Author Tags: Aboriginal Authors, Biography
"Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and everything will be added unto you." -- Chief James Sewid
James Sewid was born in Alert Bay on December 31, 1913. The surname Sewid means “paddling towards the chief that is giving a potlatch.” His paternal grandfather acquired the given name James because he had worked for Governor James Douglas. Soon after James Sewid’s father was killed in a logging accident on Village Island in 1914, a large potlatch was held at Alert Bay during which James Sewid, as an infant, received several additional names including Owadzidi, meaning “people will do anything for him because he is so respected,” and Poogleedee, meaning “guests never leave his feasts hungry.” The latter phrased was repeated as the title of his autobiography Guests Never Leave Hungry (1969), prepared with the assistance of James P. Spradley, an assistant professor of psychiatry and anthropology at the University of Washington.
Raised on Village Island and at Alert Bay, James Sewid began to fish on his grandfather’s boat at age 12 and married a high-ranking girl at age 13. He became a skipper in 1934 and bought his own fishing boat in 1940. In 1945 he moved his family from Village Island to Alert Bay where he became the first elected chief of the Nimpkish First Nation. Active in the Anglican Church, the Hamatsa Society and the politics of the Native Brotherhood of B.C., Sewid was particularly influential in the revival of the potlatch among the Kwakwaka’wakw. “… and it just came to me,” he wrote, “that it would be a good idea to bring the potlatch custom and the dancing out to the surface again and let the public see it because it had been outlawed and lost. I had the idea that we wouldn’t go and do it the way they used to do it when they gave people articles to come and watch the dancing. The way I figured it was going to be the other way around, like the theatres, operas, or a good stage program which was put on and the people had to pay money to get in.”
In 1955 James Sewid was selected as the subject for a National Film Board documentary about reviving Aboriginal traditions called No Longer Vanishing. “I think the biggest problem to be solved and the most important is the land question,” he said. “We are non-treaty Indians on the coast and I think we should be compensated for our land.”
As one of the leading proponents of the Big House project at Alert Bay, Sewid organized representatives from other tribes to create more interest in Indian crafts. “It will also give our young people the chance to keep alive the culture of their people,” he said. Initial meetings were held with Simon Beans of Alert Bay, Charles George of Blunden Harbour and Chief Henry Speck of Turnour Island. Construction began in 1964.
Chief James Sewid died at Campbell River on May 18, 1988. His daughter Daisy Sewid-Smith of Campbell River has continued his legacy of constructive activism.
Sewid, James P. Guests Never Leave Hungry: The Autobiography of James Sewid, a Kwakiutl Indian (New Haven and London: Yale University, 1969). Edited by James P. Spradley.