A potlatch is an opulent feast and ceremony to celebrate an important event. Potlatches have been held by First Nations in North America including the Tlingit, Tsimishian, Haida, Coast Salish and the Chinook and Dene people. Giving away possessions, or redistributing wealth, form part of the foundation of these powerful events.
Meaning of the Word
The root of the word ‘potlatch’ comes from a Nootka word meaning ‘gift’. Behind this traditional practice is a spirit of generosity, and it was considered prestigious to give away as many possessions as possible to the next generation.
This practice was considered to be something foreign to Europeans, who saw it as being counter-productive to the idea of forward progress. European values such as being industrious and accumulating wealth seemed contrary to the First Nations philosophy of accumulating goods in order to give them away down the road.
Status and Rank
Beyond just material goods, the potlatch can also transfer hunting and fishing grounds, as well as status and rank. Colonial governments outlawed the potlatch historically, but the power of this sacred ceremony has been brought back to life in recent times.
Traditional First Nations economic practices were in place long before European contact. The knowledge related to harvesting and trading resources was passed down from elders to younger generations. Trade routes were established, and vessels required for trade were crafted resourcefully from materials on hand. Trade required capital, and part of the potlatch ceremony involved the transfer of wealth to facilitate trade.
The Potlatch and Art
There is a link between the richness of the potlatch, and the intricacy and detail in First Nations art. Symbols and imagery tell a story — possibly about a visual economic statement. The designs themselves may hold information about terms and conditions related to trade and wealth distribution. On hereditary chief’s homes, the art could hold a record of a highly-developed economic system with ‘corporate’ symbols and accounting methods.
Under the potlatch system, clan chiefs have hereditary jurisdiction over lands, waters, and resources (natural, manufactured, human) plus control over the delivery of the resources.
Potlatch was partly designed to facilitate trade between First Nations including Haida, Tlingit, Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Gikxsan, Bella Coola, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Nuu Chah Nulth nations all the way to the bottom of Vancouver Island.
An Important Part of First Nations Culture and Tradition
The potlatch is a powerful practice that brings the community together around shared goals of redistributing wealth and transferring status, rank, and prestige. It formed an important part of First Nations’ economic practices, and to this day is a powerful tradition that is to be celebrated.