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A potlatch is a gift-giving festival and primary economic system practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and United States. This includes Heiltsuk Nation, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, and Coast Salish cultures. The word comes from the Chinook Jargon, meaning "to give away" or "a gift"; originally from the Nuu-chah-nulth word paɬaˑč, to make a ceremonial gift in a potlatch. It went through a history of rigorous ban by both the Canadian and United States federal governments, and has been the study of many anthropologists.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (February 2012)|
At potlatch gatherings, a family or hereditary leader hosts guests in their family's house and holds a feast for their guests. The main purpose of the potlatch is the redistribution and reciprocity of wealth. The potlatch also provided an opportunity for families to mark life occasions formally. Births, deaths, adoptions, weddings, and other major events were and are formally witnessed.
Different events take place during a potlatch, like singing and dancing, sometimes with masks or the real regalia, such as Chilkat blankets, the barter of wealth through gifts, such as dried foods, sugar, flour, or other material things, and sometimes money. For many potlatches, spiritual ceremonies take place for different occasions. This is either through material wealth such as foods and goods or non-material things such as songs and dances. For some cultures, such as Kwakwaka'wakw, elaborate and theatrical dances are performed reflecting the hosts' genealogy and cultural wealth. Many of these dances are also sacred ceremonies of secret societies like the hamatsa, or display of family origin from supernatural creatures such as the dzunukwa. Typically the potlatching is practiced more in the winter seasons as historically the warmer months were for procuring wealth for the family, clan, or village, then coming home and sharing that with neighbors and friends.
Within it, hierarchical relations within and between clans, villages, and nations, are observed and reinforced through the distribution or sometimes destruction of wealth, dance performances, and other ceremonies. The status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods. Chief O'wax̱a̱laga̱lis of the Kwagu'ł describes the potlatch in his famous speech to anthropologist Franz Boas,
We will dance when our laws command us to dance, we will feast when our hearts desire to feast. Do we ask the white man, 'Do as the Indian does'? No, we do not. Why, then, will you ask us, 'Do as the white man does'? It is a strict law that bids us to dance. It is a strict law that bids us to distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you are come to forbid us to dance, begone; if not, you will be welcome to us.
Dorothy Johansen describes the dynamic: "In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his 'power' to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his 'power' was diminished.
Celebration of births, rites of passages, weddings, funerals, namings, and honoring of the deceased are some of the many forms the potlatch occurs under. Although protocol differs among the Indigenous nations, the potlatch will usually involve a feast, with music, dance, theatricality, and spiritual ceremonies. The most sacred ceremonies are usually observed in the winter.
It is important to note the differences and uniqueness among the different cultural groups and nations along the coast. Each nation, tribe, and sometimes clan has its own way of practicing the potlatch with diverse presentation and meaning. The potlatch, as an overarching term, is quite general, since some cultures have many words in their language for various specific types of gatherings. Nonetheless, the main purpose has been and still is the redistribution of wealth procured by families.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, gifts included storable food (oolichan, or candlefish, oil or dried food), canoes, and slaves among the very wealthy, but otherwise not income-generating assets such as resource rights. The influx of manufactured trade goods such as blankets and sheet copper into the Pacific Northwest caused inflation in the potlatch in the late 18th and earlier 19th centuries. Some groups, such as the Kwakwaka'wakw, used the potlatch as an arena in which highly competitive contests of status took place. In some cases, goods were actually destroyed after being received, or instead of being given away. The catastrophic mortalities due to introduced diseases laid many inherited ranks vacant or open to remote or dubious claim—providing they could be validated—with a suitable potlatch.
The potlatch was a cultural practice much studied by ethnographers. Sponsors of a potlatch give away many useful items such as food, blankets, worked ornamental mediums of exchange called "coppers", and many other various items. In return, they earned prestige. To give a potlatch enhanced one's reputation and validated social rank, the rank and requisite potlatch being proportional, both for the host and for the recipients by the gifts exchanged. Prestige increased with the lavishness of the potlatch, the value of the goods given away in it.
Potlatching was made illegal in Canada in 1884 in an amendment to the Indian Act and the United States in the late 19th century, largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it "a worse than useless custom" that was seen as wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to civilized values.
The potlatch was seen as a key target in assimilation policies and agendas. Missionary William Duncan wrote in 1875 that the potlatch was "by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized." Thus in 1884, the Indian Act was revised to include clauses banning the Potlatch and making it illegal to practice. Section 3 of the Act read,
Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the "Potlatch" or the Indian dance known as the "Tamanawas" is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not more than six nor less than two months in any gaol or other place of confinement; and, any Indian or other person who encourages, either directly or indirectly, an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, or who shall assist in the celebration of same is guilty of a like offence, and shall be liable to the same punishment.
