Historically the potlatch was a highly regulated and elaborate gift-giving feast common to most Northwest Coast Aboriginal groups. This ritual event was also common among Dene or Athápashan groups of the interior western subarctic, though it differed in practice and formality between all groups. Such Aboriginal communities held potlatches on the occasion of important social events such as marriages, births and funerals.

Function of the Potlatch

The potlatch, from the Chinook word Patshatl, functioned to confer status and rank upon individuals, kin groups and clans, and also to establish claims to names, powers and rights to hunting and fishing territories. Wealth in the form of utilitarian goods such as firearms, blankets, clothing, carved cedar boxes, canoes, food and prestige items such as slaves and coppers were accumulated by high-ranking individuals over time, sometimes years. These goods were later bestowed on invited guests as gifts by the host or even destroyed with great ceremony as a show of superior generosity, status and prestige over rivals. A great potlatch might last for several days and would involve feasting, spirit dances, singing and theatrical demonstrations.

Banning of the Potlatch

In addition to its economic redistributive and kinship functions, the potlatch maintained community solidarity and hierarchical relations within, and between, individual bands and nations. However, an intolerant federal government banned the potlatch from 1884 to 1951 in an amendment to the Indian Act, ostensibly because of the treatment seen as wasteful, reckless and anti-Christian of personal property. As an assimilationist strategy, both the government and supporters of the ban failed to understand its symbolic importance as well as its communal (vs. individual) economic exchange value.

The last major potlatch, that of Daniel Cranmer, a Kwakwaka’wakw from Alert Bay, BC, was held in 1921. The goods were confiscated by agents of the Indian Department and charges were laid. By the time the ban was repealed in 1951, due largely to the difficulties of enforcement and changes in attitudes, traditional Aboriginal identities had been damaged and social relations disrupted.

The Potlatch Today

Potlatches are again held today as a revitalization of ancestral customs and traditions, now guaranteed under section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act (1982). However, they are not the large events they were in the past.