What is a Potlatch – and Why Do Pacific Northwest Tribes Practice It?
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
“When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts. Our Creator gave it to us, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are [Kwakwaka'wakw]. Everyone on earth is given something. The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy." — Kwakwaka'wakw Elder Agnes Axu Alfred
The Kwakwaka'wakw (pronounced kwak-wak-ah-wak) of British Columbia have a very different concept of wealth than that held by most of the Western world. To them, along with other Native peoples around the Pacific Northwest, being rich is determined not by what one possesses, but rather by how much one gives away. When someone has an abundance of material possessions, they are expected to share their wealth with the family, clan and greater community. This belief is put into practice through the potlatch.
The word potlatch, derived from the Chinook language, means “to give,” and the potlatch ceremony revolves around the host giving gifts to guests in attendance. The more gifts a host gives, the higher their social status. These joyful occasions, which involve a lavish feast and performances, are practiced to mark such milestone occasions as:
Naming of children
Passage of titles and names within a family
Transfer of the rights to land or property
Opening of a ceremonial bighouse or raising of a total pole
Passage of a loved one
Potlatching acknowledges more than one’s individual wealth, however; it celebrates Nature’s abundance, as well. A Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch includes songs, stories, dances, transformation masks, and other ceremonial objects that pay honor to the abundant Pacific Northwest environment – salmon, eagles, whales, cedar trees, rivers, mountains. In this way, the ceremony remains key to the Kwakwaka’wakw communal and cultural continuity.
In centuries past, potlatches would stretch out for weeks over the winter months. They were held in a ceremonial bighouse, the size of which indicated the host’s status in the village. Chiefs with the largest bighouses would often invite hundreds of guests from many Native nations, who would travel to a potlatch by canoe and arrive to an elaborate welcome.
Today’s potlatches still involve feasting, singing, dancing and speeches. Yet the most unique aspect of the ceremony is the distribution of gifts to all invited guests, who are “paid” for witnessing the event. These gifts have changed over time, although blankets, jewelry, flour, sugar and oolichan oil remain popular presents.
Potlatch hosts might take years to gather, make and prepare gifts to be given away at a potlatch, including what is needed for the feast. They dress in their finest regalia – cedar shawls and hats, button blankets, dance aprons – and may carry beautifully decorated rattles, drums, canoe paddles, and staffs, all elaborately carved and painted with their family’s animal clan crest designs.
The greatest symbol of wealth and power for the Kwakwaka’wakw were coppers or tlakwa (glack-wa), sheets of copper beaten in the shape of shields. These coppers – which could measure up to three feet long and were painted or engraved with the owner’s animal crest – were used to document significant events and transactions through the potlatch.
Yet even more valuable than a copper, a song is considered the most treasured gift one can receive. Songs are usually passed down within families to the oldest son, and to receive one raises a person's status in the community.
In 1885 the Canadian government enacted a law to shut down the ceremonial potlatch, believing such traditions kept Native peoples from becoming “civilized.” The ceremony remained outlawed for more than 60 years, and many Kwakwaka’wakw and others were arrested. (The charge? Dancing.) Still, potlatches continued – in secret – until the law was dropped in 1951, although it took decades for the practice to become a normal part of life again. Today many Kwakwaka’wakw families have revived their ways.
Excerpted from “The Kwakwaka’wakw: A Study of a North Pacific Coast People and the Potlatch,” a Native Knowledge 360° educational resource produced by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Reprinted with permission.
Potlatch feast dish, around the size of a coffee table, used to serve salmon and other foods. • Ceremonial woman's hat woven from cedar bark and spruce root, which features images of a whale, a raven, and the sun. • Kwakwaka’wakw Chief Willie Seaweed (1873–1967), holding a copper at Blunden Harbor, B.C. in 1951.
Additional photos of Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch circa 1980: Vickie Jensen/U'mista Cultural Society