A ceremony where the host gives away or destroys his possessions. They were held after an important event, such as a birth, death, or marriage, but also when the host needed to compensate for a severe public embarrassment or was just competing for social position and status. Such ceremonies were primarily employed by the Indians of the Pacific Northwest, especially the Kwakiutl.

The potlatch was, and to some extent still is, an institution among the Kwakiutl people that was at once community-building as a time to come together, and as a time to set oneself apart and raise ones own personal status. A family or an individual would hold a large feast upon some special occasion--perhaps a wedding, a funeral, or the birth of a child--and would give gifts and provide a great feast and entertainment for the guests. While at first glance, this appears magnanimous and generous, it was a way to show off a family"s wealth and customs.

In many ways, the potlatch looks much like many ceremonial institutions of America today--weddings, bat and bar mitzvahs, and debutante balls (at least for the southern regions of the country.) This big fancy "everything must be perfect" party is not so much thrown by us for births or funerals as it was under potlatch jurisdiction. Births and baby showers are usually thrown by someone else for the parents, and funerals are taken as too somber and not any excuse to "show off". But the party occasions of today look much like the Kwakiutl potlatch. Most people strive to throw the biggest, fanciest, most perfect party they possibly can, with expensive venues, entertainment, pricey clothes, an elaborate banquet and often classy party-favors. Among certain southern social circles, debutantes are just one big excuse to outdo your neighbor when your daughter is presented into Society for the first time.

However, the potlatch was never quite so stiffly formalized, and had other social implications than showing others up. In an age of far less communication than now, it gave people from different families and locations an excuse to get together and catch up with one another's lives and going-ons. Potlatches also served to some extent as a "swap meet", at least in various points in history. People traded others for things they did not have but either desired or needed.

As well as being a prestige event for the giver to show off his fortune, it was a prestige event for those attended--the higher ranked you were, the better and more food you were given at feast, the better accommodations you were given, and the more costly gifts were awarded to you. Being treated as the elite at a potlatch signified to others that your status was important; being looked over implied you were of little concern.

There were two items most traditional and central to a potlatch that go beyond the standard material goods of hides, bowls, tools, blankets and the like, and into important symbology. Coppers--beaten disks or "shields" of copper, then engraved and painted--and masks are what hold central significance here.

Coppers were a household"s most valued possession because of their relative rarity and investment to procure. If coppers were given at a potlatch, the giver was someone of great wealth indeed. But more important than coppers was the breaking of the coppers. If the host of a potlatch broke a valuable copper by cutting off a piece of the item and giving it to a perceived rival (either a rival in status ore more commonly reserved for one who had done a perceived wrong to the family), it was seen as the highest of challenges. The rival then was obligated to break a more valuable copper of his own, throw a bigger potlatch than his "host", or sometimes both. This practice was outlawed later (by whites) almost entirely because it was seen as far too hostile and akin to a socially-acceptable death wish. For if the rival could not fulfill his obligations, he was shunned and all but exiled from his community after being publicly shamed.

Masks were the next important item. These were not traded or gifted, but rather displayed as family heritage. Each family had specific dances they had learned from their ancestors, and with each dance a beautiful hand-carved wooden mask representing a character in the dance. These traditions were highly-prized possessions and to display them in honor before others brought the families great pride.

Potlatches provided the Kwakiutl people many services. They were social events, commercial events, time to share news, time to remember and honor the past, time to celebrate, a bloodless way to vie for social status and settle feuds without killing. They were a valuable and deeply ingrained part of the culture.

I gave this short explanation in Yahoo! answers:

In the Pacific Northwest, missionaries and settlers were astonished to find that chiefs and even ordinary people would hold events where they'd give away huge amounts of goods and food (several times as much as a person could eat) amid songs and dancing celebrating the giver's good fortune. Sometimes, people would even burn or destroy the gifts they'd been given, not out of disrespect, but simply to show that they valued the gesture more than the goods themselves. It was considered a sacred duty in some cases, and in others, it was simply considered a way to share the wealth of the tribe evenly. Some people did it for fun! Most people considered it harmless: the sea would always give forth salmon, the trees, their wood, and so on. What was given away would always be replenished.

This puzzled the whites, who could not understand why they would squander their resources in such a careless manner: the potlatches were considered "frivolous" and a "savage superstition", and effectively banned in the late 19th century. (Oddly, this was at a time when rich whites were spending untold fortunes on party-giving, themselves.) Potlatches were studied by anthropologists rather extensively in the early 20th century, and so 'potlatch' has become a generic term (like 'shaman') in anthropology for celebrating altruism.

Nowadays, it's understood that people can't be jailed simply for wanting to hold a good party, so there are potlatches held all over the Pacific Northwest by Native people, who might spend a whole year and as much as $10,000 USD for a party lasting a single weekend.

It's a gentle irony that nowadays, White people count their wealth in what they can give away, too. Perhaps we're just getting civilized.

Pot"latch` (?), n. [Chinook potlatch, pahtlatch, fr. Nootka pahchilt, pachalt, a gift.]

1.

Among the Kwakiutl, Chimmesyan, and other Indians of the northwestern coast of North America, a ceremonial distribution by a man of gifts to his own and neighboring tribesmen, often, formerly, to his own impoverishment. Feasting, dancing, and public ceremonies accompany it.

2.

Hence, a feast given to a large number of persons, often accompanied by gifts. [Colloq., Northwestern America]

 

© Webster 1913.

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