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Broken Coppers

Broken Coppers
Detail of Broken Coppers in the Potlatch Collection

T̕łakwa "Copper"

The information on the Copper is from a letter written on April 16th, 1919 by a man named Wawip̓igesuwe’ on behalf of the ‘Namgis First Nation, petitioning the anti-potlatch law. The portion referring to the importance of the copper in our culture is as written:

"We now come to the part that affects us most in this custom, not only ours, but all the other tribes. In those days people that had sons to marry or maybe wanted a wife himself would hear of another man’s daughter, and would want to marry her, particularly if she was of a Chief’s family. When the young couple is married the father of the woman would give to his daughter’s husband canoes, food, a name and other different things, which have a part in our dances and a copper. This is what a man gets when he is married to a woman and that is what has been passed on until today. The bridegroom would give a feast with what he got and would invite everybody from his own tribe or other tribes to partake of what had been given to him, and we wish to continue this custom as it helps our old people and young people as well, each one gets his share and can use it for his own purposes, either to get clothing or other things. The coppers that we got in the old days were different from those we got from the white men. These coppers were as they were found, only beaten out with a hammer and we have a lot of money invested in them. The copper is the main holder of our customs because the value of them is rising and as they are passed on to others they increase in value, the copper forms the Chief strength of a man who intends giving a feast and he sells the copper and what he gets for it he uses to make the feast. All the other things that we have would be quite useless to us if the copper is thrown out of our custom; it is used in marriages in order to get the things to give the feast. If a father would die and leave the copper to his son, no other man could get the copper except the son who would hold on to it until he thought it time to sell, then he'll figure out what it will bring. When he is finished figuring he will call all the people together and will dance for them and give what it is worth and afterwards whatever is given away if any of the other Chiefs return it to him, and it will be of use to him for many years. These coppers are sold for a large sum of money, and no one will force a person who sells it to give it all away, so that he always has considerable left for his own use. When a man buys a copper he pays a deposit on it and the next man may buy from him and pay a deposit on an increased valuation and so it may be through the hands of four or five and still payment not be completed. If our custom is done away with these coppers will be useless, and will entail a big loss, as all those who have an interest in them will lose all they have put in. Each tribe has its own coppers, and each copper has its own value. In the old days there was no money and these coppers were a standard of value but increased in value each time they changed hands. When the white man came and we could earn wages in cash for our labor we invested our savings in coppers and used them the same as a white man would do with a bank and would always expect more back then we put in. We are giving you a list of the coppers belonging to the ‘Namgis Tribe and their values, other tribes have their own coppers so that you will see the great financial loss that would entail on us if our custom is suppressed"

Charles Nowell’s notes on the Copper, recorded by Phillip Drucker

"If a man doesn’t sell a copper to give a feast, the feast is looked upon as only his work. It’s a big thing amongst the Indians, in the old days, to sell a copper when you do anything"

-Chief Charles Nowell


Kadzitłam : "bride price" (the money that lets you walk into your wife’s house). The bride’s father pays back 2 – 3 times as much as the bride price, plus furniture, dishes, etc. when Chiefs quarrel, a man who hasn’t repaid for his daughter is called "bullhead" because he grabs bride price and swallows it down.

Uxt̕ła’akw : "first repayment of the bride price".

Sap̓id: "second repayment of bride price".

When you first get married, if you marry my daughter, you get her and she goes to you with so many blankets or money, which is called łiwe’ (marriage mat); which is for you to give a Potlatch or feast in your house. So when it gets in the house, the groom calls the people for a Potlatch or feast. He would invite his own tribe or if big enough, could invite outside tribes. Later, when the father-in-law has a big copper, his daughter comes and carries this copper out. The speaker takes the copper and says, "This is Uxt̕ła’akw of the princess of the Chief (and mentions the name of copper)". Then the husband and the people call on a man saying, "You are strong enough to bring it to us". So the man carries the copper over to their side. Then the speaker says, "Now let us sing a "Thank You" song, to show we are thankful for what the Chief has done". Then they begin to sing the tribal Thank You song. Then they hold the copper and say, "Now this copper is going to be sold, to give a Potlatch to you Kwagu’ł, to you Kwixa (naming the four tribes of Fort Rupert), to you Mamalilikala, etc., (naming the tribes in their ranking order). I have this copper ready to sell to anyone who can buy it". (The speaker announces this for the husband, who is the one who will sell it and give a Potlatch).

