First Nations: The Potlatch Tradition

sduncan post on January 28th, 2013
Posted in North America Tags: , ,

By Jesse Kalyshov

The First Nations people of Canada have a beautiful culture marked with a deep history of generosity and philanthropy. Their beliefs are rooted in the idea that the universe alone owns everything. Gift giving is prominent in their society and is illustrated greatly through the ceremony of The Potlatch.

A Potlatch was an elaborate feast where family and neighbours of the host would assemble for a wedding, the naming of a child, the start of the berry or salmon season or the building of a new plank house. Yet most importantly, Potlatches were held to mark the stages of a person’s life such as birth, puberty, and death.

The host family would supply all the food and would thus plan and save for some time. Guests would act as witnesses to the formal transfers of rights and responsibilities that take place during a Potlatch. . At marriage ceremonies gifts would be exchanged between the wedding families. Gifts, which were useful items such as food, furs and other various items, would be distributed to the guests. As time passed more practical gifts would be exchanged such as blankets, calico, worked ornamental mediums of exchange called “coppers”, and trade items. “Talking sticks” and “dancing sticks” were integral components of the festivities. To demonstrate their genealogy and cultural wealth the host would stage elaborate theatrical dances. Since warmer months were utilized to gather wealth for one’s family or village, Potlatches would typically take place in winter seasons.

A Potlatch was a celebratory gathering designed to redistribute resources, while establishing prestige and social status. Wealth and prominence were demonstrated by the host family when they gave away their possessions. Hosting a Potlatch not only validated one’s reputation but it further enhanced one’s social rank. The lavishness of the Potlatch as well as the gifts given away increased one’s prestige. This then prompted prominent participants to hold their own Potlatch so the cycle of giving would continue. This “circular” style of giving ensured that the gift always remained alive.

The ceremony of the Potlatch was widely celebrated by First Nations people including the Tlingit and the Haida of Alaska and the Tsimshian and the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. Its design showcases the values of community and generosity. Balance was restored between giver and receiver; however the spirit of the gift must live on with future giving. Furthermore, Potlatches strengthened the bond between families and its tradition has forged a standard of philanthropy in North America today. Potlatches became illegal in Canada in 1885. Their ban was lifted in 1951 and a similar form of its practice still exists in First Nations societies today.

Works Cited

“” Aboriginal artifacts repatriating the past. 16 Mar 2006. CBC News Online.

“” The Potlatch.

“” Potlatch-overview, tradition, historical “Potlatch” and “Potluck”, sources, further reading (Tlingit). Cambridge Encyclopaedia.

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