By Jackie Mersereau
Philanthropy is not solely a creation of the Western world and can be seen in several traditions, cultures and religions around the world. Anthropological research has shown us that there has not been a culture or a time where giving and sharing was not perceived as a noble action yet most of the published material is on Philanthropy in the Western tradition. This paper will explore the tradition giving in the Native American culture specifically the tradition of the Potlatch.
Potlatches were social occasions given by a host or a Chief to establish or uphold his status position in society. Often they were held to mark a significant event in a family, such as the birth of a child, a daughter’s first menses, or a son’s marriage. Potlatches are to be distinguished from feasts in that guests are invited to a potlatch to share food and receive gifts or payment. The potlatch is practiced among Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast including the Tlingit and the Haida of Alaska and the Tsimshian and the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. These tribes live along the sea coast. To sustain themselves they depend mostly on fishing rather than hunting and do not practice agriculture yet they tribes have quite a wealthy livelihood. The Potlatch ceremonies are seen as transfers of wealth and even after years of European contact and influence it does not appear that any of the considerable and continual transfers of wealth take place in any other form. This showing that the purpose of this practice is not dependant solely on economics rather it is a tradition that has been passed along through for many generations regardless of economic climate and outside influence. A great potlatch could take several years to prepare, might last for several days, and would involve fasting, spirit dances, theatrical demonstrations and distribution of gifts. Potlatch ceremonies can be seen as quite extravagant where one is constrained to expend everything one possesses and keep nothing. The most lavish Potlatches are most notably held for weddings and are in most respects a sign of social status. At these gatherings a family or hereditary leader hosts guests in their family’s house and hold a feast for their guests. The main purpose of the potlatch is the re-distribution and reciprocity of wealth. More so than the obvious social status associated with the giving of luxurious gifts the Potlatch is more about the act of giving itself. It is
important to note that even small gifts are received with the same status. Even private life operates on the same system. In tribal native cultures even when a whale washes up on shore the meat is shared with the entire village. Potlatch is about the formation or a culture and societal bond. Missionaries and government agents considered it “a worse than useless custom” that was seen as wasteful, unproductive which was not part of “civilized” values. The practice was made illegal in 1885. The punishment for practicing Potlatch customs was up to six months imprisonment. Eventually the law was amended to include guests who participated in the ceremony but the law was too hard to enforce and most people who were caught were let off on technicalities. Potlatch ceremonies were still practiced covertly. Although most people still carried out the custom the ban was only repealed in 1951. Sustaining the customs and culture of their ancestors, indigenous people now openly hold potlatc
h to commit to the restoring of their ancestors’ ways. Potlatch now occur frequently and increasingly more over the years as families reclaim their birthright.
For centuries, the potlatch has reinforced the structure of Northwest Coast society. It serves a dual purpose of both a ceremonial ritual and a means of circulating wealth among the indigenous people.
Mauss,Marcel, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, Ian Cunnison, trans. New York: W.W. Norton 1967 (taken from) McGee, R. Jon Anthropological Theory: an introductory history. R. Jon McGee, Richard L. Warms. 3rd ed.
Giving and Feasting in the Northwest Coast Potlatch