Anyone who is able to and thinks they can buy it asks for it and it is given to him. He puts an "advance" (down payment) on it, (may do right then or later on). When the time for the husband to call people together, he calls his people and the buyer knows he must collect his loans and pay for the copper. He says to the seller of the copper, "I will give you $500.00 advance, so you must pay me $1,000.00 (seller has loaned out to his own people, so he doesn’t have to give advances)". Then goes ahead with the buying of the copper, this may take a whole day, or even two, to buy copper.

This is where the price of the copper increases, to say the father of the bride paid $5,000.00; there will be $100.00 in each plate, for all to see it when it is counted. The seller’s speaker gets up and says, "Well, now that you’ve paid that much, now well call Owaxalagalis of Fort Rupert to speak". Owaxalagalis says, "Well Chief, you’ve paid that much, but you must remember your name. Every copper that comes to you must be a credit to your name as a Chief. So I ask you to pay more".

He gives $100.00 and a canoe (worth $200.00) more. The husband’s speaker says again, "We’ll call O’wadi of the Kwixa tribe to speak". So O’wadi speaks as Owaxalagalis did and some more is added to the price and they go through all the tribes this way. After all the head Chiefs of the different tribes have made their call for more, the buyer says, "Wa! Stop! I am finished, I have paid enough".

Then the seller and his family are called by the speaker to stand and then the speaker says, "Now you’ve got copper, you say it’s enough. But you have to give these people something to use when they begin to dance". The seller sits down, but his brothers and cousins remain standing, just the men; no women. The buyer counts how many of them and gives e.g., $50.00 to each. Then the seller gets up and asks for his galdasitł (boxes to put blankets, etc., in), this costs $100.00. Then he asks for gwalax t̕amk̕angilał (put blanket on) costing another $100.00. La’ams kamxwitł gaxan (you are going to put eagle down on my head), this costs another $100.00.

Then the seller says, "I am satisfied with what you have paid for my copper. Now it is time for you to be happy and have a dance because you have got that copper". The buyer goes to his house and brings out more money and puts it in with purchase price. After this, the seller asks his secretary who is keeping track of the amounts and who has already figured out how much the Chief needs to Potlatch with. If it is not enough, they begin all over, calling on the 2nd Chiefs to speak (beginning with Kwagu’ł, Kwixa, etc.). "This is a hard place you put me in. I know everything has been settled. You said you are satisfied, so these are not my words, I’m just saying what you would want me to say". (Then to the buyer) "I’m not going to say how much, just give me what you think you want to give".

Then everyone thinks the seller is going to go down the list of all 2nd Chiefs. They are tired of it by now, so they say, "It will take too long, tell the seller to mention how much more he wants and be done with it". They all agree, he goes to the Chief and finds out how much more he needs and then announces, e.g., "Only $1,000.00 more we want". Then the buyer says, "Well, I couldn’t make that. But anyway, gather up the money and blankets and put someone to watch them. Tonight, I’ll see what I can do". So he goes to his friends and borrows, and in the morning he wakes up all the people and pays the $1,000.00 (dłigotaga : "tell how much you want").

The seller has to take whatever he can get. If the buyer is finally stuck, the seller already has guests there who were invited for a Potlatch and can’t send them away without giving a potlatch.

A copper must be bought by the father-in-law to give to his son-in-law; so the son-in-law helps to purchase it, he often gives the most. The father-in-law only goes up to around double of the bride price and the husband supplies the rest. A Chief wouldn’t use a copper he already had (all paid for) to give to his son-in-law. He would buy another.

