Potlatch

  Potlatch, a highly regulated event historically common to most Northwest Coast Aboriginal groups (seeNATIVE PEOPLE, NORTHWEST COAST). The potlatch, from the Chinook word Patshatl, validated status, rank and established claims to names, powers and privileges. Wealth in the form of utilitarian goods such as blankets, carved cedar boxes, food and fish or canoes, and prestige items such as slaves and COPPERS were accumulated to be bestowed on others or even destroyed with great ceremony. Potlatches were held to celebrate initiation, to mourn the dead, or to mark the investiture of chiefs in a continuing series of often competitive exchanges between CLANS, lineages and rival groups. In addition to the material exchange, the potlatch also maintained community and societal hierarchy, cultural rituals and social harmony within and between individual Bands and Nations.

 A great potlatch could be many years in the making, might last for several days, and would involve fasting, spirit dances, theatrical demonstrations and distribution of gifts. An intolerant federal government banned the potlatch from 1884 to 1951, ostensibly because of Aboriginal treatment of property. The last major potlatch, that of Daniel Cranmer, a KWAKIUTL from Alert Bay, was held in 1921. However, the goods were confiscated by Aboriginal agents. By the time the ban was repealed in 1951, serious damage had been caused to traditional Aboriginal identities and social stratification. Potlatches are again held today, but they are not the large events they were in the past.