Archive for the 'potlatch' Category

Notes on Mauss

March 25, 2009

In primitive or archaic types of society what is the principle whereby the gift received has to be repaid?
What force is there in the thing given which compels the recipient to make a return?

Mauss talks mostly on Polynesia, Melanesia, and North West America systems of gift exchange, however he speaks also about potlaches in the societies of North-East Siberia.
Potlatch meant originally ‘to nourish’ or ‘to consume’. Mauss gives different examples of potlaches and talked about reason of giving gifts. Most of them, like the Tlingit and Haida inhabit the islands, which were very rich, they passed their winters in continuous festival, in banquets, tribal gatherings, gave the gifts for determination their position in the hierarchy of their own clans.

The system of contractual gifts in Samoa is confined to marriage, in respect of childbirth, circumcision, sickness, girls’ puberty, funeral ceremonies and trade. The elements of the potlatch there have been attested to: the honour, prestige or mana (magical, religious and spiritual power) which wealth; and the absolute obligation to make return gifts under the penalty of losing the mana, confers authority and wealth. The elements of rivalry, destruction and fighting seemed to be absent in Polynesia although they were present in Melanesia.

The Maori had a kind of system of exchange, or rather of giving presents which had later to be exchanged or repaid.’They exchanged dried fish for pickled birds and mats. The exchange was carried out between tribes or acquainted families without any kind of stipulation.
The Maori spoke about the hau, the spirit of things and particularly of the forest and forest game, ‘I shall tell you about hau. Hau is not the wind. Not at all. Suppose you have some particular object, taonga, and you give it to me; you give it to me without a price.We do not bargain over it. Now I give this thing to a third person who after a time decides to give me something in repayment for it (utu), and he makes me a present of something (taonga). Now this taonga I received from him is the spirit (hau) of the taonga I received from you and which I passed on to him. The taonga which I receive on account of the taonga that came from you, I must return to you. It would not be right on my part to keep these taonga whether they were desirable or not. I must give them to you since they are the hau of the taonga which you gave me. If I were to keep this second taonga a for myself I might become ill or even die. Such is hau, the hau of personal property, the hau of the taonga, the hau of the forest. Enough on that subject.’

‘The taonga and all strictly personal possessions have a hau, a spiritual power. You give me taonga, I give it to another, the latter gives me taonga back, since he is forced to do so by the hau of my gift; and I am obliged to give this one to you since I must return to you what is in fact the product of the hau of your taonga.’

Hence it follows that to give something is to give a part of oneself. Secondly, we are led to a better understanding of gift exchange and total presentation, including the potlatch. It follows clearly from what we have seen that in this system of ideas one gives away what is in reality a part of one’s nature and substance, while to receive something is to receive a part of someone’s spiritual essence. To keep this thing is dangerous, not only because it is illicit to do so, but also because it comes morally, physically and spiritually from a person. The thing given is not inert. It is alive and often personified, and strives to bring to its original clan and homeland some equivalent to take its place.

Total presentation and the potlatch by Mauss doesn’t only carry with it the obligation to repay gifts received, but it implies two others equally important: the obligation to give presents and the obligation to receive them. There is a large number of facts on the obligation to receive, A clan, household, association or guest are constrained to demand hospitality, to receive presents, to barter or to make blood and marriage alliances. The obligation to give is no less important. To refuse to give, or to fail to invite, is like refusing to accept- the equivalent of a declaration of war; it is a refusal of friendship and intercourse.

In the societies of North-East Siberia and amongst the Eskimo of West Alaska and the Asiatic coast of the Behring Straits, the potlatch concerns not only men who rival each other in generosity, and the objects they transmit or destroy, and the spirits of the dead which take part in the transactions and whose names the men bear; it concerns nature as well. Exchanges between namesakes- people named after the same spirits-incite the spirits of the dead, of gods, animals and natural objects to be generous towards them. Men say that gift- exchange brings abundance of wealth. On the extreme north-west of Siberia they have the potlatch also. They practised most the obligatory-voluntary gift exchanges in the course of protracted thanksgiving ceremonies which follow one after the other in every house throughout the winter. Mauss quotes Bogoras and his comparison with the Russian koliada customs in which masked children go from house to house begging eggs and flour and none dare refuse them.

North-West American and North-East Asian potlatch contain the element of destruction (sacrificial destruction implies giving something that is to be repaid). It is not simply to show power and wealth and unselfishness that a man puts his slaves to death, burns his precious oil, throws coppers into the sea, and sets his house on fire. In doing this he is also sacrificing to the gods and spirits, who appear incarnate in the men who are at once their namesakes and ritual allies.



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.

potlatch ban

March 23, 2009

Photo from a crime scene: This 1922 photograph shows masks seized from dancers and other participants after a raid on a potlatch ceremony in British Columbia. (Royal British Columbia Museum)


There was a s raid in 1921 on a potlatch hosted by Chief Dan Cranmer.
“They were charged with really criminal things like dancing, giving speeches and distributing gifts,” said Ms. Cranmer Webster, a former director of the U’mista Cultural Center in the family’s home town of Alert Bay, Canada, which is on an island about 180 miles northwest of Vancouver. “They were given a choice: if they gave up all their treasures, their masks and regalia, they wouldn’t have to go jail.”

Some of the Indians refused, and 20 of them were sent to prison for terms of two or three months. Other surrendered their masks and regalia, many of which ended up in museums in Canada, the United States and Britain. Eventually the museums (including the Smithsonian) returned most of the masks, which are on display at the U’mista Cultural Center. Some masks remain in the hands of private collectors (…)
One of the reasons the Canadian government outlawed potlatches was based on information from missionaries that our people would be involved in debaucheries at these events and no work would get done. But the potlatches were held in the winter time and our people used to work so hard the rest of the year to gather up gifts to give away.”

John Tierney.The Potlatch Scandal: Busted for Generosity

potlatch ban video 1
potlatch ban video 2

March 22, 2009
(...) je t'envoie deux images qui montrent
une couverture chilkat et une plaque de cuivre (coperplates). Ce sont deux
objets très anciens qui font partie de la
culture des Indiens de la Côte nord-ouest de l'Amérique (Chilkat, Kwakiutl)
qui pratiquaient le potlatch. La plaque de
cuivre représente une monnaie (comme de l'argent) et les chefs la cassaient
pour qu'elle ne valent plus rien, en signe
de leur mépris des biens matériels. 

Ci-joint également une liste de film ethnographiques avec les références
parmi lesquels des films sur le potlatch(...)