By Natalie Maxwell
The Potlatch idea came from the sharing of one’s wealth with others. Whoever led the potlatch was to “give away most, if not all, of their wealth and material goods in order to show goodwill to the rest of the tribal members and maintain their social status” (Kwakiutl Indian Band). During a Potlatch the family of the person hosting it would assist them in gathering food to feed everyone, gifts were brought together and items were carved with crests (Kwakiutl Indian Band). They had to ensure that enough gifts were brought for all the guests they had invited, which meant taking out loans in order to have enough (Kwakiutl Indian Band).
The Potlatch was banned in Canada in 1884 because it was thought that this was stopping the Native’s from being turned into productive members of society (Saunders, 1995). The Potlatch was seen as a waste of time and money because it meant giving away everything the person worked hard for (Saunders, 1995), rather than as a sharing of their wealth. Canadian Aboriginals used the Potlatch as a way to share their wealth which is the definition of generosity. They have shown they are able to give without being forced to give. However, this was not seen as a suitable way to live by the European’s in Canada and therefore, Aboriginals were denied their right to practice their own culture.
A part of the potlatch was that it was centered on special occasions. These were normally at births, death, celebrating a wedding, initiations into secret societies; such as the becoming of a medicine man, when someone became the chief of the tribe to show their power or after a public embarrassment (Book Rags). The Potlatch was a celebration for the person at the top of the family to celebrate these important times in their lives.
Potlatches, although very giving, can also be seen from another perspective. Potlatches are a way of asserting social power over someone else. In a sense, potlatches are a way of showing that a person is better than someone else. They traditionally handed out gifts or burned property to show that they could afford it (Fitzgerald, 1975). This can be looked at from two perspectives. First that they are trying to push their wealth and property on others to show they have wealth to give away. Or it can also be looked at from the perspective of property being just property that can easily be given away and replaced. It is not a necessity, rather something that can be bought and given away.
Today, a potlatch can be related to the idea of a potluck where everyone brings something to share. Although gifts are not normally handed out, it is the sharing of food that brings people together. Of course, everyone wants to have “better” or more extravagant food than the other, which just goes to show that everyone still wants to be better than someone else; it is just the way in which it is shown that has changed.
Kwakiutl Indian Band. Potlatch. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2011, from http://www.kwakiutl.bc.ca/culture/potlatch.htm
Book Rags. Potlatch. Retrieved Feb 2, 2011, from http://www.bookrags.com/tandf/potlatch-1-tf/
Saunders, B. (1995). Kwakwaka’ wakw museology. Cultural Dynamics. 7 (1), p. 37-68.
Fitzgerald, B.D. (1975). Self interest or altruism. Journal of Conflict Resolution. 19 (3), p. 462-480.