Sap̓id is the second repayment of the bride price. This does not actually free the wife, although they say this, but this really didn’t mean anything. It does if any serious trouble happens, they could separate, then that is all, it is final. When a bride’s father has completed the marriage repayment, he will say, "She (naming his daughter) is free now, she is going to leave her husband. Any Chief that wants to marry her, get ready!" But in most marriages, the bride did not leave her husband until she died. Lots of old people stayed together all their lives. Even if bride price was not repaid, they could separate, but marriage payment had to be made anyhow.

Da’yu: "advance" (down payment) on purchase of copper to "catch hold of it".

If A has a copper and B wants to buy it, B gives so much da’yu, then when A is ready to Potlatch, he must repay double. It’s kind of a loan; you (A) loan to your own people, who won’t get "advances" to help the buyer loan his money.

If I have copper and you have enough to pay right away, you will tell me, then I’ll stand up in gathering and announce I want to sell it right away. You will sell it cheaper than what I paid; this is called dagiyut, "hold it with head down". This was done sometimes if seller wanted to give a Potlatch immediately, e.g., if son was dead, etc., would do this for a quick sale.

He would announce that he would sell the copper cheap. Someone might ask, "How much would he take?" I would mention how much and you would say, "I’ll buy it". When you buy, you put down how much I said and I would say, "That’s done, that’s what I asked for it". But if you wish, you could add more, but only if you wish to (there won’t be Chiefs making speeches to get more).

This is good for the buyer because he gets the copper cheap and gets a good name, because there is no trouble with other people over collecting loans, etc.

Lots of times long-term purchases had trouble. Sometimes seller wanted to Potlatch and the buyer couldn’t raise money to pay for it, this is a disgrace for him.

If I am breaking a copper and break a piece and give it to a man I had quarreled with; and another piece to a real enemy of my old people each time I Potlatch. I will cut off a piece for each, until I am to the cross piece, which I have to give to real enemy of my old people. That cross piece when I give it to this man, every Chief who wants a copper goes to him and asks for it. Even if copper is worth 20,000 blankets (worth 50 cents each), you could sell it for 1,000 blankets to the first offer to buy. Then he goes and buys parts given to other people, to mend copper might cost him only 1,500 blankets to buy up pieces. He can sell new copper for about 3,000 blankets.

t̕łakwa : "copper"

u’gwami : "face"

ga’lasi : "crosspiece"

uxsti : "whole lower part (except for crosspiece)"

unut̕łami : "sides of face"

unut̕suxsdi : "sides of lower part" eg parts on lower either side of crosspiece

K̕alta : "to cut off with a chisel"

ku’gwa : "to break in two"

In the old days, we used to break coppers in half by bending, the copper breaks in two; the face came off from the lower part and gave the u’gwami to the person they were breaking it for. The breaker kept the lower part including the crosspiece (didn’t break that again). When he gave another Potlatch, if the rival had meanwhile, broken a copper for him, could then give his rival the lower part. If the rival later did the same, the event was dead heat (they were even).

If the rival didn’t do something right away, the breaker might give the bottom to kinsman, to sell privately, to get blankets to loan out. The buyer would then try to buy the face (privately) and have it riveted back together. Then the copper was renewed with the same name, although not worth so much, (pieces worth 5,000 blankets might be worth 1,000, then the value depended on this and the cost of mending, sold for double the total cost). The breakee, in this case, could later get a copper and break it and still square himself off (no shame to relinquishing "face"). Mostly, not in enmity, in olden days copper breaking; they just wanted to use any expense to run up total.

