views updated Jun 11 2018


POTLATCH is any of a disparate variety of complex ceremonies among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, associated with the legitimization of the transfer or inheritance of hereditary aristocratic titles and their associated rights, privileges, and obligations. Potlatches are characterized by the reenactment of the sacred family histories that document the legitimacy of the claimant to the rank, by ritual feasting, and by the formal distribution of gifts by the host group to its guests, each according to his rank. Though the wealth distributed at a potlatch may be quite substantial, the amount distributed is much less important than the requirement that it be distributed according to the correct social protocols and moral prescriptions.

Potlatches have traditionally occurred at points of social stress accompanying any part of the process of ascension or succession to rank: investiture into a new name; the building of a house; erecting of a totem pole or other emblem of hereditary prerogative, such as a marriage or a child's coming of age; or alternatively as a mortuary feast for a previous rankholder, as a means of acquiring prestige; and sometimes even as a means of discrediting rival claimants. The legitimacy of the rankholder's claims is proven by his dual ability to command the allegiance of his family group in putting together such a complicated ceremony and to perform correctly the formal display of his family's origin myths and ceremonial objects. The acceptance of gifts by the guests signals their acceptance of the validity of his claim.

Anthropologists have focused on the secular, social aspects and functions of the potlatchon the way in which potlatches maintain social equilibrium, consolidate chiefly power over commoners, provide for the orderly transfer of wealth and power, provide a measure of group identity and solidarity, redistribute surplus wealth and level economic imbalances, provide outlets for competition without recourse to violence, and provide an occasion for aesthetic expression and dramatic entertainment. Irving Goldman has suggested in his The Mouth of Heaven (1975) that, since in Northwest Coast philosophy all status, power, and wealth are considered to be a gift from the beneficent supernatural beings who provide the materials that humans need to survive, the potlatch is inherently a religious institution, fundamentally endowed with a sacramental quality. Each of the family origin myths, whose retelling is such an important part of the potlatch, tells of how one of a particular family's ancestors was able to make a covenant with a supernatural being. In return for the right to collect food of a specific type at a specific location, to possess an aristocratic name, to impersonate (and thus become) the supernatural being in ceremonies, and to invoke the aid of that being in times of distress, the ancestor accepted the responsibility of performing the rituals that would ensure the reincarnation of that supernatural being. This covenant expresses the mutual dependency of human and supernatural, and the potlatch is the ceremony through which the aristocrat fulfills his responsibilities to the supernatural being.

The chief is the representative of his house to the spirits and in his person are brought together all the historical, social, and spiritual aspects of his group's identity. He is the being who links the spiritual world to the social world, and his costume and behavior at potlatches clearly state the duality of his role as spirit in human form. Indeed, since chiefs are the representatives of particular supernatural beings, the distribution of wealth to other chiefs at potlatches can be seen as a metaphorical distribution by one supernatural being to others, and as such it represents the flow of substance throughout the entire universe.

The potlatch, obviously a rite of passage for human beings, a death of an old identity and a rebirth into a new one, is also a rite of passage for the supernaturals. The supernatural beings sustain human beings not only by giving them power and knowledge, but by being their foodwhen supernatural beings come to the human world, they put on costumes that transform them into animals. The objects displayed, transferred, or distributed in potlatches are manifestations of the bodies of supernatural beings: the flesh and skins of animals (which, since they are thought to be the animals' ceremonial costumes, imply that humans survive by ingesting the ceremonial, spiritual essence of their prey); the coppers (large, ceremonial plaques that represent repositories of captured souls awaiting reincarnation); and the feast dishes (which are the coffins for the animal substance before the humans who partake of that substance begin the process of its reincarnation). Potlatches, in a sense, are funerals for the supernaturals and inherently involve the reaffirmation of the eternal moral covenants between humankind and the other inhabitants of the universe. As animals sacrifice their flesh that humans may eat it and live, so humans must sacrifice themselves or their wealth, which is a symbol of themselves, that the dead may be reborn.

In Northwest Coast thought, moral order and spiritual purity are achieved through acts of self-sacrifice, and the giving away of possessions places humans in harmony with the moral order of the universe. The universe is imagined to have been originally a place of self-interest and possessiveness, that is, until culture heroes started the process of distribution. Northwest Coast peoples believe that the universe will collapse back into the primordial chaos of selfishness unless humans continually reaffirm their willingness to disburse their possessions, to pass out wealth to their fellow men, and to pass on rank to their children. The potlatch provides the ceremonial realization of that commitment to the cosmic moral order and is a reaffirmation by all its participantshosts, guests, ancestors, the unborn, and supernatural beingsof the system of moral covenants and mutual dependencies that lie at the basis of Northwest Coast society. The potlatch reenacts myth, and then, through redistribution, recreates its processual nature, thereby becoming a graphic representation of the continuing reality and salience of those myths, linking the past to the present, the dead to the living, the sacred to the mundane, the human to the supernatural, the local to the cosmic, and the momentary to the eternal.

It should be noted that the potlatch underwent substantial change during the nineteenth century. Heavy governmental and missionary pressures contributed to the abandonment or secularization of many Northwest Coast Indian rituals. Potlatches and all other native ceremonies were illegal in Canada between 1876 and 1951, and though some ceremonies were carried out in secret, Northwest Coast religion was irreparably altered. The potlatch and other ceremonies have played an important role in the native renaissance of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, but few studies of the potlatch in contemporary Indian life have been conducted, and very little can be said of the particulars of its role in Indian society today.


Philip Drucker and Robert F. Heizer provide a lucid review of the literature and a discussion of the potlatch as a social institution in To Make My Name Good (Berkeley, Calif., 1967); Helen Codere's Fighting with Property: A Study of Kwakiutl Potlatching and Warfare, 17921930 (New York, 1950) deals with the issue of historical changes in the potlatches of the Kwakiutl; Irving Goldman's The Mouth of Heaven (New York, 1975) reexamines many of the Kwakiutl materials collected by Franz Boas and argues for a new religio-philosophical interpretation of Northwest Coast culture.

Stanley Walens (1987)


views updated May 14 2018


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 .


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


views updated Jun 27 2018


views updated Jun 11 2018

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