Potlatch: Ancient North American Indian Tradition Of Very Generous Gift Giving

A Potlatch is an ancient North American Indian tradition of very generous gift giving. A Potlatch was much more than just an ordinary ceremony. Planning a Potlatch could take as long as one year and sometimes even longer.

The custom was well-known among other ancient civilizations, but the Potlatch custom is mostly associated with Native Americans. It was a ceremonial distribution of property and gifts to affirm or reaffirm social status, as uniquely institutionalized by the American Indians of the Northwest Pacific coast.

The largest Potlatch took place when the queen of Sheba gifted King Solomon 120 talents of gold and the largest quantity of spices ever exchanged at the time.

From 1849 to 1925 the Potlatch reached its most elaborate development among the southern Kwakiutl, North American Indians who traditionally lived in what is now British Columbia, Canada.

A Potlatch was usually organized because of important events such as marriages, births, deaths, adoptions and initiations into secret societies.

Sometimes trivial events could also result in a Potlatch because the main purpose of a Potlatch was not the occasion itself, but the validation of claims to social rank. The Potlatch was also used as a face-saving device by individuals who had suffered public embarrassment and as a means of competition between rivals in social rank. Only aristocrats could host a Potlatch.

A preparation of a Potlatch involved inviting guests and the size of the gatherings reflected the rank of the donor. Later a speech would be held and the gift giving process started. The distribution of goods by the donor depended on the social rank of the recipients. The proceedings gave wide publicity to the social status of donor and recipients because there were many witnesses. The Potlatch donor strived to be as generous as possible.

For some cultures, such as Kwakwaka’wakw, elaborate and theatrical dances were performed reflecting the hosts’ genealogy and cultural wealth. Many of these dances were also sacred ceremonies of secret societies like the hamatsa, or display of family origin from supernatural creatures such as the dzunukwa. According to Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, Dzunukwa is the ‘Wild Woman of the Woods’.

She is often portrayed as an old, unkempt ogress with long, pendulous breasts and wild hair. She is said to snatch up children and carry them home in her basket.

At the end of a Kwakwaka’wakw Potlatch ceremony, the host chief comes out bearing a mask of Dzunuḵ̓wa which is called the geekumhl. This is the sign that the ceremony is over.

From 1884 to 1951 the Potlatches were banned. The Potlatch Ban, which was legislation forbidding the practice of the potlatch was passed by the government of the Dominion of Canada. The Potlatch custom was considered wasteful, reckless and anti-Christian of personal property.

Potlatch was at the heart of a non-Christian cultural system that opposed colonization. Therefore the Potlatch was targeted by missionaries and colonial officials. The Potlatch ban was never entirely effective, though it did significant cultural damage, and continued underground through the period of the ban in a number of places and ways. The Potlatch ban as well as the banning of the Sun Dance and Coast Salish dancing occurred during the height of repressive colonial laws in Canada. In 1951 the Indian Act was amended, removing some of the more repressive measures, including the ban on the potlatch.

After the ban was lifted, Nations on the coast began to openly potlatch again. The revival of open ceremony gained strength during the 1970s and 80s, until it is once again became a widespread and popular tradition.

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