The potlatch is a complicated tradition that comes from the native peoples of Canada and the United States, specifically areas along the northwest coast such as Alaska and British Columbia. Superficially, the potlatch is a large gift-giving ceremony, in which people from different villages and families come together to exchange gifts and otherwise celebrate. However, when examined closely, it becomes apparent that the celebration has important socio-cultural complexities that cannot be summarized as just an occasion of gift giving. To make the tradition more complicated, it was actually banned for about seventy years in both Canada and the United States by, “missionaries and civil authorities” (Walker 29), forcing the native people to continue the tradition unbeknownst to the law. This banning of the practice caused it to develop in a stunted manner in some locations; for example, one community tried to move to a house-to-house tradition with the following result: “many of the younger people do not know the dances and other privilege displays, nor do they know the real order of precedence of the chiefs” (Newell and Schreiber 20). This essay will explore the effects the potlatch had on society before it was banned, and how the banning influenced both the tradition itself and the people who practiced it.
The most interesting aspect of the potlatch is just how many parts of life in had influence on. To call the potlatch a gift-giving ceremony is a terrible over-simplification; however, even a broader description of the potlatch as a religious or social ceremony does not get all the details. Rather, the potlatch was a tradition that was all-encompassing: “They are governed by strict protocols and function simultaneously as a religious, social, political and legal institution” (Walker 29). Furthermore, in many cases these aspects of society were actually one and the same, with spiritual traditions informing legal traditions, and both of those being integral to understanding society. The gift-giving itself, which is usually seen as a fairly simple practice, is a good example of something that touches many spheres of life. First and foremost, a man who was able to give many gifts was seen as a great, important man because, “material wealth itself was an indication that a man had non material possessions. It was the non-material things that brought him wealth” (Walker 30), which meant that a man who could give out a great amount was seen as wealthy in two ways. In this context, non-material wealth refers to, “rights inherited from ancestors…private knowledge that one obtained…[and] supernatural power” (Walker 30), so these were by no means unimportant attributes. In this way, giving a gift was not merely a sign of affection or friendship, but also a complicated statement about the giver’s social, political, and religious status.
It is difficult to imagine a western tradition that has an effect that is quite as complicated as the potlatch. The one that probably has the most similarities, at least superficially, is Christmas. Certainly, in The Potlatch Ta-la-pus reacts to the thought of going to a potlatch in a way that is very reminiscent of children anticipating Christmas: “the great, dark eyes of little Ta-la-pus glowed like embers of fire, his young heart leaped joyously. At last, at last, he was to set foot in the country of his dreams–the far, blue, mountain-circled mainland” (Johnson 131). Christmas is a religious holiday, in which friends and family members gather together to give each other gifts. Singing and dancing are also present at many celebrations, and there are many traditional Christmas songs that are passed down through the generations. However, there are a few key differences between the potlatch and Christmas. First of all, the potlatch gatherings were much larger than the usual Christmas celebrations, with one man accounting that, “potlatches held there have been attended by as many as 8,000 Indians. I saw one there at which there was fully 1,500 present” (Walker 32). While many people may celebrate Christmas, different people often have different traditions inherent to their families. Each potlatch, on the other hand, passed down the same traditions to a much larger group of people. This larger scale also added an economic aspect to the potlatch: “the potlatch helped ensure that all had access to the rich resources of the coastal Pacific Northwest: food harvested from the bounty of land, river and sea, and clothing, art and functional items made from the cedar forests nourished by the moist climate” (Walker 30), whereas the gift giving associated with Christmas has much less significance. The similarities between Christmas celebrations and the potlatch many have been an important part of why the potlatch was eventually banned.
The official reason for the banning of the potlatch, given to the native population at the time, was tied to the gift giving aspect of the celebration. As Walker says, “non-Native observers saw the giving away of material goods as wasteful, clashing with Victorian mores” (Walker 31), which is a statement that may seem somewhat hypocritical given the comparisons to Christmas. However, the fact that such a reason could be given does give further credence to the idea that the potlatch gift-giving was a more serious issue. In reality though, the biggest reason for banning the potlatch was likely assimilation. It is apparent that the potlatch was a critically important piece of native culture, and so it is obvious that a good way to remove the native culture would be to remove the potlatch. Removing the potlatch not only prevented native people from practicing their own traditions, but also prevented those traditions from getting passed down to younger generations. Of course, this practices was inherently racist: “at the same time that Native people were told they couldn’t gather, worship, celebrate traditions or speak their ancestral languages, non-Native people’s rights to do so were constitutionally guaranteed” (Walker 31). One of the main institutions that likely had a problem with the potlatch was the Christian church. It has already been explained that the potlatch could be seen as a rival or replacement to Christmas celebrations, but there was another important religious practice that could be undermined by the potlatch: “intertribal marriages” (Walker 33). The sanctity of marriage is very important to Christian beliefs, and having a native version of the practice could have been seen as undermining the western familial system. Removing the potlatch as an option and forcing the European model of marriage and the family would have been a powerful way of forcing the native people to assimilate.
As is apparent, the potlatch was an important facet of native life, and one that touched upon almost every aspect of society. Furthermore, it is apparent that the banning of the potlatch was as important to the native/settler dynamic as the potlatch was to native life. Banning the potlatch was an attempt to cut out the heart of native traditions and culture, and had a terrible effect on native culture. Or rather, it would have had a terrible effect, if the bans had actually worked. Walker puts it best when he writes, “Ultimately, the potlatch survived laws designed to suppress it. And today, the potlatch is carefully safeguarded and continues in much in the same ways as in pre-contact times” (Walker 32). Interestingly though, in modern times the potlatch may have an even bigger cultural impact than in the past. In modern Alaska, native practices are being used to reach out to the troubled native youths. Even the Christian church is, “increasingly re-examining native practices” (Huckins 66), which means the potlatch could now actually be an important factor in bringing new people into Christianity. It just goes to show that a tradition as important as the potlatch cannot be so easily taken from the people.
Huckins, Kyle. “Potlatch Gospel.” Christianity Today 12 June 2000: 66-69. Print.
Johnson, E. Pauline. “The Potlatch.” The Shagganappi. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1913. 128-139. Print.
Newell, Dianne and Dorothee Schreiber. “Collaborations on the Periphery: The Wolcott-Sewid Potlatch Controversy.” BC Studies.152 (2006/2007): 7-33. Print.
Walker, Richard. “Northwest Coast Potlatch Profound Ceremony and Celebration.” Native Peoples November/December 2007: 28-33. Print.