In 1888, the anthropologist Franz Boas described the potlatch ban as a failure:
The second reason for the discontent among the Indians is a law that was passed, some time ago, forbidding the celebrations of festivals. The so-called potlatch of all these tribes hinders the single families from accumulating wealth. It is the great desire of every chief and even of every man to collect a large amount of property, and then to give a great potlatch, a feast in which all is distributed among his friends, and, if possible, among the neighboring tribes. These feasts are so closely connected with the religious ideas of the natives, and regulate their mode of life to such an extent, that the Christian tribes near Victoria have not given them up. Every present received at a potlatch has to be returned at another potlatch, and a man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts. Therefore the law is not a good one, and can not be enforced without causing general discontent. Besides, the Government is unable to enforce it. The settlements are so numerous, and the Indian agencies so large, that there is nobody to prevent the Indians doing whatsoever they like.
Eventually the potlatch law, as it became known, was amended to be more inclusive and address technicalities that had led to dismissals of prosecutions by the court. Legislation included guests who participated in the ceremony. The indigenous people were too large to police and the law too difficult to enforce. Duncan Campbell Scott convinced Parliament to change the offence from criminal to summary, which meant "the agents, as justice of the peace, could try a case, convict, and sentence". Even so, except in a few small areas, the law was generally perceived as harsh and untenable. Even the Indian agents employed to enforce the legislation considered it unnecessary to prosecute, convinced instead that the potlatch would diminish as younger, educated, and more "advanced" Indians took over from the older Indians, who clung tenaciously to the custom.
Sustaining the customs and culture of their ancestors, indigenous people now openly hold potlatch to commit to the restoring of their ancestors' ways. Potlatch now occur frequently and increasingly more over the years as families reclaim their birthright. The ban was only repealed in 1951.
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- Athabaskan Potlatch
- Gift economy
- Guy Debord, French Situationist writer on the subject of potlatch and commodity reification.
- Koha, a similar concept among the Māori
- Kula ring, a similar concept in the Trobriand Islands (Oceania)
- List of bibliographical materials on the potlatch
- Moka, another similar concept in Papua New Guinea
- Potluck (folk etymology has derived the term "potluck" from the Native American custom of potlatch)
- Pow wow a gathering whose name is derived from the Narragansett word for "spiritual leader"
- Potlatch, Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved on 25 November 2011
- Potlatch. Dictionary.com. Retrieved on April 26, 2007.
- Aldona Jonaitis. Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch. University of Washington Press 1991. ISBN 978-0-295-97114-8.
- Seguin, Margaret (1986) "Understanding Tsimshian 'Potlatch.'" In: Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience, ed. by R. Bruce Morrison and C. Roderick Wilson, pp. 473–500. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
- Atleo, Richard. Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview, UBC Press; New Ed edition (February 28, 2005). ISBN 978-0-7748-1085-2
- Mathews, Major J. S. Conversations with Khahtsahlano 1932–1954, Out of Print, 1955. ASIN: B0007K39O2. 190, 266, 267.
- Franz Boas, "The Indians of British Colombia," The Popular Science Monthly, March 1888 (vol. 32), p. 631.
- Dorothy O. Johansen, Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest, 2nd ed., (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 7–8.
- (1) Boyd (2) Cole & Chaikin
- An Act further to amend "The Indian Act, 1880," S.C. 1884 (47 Vict.), c. 27, s. 3.
- G. M. Sproat, quoted in Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin, An Iron Hand upon the People: The Law against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast (Vancouver and Toronto 1990), 15
- Robin Fisher, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890, Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 1977, 207.
- An Act further to amend "The Indian Act, 1880," S.C. 1884 (47 Vict.), c. 27, s. 3. Reproduced in n.41, Bell, Catherine (2008). "Recovering from Colonization: Perspectives of Community Members on Protection and Repatriation of Kwakwaka'wakw Cultural Heritage". In Bell, Catherine, and Val Napoleon. First Nations Cultural Heritage and Law: Case Studies, Voices, and Perspectives. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-7748-1462-4. Retrieved 6 February 2011.
- Franz Boas, "The Indians of British Colombia," The Popular Science Monthly, March 1888 (vol. 32), p. 636.
- Aldona Jonaitis, Chiefly Feasts: the Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1991, 159.
- Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin, An Iron Hand upon the People: The Law against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast (Vancouver and Toronto 1990), Conclusion
- Gadacz, René R. "Potlatch". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 27 November 2013.
- U'mista Museum of potlatch artifacts.
- Potlatch An exhibition from the Peabody Museum, Harvard University.
- University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections – Oliver S. Van Olinda Photographs A collection of 420 photographs depicting life on Vashon Island, Whidbey Island, Seattle and other communities around Puget Sound, Washington, from the 1880s through the 1930s. This collection provides a glimpse of early pioneer activities, industries and occupations, recreation, street scenes, ferries and boat traffic at the turn of the century. Also included are a few photographs of Native American activities such as documentation of a potlatch on Whidbey Island.