The large crowd of assembled guests, seated in the “big-house” according to rank, is hushed by the sudden slow throb of the taut skin drum. A lone dancer is before them. On his head a portrait mask represents and important ancestor — it is always kept turned in a sideways profile; over his shoulders is a long cape, embellished across the back with the main crest of the family giving the potlatch — the whale crest.
The Welcome Dance, to welcome the invited guests and signal the start of the formal proceedings of the potlatch, has begun.
The drum beat, slow and steady, is accompanied by singing. The dancer’s outstretched arms and uplifted hands spread wide the cape to fully reveal the design of the leaping whale. Always with his back to the guests, the dancer progresses sideways, a step with each beat of the drum. The masked head suddenly swivels to the opposite direction and the dancer retraces his steps, finally to reverse direction once again and return to the centre.
The magnificent Whale crest, in full view of the guests at all times, declares pride in the family lineage while reaffirming the identity of the family giving the potlatch.
Four times over the dance is performed. The potlatch has begun.
Joe David’s vigorous design of the Welcome Dancer clearly shows the portrait mask of the dancer in profile (top centre), flanked by the outstretched human arms and hands that support and spread out the dance cape to display the whale crest. At left, the head of the whale supports the blow hole, shown here as a human face with its open mouth as the spouting hole. The dorsal fin curves up between the dancers arms, while the tail flukes fan out on the lower right.
Joe David was born in 1946 at Opitsaht, a Clayoquot village on Meares Island, on the western shore of Vancouver Island. The family resettled to Seattle, Washington, in 1958—and they moved frequently during his teen years. His father, Hyacinth David, was a respected chief and elder of the Clayoquot nation, and even though he had removed his family from Nuu-chah-nulth territory, he remained connected to the village and practiced the traditional values and ceremonies.
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