By Alexa Kack
I recently found out that I am 1/8th Native Canadian, so I thought it would be interesting to explore an Aboriginal form of philanthropy, I chose the potlatch ceremony. The potlatch ceremony is about community giving and overall mutual support. The word potlatch is a Chinook term deriving from North American West coast Tribal groups. There seems to be varying interpretations and ideas surrounding the potlatch.
Mr. Franz Boas in an 1895 interview with a North West Coast Native brought forth the idea that the potlatch was almost a replacement for tribal warfare. Fighting was then said to have turned into a massive exchange of gifts, so to speak.
Due to Aboriginal history being handed down orally through generations many interpretations of culture come to us through a lens of Euro-Anglo researchers. I truly wish I had my Great Grand Father to tell me about what exactly potlatch ceremonies were and how they were carried out.
In 1967 Philip Drucker and Robert Heizer attempted to better explain the potlatch ceremony and its significance. The potlatch ceremony according to them can be explained as one host group holding a mass ceremony where guests, likely from neighboring communities, would come to observe the host group partake in a number of activities some including dancing, singing, gift giving and performing rituals around social ranking. Guests came to witness there peers social status change and in the end all guests would receive a gift or gifts. A common gift given away was a carved box. This box was not just a beautiful carved piece rather a storage area for all treasured items such as food, clothing, masks and other special items. The box’s shape itself carries great cosmological meaning. The box form traditionally can be tied to all life stages and important hallmarks in ones life. Gifts varied however there is no doubt that whatever the gift was it held substantial significance.
The potlatch is obviously an intricate multilayered event that likely differs’s among Nations. I was able to read about other potlatch traditions however a common trend seemed to evolve, which is that of gift giving to mark the end of a splendid ceremony. In fact symbolic meaningful gift giving was almost always noted in the literature. If this were a larger assignment I am sure more interesting facts would arise however I must keep it brief for this one page paper.
Native North American philanthropy “…continues to be based on the inherent cosmological values of particular people…[and] major rituals among the first people of North American continent foreground philanthropic ideals which find daily expressions in these communities”(Ilchman, Katz, & Queen, 1998).
Llchman, W. F., Katz, S. N., & Queen, E. L. (1998). Philanthropy in the World’s traditions. Indiana: Indiana University Press.