Pacific Northwest Potlatch: a wonderful tradition
I hope you are having a great weekend. In the Pacific Northwest, we are seeing and feeling Spring in the air! The trees are blooming (you might have seen the pictures I posted on Facebook), the temperature is mild, the birds are singing. And the rain is falling….It is the Pacific Northwest after all! 🙂 Nevertheless, I would not want to live anywhere else. It is a land full of culture, traditions and the scenery cannot be beaten. Mother Earth is beautiful and I am thankful for all my relations in nature.
So today I thought I would discuss a beautiful tradition of this territory: the Pacific Northwest Potlatch. You are probably wondering what that is. So let’s get started!
What is a Pacific Northwest Potlatch?
I am sure some of you have never heard that word, potlatch, before. The word actually comes from the Chinook language meaning “to give away”. It is derived from a Nuu-chah-nulth word that translates into “to make a ceremonial gift”. Therefore, a potlatch is first and foremost a ceremony. A ceremony that involves a feast and the distribution or more precisely the redistribution of wealth. Hence the gift giving. But I will come back to that.
A potlatch is multifaceted. Meaning that it involves different activities such as dancing, singing, while sometimes wearing masks or regalia such as the Chilkat blankets (see my post about the blankets here). In a sense, it is a celebration where wealth is expressed in a material manner (barter of physical gifts) or non material way (such as the dances and songs). In some cultures, including the Kwakwaka’wakw people, dances are elaborate (see picture above) and are ceremonies in themselves.
That’s all fine and dandy but I am still not sure what a potlatch is….
Ok I get that. Well fasten your seatbelt as you are in for a shock! You see, the concept of a potlatch left many settlers scratching their heads. They just could not wrap their head around it! Why? Well because this ceremony held by the tribes of the Pacific Nothwest (Tlingit, Haida, Coast Salish, Chinook and Tsimishian) was a gift giving ceremony. Therefore, possessions were given away or even destroyed to show one’s wealth, generosity and elevate one’s prestige. That’s right people, the more one gave, the higher one was elevated. Settlers just could not understand that. As to them, the more possessions you had, the wealthier you were. But here it was the opposite. And I am sure some are still scratching their heads today as we certainly live in a very materialistic society.
Although a potlatch elevated the host’s status within the tribe (as they were seen as generous and giving), their status was raised not by what they possessed but by what they gave away. By the resources they redistributed. Did you read that because it is important. Redistributed. Meaning that the giving away of resources and this gift exchange would redistribute the wealth within the community, thus offering a better balance. Ahhhhh! It was a communal system! A communal sense of responsibility, not an individual one.
For my American friends in the midst of an election, this might especially resonate. The tribes followed a concept of social equality and the same concept applied to the leaders, to the tribal leaders. They were also expected to redistribute their wealth. A leader was expected to give away his possessions so he could not profit from them. He showed his wealth by giving away his possessions, which were redistributed within the community. Thus preventing corruption. And they say we have made progress….Hell no, our ancestors had it right from the beginning!
The potlatch feast and the context of a potlatch
The potlatch could also be part of some vengeance plots. How? Well think about it. If you wanted an opposing clan to get rid of their wealth quickly, what better way than to trick them into hosting a potlatch! Because let’s face it, hosting a potlatch was costly! And at some point, it could become a way to one up the neighbors….
Nonetheless, some common reasons or occasions to have a potlatch would be a funeral, a wedding, births, arrival in a new home, rites of passage or even naming ceremonies (when one receives his traditional name).
Although protocols and presentation might differ from tribe to tribe, a big part of a potlatch is the feast. The spread as we would say today. It was a big one! Platters and dishes spread everywhere for guests to taste. And of course the food was not served in common dishes. Although again variations from nation to nation exist, many used carved dishes to serve the food. They were called “carved house dishes” and represented many spirit animals. The dishes would represent the history and wealth of the owners. I am including some below. How gorgeous!
So there you have it, the Pacific Northwest Potlatch. Hmmm makes you think no? A communal responsibility, a redistribution of wealth within the community. Leaders giving away their possessions so they could not profit materially from them. A feast and a ceremony that sometimes took a year to prepare and could last for weeks. I don’t know about you but that sounds good to me. It sounds like a good way to live, to share and to care about one another.
I leave you with an article explaining how certain goods and art pieces (including masks) were destroyed during a potlatch and the reasons behind it (the “end of their ceremonial life” as it is explained). Very interesting! Click here to read it.
What are your thoughts about the concept of a potlatch? Do you agree with it? See its merits? Do you think we should go back to the values and principles it embodies? Comment below and I will respond 🙂
All my Relations