A man with blankets to loan out would wait for a time when someone buying copper and collecting debts, would stand up and announce he had so much to loan out and for how long. When ready to "do something" (buy copper, give Potlatch, etc.), could call in his loans. The only other way would be if for eg., a brother buying a copper and to help, the young man would announce that he needed help from his brother, and brother’s debtors must pay off (even if might not really need). Then eventually the brother would repay double, to help the younger brother get started. He can’t force loans on people, a la Boas, people who need blankets, come ask for them (repeated).

gwi’ła : "to loan out (long term, until ready to Potlatch)"

There is another way to lend money for 50%, to lend for awhile; in a month or up to 6 months you can ask for payment; although you are not going to Potlatch, at 50% payment.

dłikumas : "lend for a short time"

Sometimes when you gwi’ła you have to wait 5 to 10 years before you get paid, lent on short term loans, you can call in and re-loan. This is done to the lender’s benefit because he can get more action on his money.

A man giving a grease feast, they always say that he wants his fire to be a big fire; so he gets a copper and breaks it for someone and throws it on the fire. He does not mention the name of the breakee, it’s always someone he’s already quarrelling with. If he has 2-3 rivals, each takes it as affront to himself (a disgrace). He just said he wanted his fire to burn brightly. A rival could send for a copper and put it on the fire "to quench it". Then there is a better tribe, so the host sends his people to get a canoe and break it up and put it on the fire. Then the rival sends for blankets to "smother it". They weren’t usually really mad, although sometimes they got mad.

"After they finished a quarrel, all the people would have turned out to hear them, they could really talk (sounded like they meant it); afterwards, they would laugh over it. They talked about Ancestors, who’s was higher, you couldn’t tell from listening to them argue".

-Chief Charles Nowell


To cut copper, he starts with the u’gwami "face". When he wants to break it, he calls on some men who know how to cut; they xwalta "to mark" (chalk) the piece to be cut first, then he holds it up and shows it to the people. Then one man holds the copper; and another with the chisel and hammer makes three false strokes, and on the forth, he hits and the Chief gives his Dzunuk̕wa cry, then he cuts it.

Nowadays, they cut small fragments off because today, coppers are so valuable.

If a Chief dies and he has been breaking coppers with other Chiefs, his son or brother will get a whole copper and really break (cut) it. Giving pieces to principle rival cutting half of the face off (right or left side doesn’t matter). This is "a coffin for the dead Chief" (done at the funeral Potlatch when people are called to sing mourning songs). If the Chief has already cut copper for someone, he cuts another strip and says "this is a bone of the dead Chief"; then throws it on ground for anyone to pick up. Sometimes he does this with whole copper until there are only remnants of the copper; then the heir would name the rival, "This is for you, but I’m not going to give it to you". Then throw it out for some poor young man to pick up and carry off (to peddle privately).

When a man is defeated, it is finished; he can’t say anything to his victor. But he goes ahead and attends Potlatches, etc. If he doesn’t break copper but announces he will give Potlatch, instead, they will all praise him. The people prefer to get gift than to see copper breaking. But his rival can talk about him, or if he quarrels with anyone, they can mention it. He has got to be pretty humble.

A man can cut lots of small pieces out of an expensive copper for lots of rivals; rivals with less valuable copper, square off (answer) by cutting and giving much larger pieces.

The Coppers in the collection are listed as belonging to:

Johnny Drabble UCC-80.01.004 (shared ownership with John Dick), 602 (fragment). K̕wamxudi UCC-80.01.007 John Knox UCC-80.01.005 Louis Wilson VII E 431. Abraham (Russell Smith) UCC-80.01.150, UCC-80.01.151 Amos Dawson UCC-80.01.158 Pangwid UCC-80.01.030 Waxawidi VII E 436, UCC-80.01.026 Billy Hayugwis UCC-80.01.028 a, b Amos Dawson / Joe Hadani UCC-80.01.153 Gwi’mo’las UCC-80.01.152 Ed Whonnock UCC-88.06.032 a, UCC-88.06.032 b "Unmarked Coppers" UCC-88.06.031, UCC-88.06.029 UCC-80.01.006 UCC-80.01.008 UCC-88.06.027

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