come, do you refuse gifts from your friends
upon the birthday of your lord?

Well, now I see how the owl surrounds the moon
the woodsmoke clouds your eyes and the shrill pipes
have dulled your weary brain; ‘tis time
to show you to a bed. Good rest
and soft dreams be yours.

– My people, now we can begin. Wanistalkilia!
All will be cleared from house and home today.





Kathryn Southworth is a retired academic living in London. She has published reviews and poems in a number of anthologies and magazines including South Bank Poetry and South.


Note: The potlatch celebrations of northwest coast indigenous peoples involved elaborate gift-giving and were so disapproved of by church and government that the practice was banned and practitioners imprisoned. Wanistalkilia (meaning clearing out the house) was the name given to rare and valuable copper shields which might be ritually destroyed at a potlatch.

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