Agnes Alfred

Oil on Canvas, 24 x 30, 1984

Agnes Alfred, Granny Axu
c. 1889-1992
Educator, Elder, Artist, Activist
Kwagiutl (also known as Kwakwaka’wakw)

Agnes Alfred
  • Born on Village Island near Alert Bay, British Columbia.
  • Jailed for her part in the “last” potlatch held in her area in 1922.
  • Participated in the re-enactment of the potlatch when it was filmed by the National Film Board.

“The potlatch was given to us as our way of expressing joy. All people are given their ways of doing things. And the dancing is our way of being happy.” - Granny Axu

In 1922, Agnes Alfred was arrested for dancing at a potlatch ceremony at a time when outward expressions of First Nations culture were seen as a threat to Canada. The anti-potlatch law was not removed from legislature until 1951. Agnes was born around 1889 in Village Island, B.C. and died in late 1992, witnessing drastic changes in the Kwakwaka’wakw way of life along the way. Her prodigious memory, broad knowledge and standing as a noblewoman — and eventually an elder — among the Kwagiutl allowed her to pass along knowledge, tales and skills to succeeding generations. She was one of the last people to remember first-hand, or to be taught by practitioners, the customs and practices of her people before the major European incursion changed these forever. Though she had very little Western education and knew only a few words of English, this amazing woman offered historians and ethnographers detailed explanations of names, dances and rituals, and passed on traditional practices and skills. The preservation of her people’s history is her legacy.

For more information about First Nations in B.C., resources available at UBC, or information about these individuals, visit the Resources section.