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Potlatch

POTLATCH

POTLATCH. "Potlatch" is anglicized from the Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) word patshatl, which means "giving." The Nootka term came to be used in Chinook jargon, a Northwest Coast of North America lingua franca, in the 1860s with the beginning of Euro-Canadian settlement. Potlatch denotes a ceremonial feast and gift giving held in winter, usually marking a rite of passage, such as a funeral, wedding, or elevation to a noble title. Late nineteenth-century Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw) potlatches described by Franz Boas displayed oratorical boasting and overwhelming quantities of gifts and food, asserting the aristocratic host's wealth and high rank. Neighboring noble houses vied for even more generous potlatches, escalating the competition for status. For example, in 1803, a Nuu-chah-nulth chief gave away 200 muskets, 200 yards of cloth, 100 mirrors, and gunpowder; in 1921, a Kwakiutl chief gave away thousands of dollars worth of purchased goods, including gas-powered boats and boat engines, sewing machines, pool tables, and gramophones. Canada's 1884 Potlatch Law (rescinded in 1951) outlawed these feasts but succeeded only in repressing them, not in exterminating them.

From the point of view of Northwest Coast people, potlatches sustained the reciprocal relationships among noble houses, including their dependent families. In the northern part of the region "houses" or lineages (often called clans in English) were grouped into pairs, such as Ravens and Wolves, that were expected to alternate as host and guest, thus ensuring a balanced series of feasts and gifts. In the central part of the region guests came from neighboring villages, and marriages between villages gave persons noble titles in both parents' lineages, creating a more fluid social order. Throughout the Northwest Coast the emphasis was on visibly recognizing rank by the seating order and the amount of the gift. Anthropologists suggest that late nineteenth-century potlatch extravagances reflected an increase in consumer goods from Euro-Canadian towns and traders that also brought severe decreases in Indian populations from disease epidemics and political instability.

The Danish ethnologist Kaj Birket-Smith, who worked in Southeast Alaska, hypothesized that ancient contacts around the Pacific spread the institution of "feasts of merit" and publicly marked an investiture in higher status. He pointed out similarities between potlatches and such feasts in Southeast Asia and Polynesia. Through trade across the interior mountains, the potlatch may be related to "giveaways," held at powwows among Plains First Nations, that stem from the requirement that leaders must be generous. Giveaways are customary at memorial feasts and on such occasions as a child dancing in a powwow for the first time or a person earning a college degree. In both Northwest Coast potlatches and Plains giveaways, new blankets are the standard gift. Especially honored guests are given embroidered robes or star-pattern quilts, lesser acquaintances smaller items, and visitors who have earned the friendship of the hosts may be recognized with gifts of embroidered jackets or other clothing emblematic of the hosts' style. All guest share in feasting, the gift of food. Potlatches and giveaways share the ethos that giving a gift honors both giver and recipient.

Food at a potlatch must be abundant. Ideally the guests should not be able to finish what is served but should take the surplus home. "Traditional" foods are served, though what is traditional has been modified over time as introduced foods have become standard in the community. Salmon, dried for winter use, has been the prized and usually abundant principal food. Other dishes include berries, seaweed, and meat of mountain goats, elk, moose, bears, seals, small mammals, and halibut, all smoked or dried. Traditionally eulachon, a smelt abundant in early spring, were caught in large quantities and processed into a rich oil used as a sauce at every meal. Potlatches were noteworthy for the lavish outpouring of eulachon "grease," to the point of ladling gallons into hearth fires until the flames roared to the roof. A description of Tsimshian feasts notes, "The foods that were most valued were those that were scarce, available only seasonally, required intensive labor (and entailed organization by a person of rank), 'imported items' (including European foods as they became available), grease, and anything preserved in grease" (Halpin and Seguin, 1990, p. 271).

Dances, both ritual and social, are integral to Northwest Coast potlatches. Elaborately costumed and ingeniously propped dance-dramas, especially those involving a wild cannibal who roared and apparently bit people before the wise elders tamed him, horrified Christian missionaries. When the Canadian government banned potlatches, First Nations protested that the dancing at potlatches was simply "winter amusement," like Euro-Canadians' balls and theatrical entertainments. Furthermore they protested that potlatch feasting provided quality food to their elderly and poor. Most government agents looked away when potlatches were held, recognizing that the First Nations had banned killing slaves and burning houses in favor of conspicuous consumption. By the early twenty-first century potlatches in many Northwest Coast First Nations communities celebrated appropriate occasions without the earlier ostentatious rivalry. Accommodating contemporary employment, twenty-first century potlatches last for a weekend rather than for weeks and are held in community halls. Core practices and foods continue, fostering First Nation identities through public displays of ancient titles, heritage arts, and regional foods.

See also American Indians .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Birket-Smith, Kaj. Studies in Circumpacific Culture Relations. Vol. 1: Potlatch and Feasts of Merit. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1967.

Codere, Helen. "The Amiable Side of Kwakiutl Life: The Potlatch and the Play Potlatch." American Anthropologist 28 (1956): 334351.

Drucker, Philip, and Robert F. Heizer. To Make My Name Good: A Reexamination of the Southern Kwakiutl Potlatch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Halpin, Marjorie M., and Margaret Seguin. "Tsimshian Peoples: Southern Tsimshian, Coast Tsimshian, Nishga, and Gitksan." In Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Volume 7: Northwest Coast, edited by Wayne Suttles, pp. 267284. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

Simeone, William E. Rifles, Blankets, and Beads: Identity, History, and the Northern Athapaskan Potlatch. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Alice Kehoe

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potlatch

potlatch (pŏt´lăch´), ceremonial feast of the natives of the NW coast of North America, entailing the public distribution of property. The host and his relatives lavishly distributed gifts to invited guests, who were expected to accept any gifts offered with the understanding that at a future time they were to reciprocate in kind. Gifts distributed included foodstuffs, slaves, copper plates, and goat's hair blankets, as well as less tangible things such as names, songs, dances, and crests. In return, the host was accorded prestige and status in direct proportion to his expenditures. The potlatch ceremony also involved dancing, feasting, and ritual boasting, often lasting for several days. Various theories have been proposed by anthropologists to account for this seemingly irrational ritual. While the emphasis varies from group to group and through time, the potlatch clearly was the fundamental means of circulating foodstuffs and other goods amongst groups, validating status positions, and establishing and maintaining warfare and defense alliances. Contact with Euroamerican populations in the early 19th cent. brought about a massive depopulation among aboriginal northwest coast societies. At the same time, the growth of the fur trade led to an influx of industrially manufactured trade goods. Under these conditions, the potlatch came to serve as a means by which aspiring nobles validated often tenuous claims of high rank, increasingly through the ostentatious destruction of property. This led both the U.S. and Canadian governments to outlaw the practice beginning in 1884. Potlatching nevertheless continued, though covertly, until the ban was lifted in 1951, by which time the ceremonies no longer involved property destruction.

See P. Drucker and R. Heizer, To Make My Name Good (1967); A. Rosman and P. Rubel, Feasting with Mine Enemy (1971, repr. 1986); H. Codere, Fighting with Property (1950, repr. 1988).

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Potlatch

Potlatch (N. American Kwakiutl ceremony): see ALMSGIVING.

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"Potlatch." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Potlatch." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/potlatch

potlatch

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"potlatch." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"potlatch." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/potlatch