Gifting in Potlatch

March 24, 2009

Potlatches were social occasions given by a host to establish or uphold his status position in society. Often they were held to mark a significant event in his 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. Potlatches held by commoners were mainly local, while elites often invited guests from many tribes. Potlatches were also the venue in which ownership to economic and ceremonial privileges was asserted, displayed, and formally transferred to heirs.

Potlatch figure welcoming guests

The significance and nature of gifting in Northwest Coast potlatches has varied through time and across cultures. It is commonly portrayed as extremely competitive, with hosts bankrupting themselves to outdo their rivals and aggressively destroying property. While this form of gifting characterized practices of northern groups such as the Kwakiutl, such competition would have been considered inappropriate during Nuu-chah-nulth or Salish potlatches on the southern coast.

Contemporary Potlatch

Potlatches continue to be important events in the cultural lives of native peoples on the Northwest Coast. While the food served today is as likely to be meat stew as fish, the patterns of gifting would be recognizable to coastal tribes from earlier periods.
Parties, as they are now sometimes called, commemorate a significant event in an extended family’s or clan’s collective life. They are held today for baby showers, namings, weddings, anniversaries, special birthdays, graduations, and as memorials for the dead. It can take up to a year of planning and $10,000 for a family or clan to host a party. Most of this money is spent on purchasing food and gifts for guests, who often number in the hundreds. About a fourth of this sum is usually given out in cash. Potlatches formerly last several days, but now occur over weekends to accommodate the work schedules of participants. Still, during a 12 to 24 hour period, hosts must provide several full meals as well as snacks and beverages.
Housewares such as plastic laundry baskets, towels, cups and glasses, dishes, pot holders, and handkerchiefs are commonly given as gifts at potlatches today. Honored guests, such as elders or community leaders, are recognized by name and receive cash in addition to expensive gifts like baskets or other artwork, blankets, and comforters.


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