The Great Deed of Giving: Potlatch

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

By Barb Duncan

Philanthropy, the altruistic concern for the welfare of others, is embedded in the past and continues to be a way of life among many of the First Nation tribes. This type of generosity was demonstrated through the giving of time, word, prayers, gifts, energy or love and was used to build a sense of connectedness to one another (Bowden, u.d). One deeply rooted tradition within this culture is known as the Potlatch which means “to give”. Different clans were invited to participate in this ceremonial gathering associated with giving and generosity.

The Potlatch was a means by which First Nations people distributed their wealth, built a sense of community and developed strong social relationships (unknown author, u.d) within society. Important events and announcements such as births, marriages, naming of children, title transfers and deaths were made by members of the tribe hosting the Potlatch. The ceremony typically involved a feast accompanied by the giving of gifts to every guest. As the event could last up to several weeks, lodging was also offered to those who attended.

The individuals hosting the Potlatch prepared huge amounts of food, more than the guests could possible consume. The leftover food was taken home by members who attended the celebration (unknown, 1999). These leftovers were then shared with more people. This generated additional conversation about the host’s generosity.

As the festivities drew to a close the giving of gifts took place. Gifts were often in the form of personal items, carved chests or dishes, canoes, copper plaques and blankets (Bowden, u.d). Many times gifts were distributed according to rank with the most expensive being given to the highest ranked individuals. This was a method used to communicate to others the placement of members within the community and society.

At times the group was so generous in their gift giving that they became impoverished themselves (unknown author). However, this was short lived as the expectation was that the wealth would be returned to them. This would occur when they were invited to attend subsequent potlatches as guests. Therefore, gift giving was considered a continuous process within the culture of the First Nations people.

Today the tradition of Potlatch still occurs within some of the First Nation tribes. Up to a year may be sent in planning and cost the clan $10,000 or more to host the celebration (unknown, 1999). Some money is spend on providing food and gifts for a hundred or more guests while a fourth is distributed in the form of cash. Modern potlatches typically last for 24 to 48 hours (unknown, 1999). During this time all meals are provided and laundry baskets, glasses, pot holders, cups, artwork and comforters are common examples of gifts with the later being given to those of higher stature.

In conclusion, Agnes Alfred (1980) described the philanthropic act of the Potlatch best “When one’s heart is glad, the gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are Indian. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy”.

Works Cited

Bowden, T. M. Native American Philanthropy. Retrieved on September 27, 2010 from

New World Encyclopedia (u.d). Potlatch. Retireved on Sept 28, 2010 from

U’mista Cultural Society (2003). The Potlatch: When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Retrieved on September 26, 2010 from

Giving and feasting in the Northwest Coast Potlatch (1999). Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from

First Nations Potlatch, British Columbia Archives (n.d). Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from

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