A Potlatch is an opulent ceremonial feast to celebrate an important event held by tribes of Northwest Indians of North America including the Tlingit, Tsimishian, Haida, Coast Salish and the Chinook and Dene people. A Potlatch is characterized by a ceremony in which possessions are given away, or destroyed, to display wealth, generosity and enhance prestige. The term 'Potlatch' has been taken from a Nootka Indian word meaning "gift". The Nootka, are one of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada. Many other tribes, especially among the Plains Indians, have traditionally practiced some form of potlatch, or give-away ceremonies and customs, highlighted by the lavish distribution of goods and food to tribe members of those of other clans, villages, or tribes.
Potlatch ceremony, Klallam Tribe, Port Townsend, May 1859
Watercolor by James G. Swan, Courtesy Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (2003195)
The potlatch celebrated a change of rank or status with dancing, feasting, and gifts. Like many other societies, those of the Northwest Coast associated prestige with wealth, and the potlatcher gained prestige according to the liberality of his giving. A true chief "always died poor" because he had potlatched his wealth, but he died rich in the rank and honor that he had accumulated for himself through giving and that he would pass on to his family, heirs, and descendants.
This social system, based on the distribution of wealth, was alien to European society and everywhere came under attack by missionaries and government officials. The accumulation of goods merely for giving away seemed to them to produce indigence and thriftlessness, "habits inconsistent with all progress." "It is not possible," wrote an early commentator, "that the Indian can acquire property, or can become industrious with any good result, while under the influence of this mania." It was, agreed a leading legislator, an "insane exuberance of generosity." Such reasoning led the Canadian government to ban the ceremony.
Kwakwaka’wakw Elder Nella Nelson from the ‘Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay talks about the historical impact of Canada’s racist policies on Indigenous economies and how Indigenous peoples, including members of her family, stayed strong and resilient. She also talks about the Potlach system.
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