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A potlatch is a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is traditionally the primary economic system. This includes the Heiltsuk, 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 studied by many anthropologists.
A potlatch was held on the occasion of births, deaths, adoptions, weddings, and other major events. Typically the potlatch was 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. The event was hosted by a numaym, or 'House', in Kwakwaka'wakw culture. A numaym was a complex cognatic kin group usually headed by aristocrats, but including commoners and occasional slaves. It had about one hundred members and several would be grouped together into a tribe. The House drew its identity from its ancestral founder, usually a mythical animal who descended to earth and removed his animal mask, thus becoming human. The mask became a family heirloom passed from father to son along with the name of the ancestor himself. This made him the leader of the numaym, considered the living incarnation of the founder.
Only aristocrats could host a potlatch. The potlatch was the occasion on which titles associated with masks and other objects were "fastened on" to a new office holder. Two kinds of titles were transferred on these occasions. Firstly, each numaym had a number of named positions of ranked "seats" (which gave them a seat at potlatches) transferred within itself. These ranked titles granted rights to hunting, fishing and berrying territories. Secondly, there were a number of titles that would be passed between numayma, usually to in-laws, which included feast names that gave one a role in the Winter Ceremonial. Aristocrats felt safe giving these titles to their out-marrying daughter's children because this daughter and her children would later be rejoined with her natal numaym and the titles returned with them. Any one individual might have several "seats" which allowed them to sit, in rank order, according to their title, as the host displayed and distributed wealth and made speeches. Besides the transfer of titles at a potlatch, the event was given "weight" by the distribution of other less important objects such as Chilkat blankets, animal skins (later Hudson Bay blankets) and coppers. It is the distribution of large numbers of Hudson Bay blankets, and the destruction of valued coppers that first drew government attention (and censure) to the potlatch.
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." Hierarchical relations within and between clans, villages, and nations, were 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.
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.
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.
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. It is important to keep this variation in mind as most of our detailed knowledge of the potlatch was acquired from the Kwakwaka'wakw around Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island in the period 1849 to 1925, a period of great social transition in which many features became exaggerated in reaction to British colonialism.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, gifts included storable food (oolichan, or candlefish, oil or dried food), canoes, slaves, and ornamental "coppers" among aristocrats, but not resource-generating assets such as hunting, fishing and berrying territories. Coppers were sheets of beaten copper, shield like in appearance; they were about two feet long, wider on top, cruciform frame and schematic face on the top half. None of the copper used was ever of indigenous metal. A copper was considered the equivalent of a slave. They were only ever owned by individual aristocrats, and never by numaym, hence could circulate between groups. Coppers began to be produced in large numbers after the colonization of Vancouver Island in 1849 when war and slavery were ended.
The arrival of Europeans resulted in the introduction of numerous diseases against which indigenous peoples had no immunity, resulting in a massive population decline. Competition for the fixed number of potlatch titles grew as commoners began to seek titles from which they had previously been excluded by making their own remote or dubious claims validated by a potlatch. Aristocrats increased the size of their gifts in order to retain their titles and maintain social hierarchy. This resulted in massive inflation in gifting made possible by the introduction of mass-produced trade goods in the late 18th and earlier 19th centuries.
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 potlatches to commit to the restoring of their ancestors' ways. Potlatches now occur frequently and increasingly more over the years as families reclaim their birthright. The ban was repealed in 1951.
The potlatch in anthropological theory
In his book The Gift, the French ethnologist, Marcel Mauss used the term potlatch to refer to a whole set of exchange practices in archaic societies characterized by "total prestations", i.e. a system of gift giving with political, religious, kinship and economic implications. These societies' economies are marked by the competitive exchange of gifts, in which gift-givers seek to out-give their competitors so as to capture important political, kinship and religious roles. Other examples of this "potlatch type" of gift economy include the Kula ring found in the Trobriand Islands.
- Athabaskan Potlatch
- Competitive altruism
- Conspicuous consumption
- 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.
- Graeber, David (2001). Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. p. 192.
- Graeber, David (2001). Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. p. 198.
- Graeber, David (2001). Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. p. 194.
- Graeber, David (2001). Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. p. 201.
- Graeber, David (2001). Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. p. 205.
- Dorothy O. Johansen, Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest, 2nd ed., (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 7–8.
- Franz Boas, "The Indians of British Columbia," The Popular Science Monthly, March 1888 (vol. 32), p. 631.
- Graeber, David (2001). Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. pp. 188–208.
- Graeber, David (2001). Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. p. 206.
- (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 Columbia," 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.
- Godelier, Maurice (1996). The Enigma of the Gift. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. pp. 147–61.
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- 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.