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IX The Potlatch

No treatise on the subject of totempoles would be complete without some discussion of the much-libeled "Potlatch," for on the Northwest Coast the two are often closely related, especially with the Haidas. So far as the Tlingit is concerned the Potlatch is a religious ceremony, the motive underlying it being respect for the dead. The erecting of a totempole by the Tlingits on these occasions did not necessarily follow, especially in the North. However, if a pole were raised, it would be a memorial to the dead, and not a "Potlatch" pole such as the Haidas planted.

The true Potlatch of the Haidas was given by a chief to members of his own phratry. It was purely social and intended to build up his reputation and increase his social standing. The elaborate pole erected on this occasion stood as a witness and a validation of what had taken place.

There are numerous ceremonies held by the various Indian peoples of the Northwest Coast and each has its especial function and individual name. White man has seldom taken the trouble to examine the institutions of the primitive people with whom he comes in contact and as a result often misunderstands and confuses them. All ceremonies held by the Indians on the Coast were regarded as "Potlatches" by the whites and were generally regarded as "bad medicine." Missionaries sought to have them outlawed as mere barbarous, wasteful orgies.

It was in defending this institution that the late Dr. Franz Boas, writing in the Victoria Province under date of Feb. 11, 1897 defined the Potlatch so aptly:

"The economic system of the Indians of British Columbia and Alaska is largely based on credit, just as much as that of civilized communities. In all his undertakings the Indian relies on the help of his friends. He promises to pay them for this help at a later date. If the help furnished consisted in valuables—which are measured by the Indians by blankets as we measure them by money—he promises to repay the amount so loaned with interest. The Indian has no system of writing and, therefore, in order to give security to the transaction it is performed publicly. The contracting of debts on the one hand and the paying of debts on the other is the potlatch. This economic system has developed to such an extent that the capital possessed by all the individuals of the tribe combined exceeds many times the actual amount of cash that exists. That is to say the conditions are quite analogous to those prevailing in our community: If we want to call in all our outstanding debts, it is found that there is not, by any means, money enough in existence to pay them, and the result of an attempt of all the creditors to call in their loans results in disastrous panic from which it takes the community a long time to recover.

"It must be clearly understood that an Indian who invites all his friends and neighbors to a great potlatch, and apparently squanders all the accumulated results of long years of labor, has two things in his mind which we cannot but acknowledge as wise and worthy of praise. His first object is to pay his debts. This is done publicly and with much ceremony, as a matter of record. His second object is to invest the fruits of his labor so that the greatest benefit will accrue from them for his own benefit as well as for his children. The recipients of gifts at this festival receive these as loans, which they utilize in their present undertakings. But after the lapse of several years they must repay them with interest to the giver or to his heir. Thus the potlatch comes to be considered by the Indians as a means of insuring the well-being of their children if they should be left orphans while still young; it is, we might say, his life insurance.

"The sudden abolition of this system, which in all its intricacies is very difficult to understand, but the main points of which are set forth in the preceding remarks, destroys all the accumulated capital of the Indians. It undoes the carefully planned life-work of the present generations, exposes them to need in their old age, and leaves the orphans unprovided for. What wonder, that it is resisted with vigour by the best class of Indians, and that only the lazy ones support it because it relieves them of the duty to pay their debts.

"But it will be said, that the cruel ceremonies connected with some of the festivals make their discontinuance necessary. From an intimate knowledge of the Indian character and of these very ceremonies I consider any interference with them unadvisable. They are so intimately connected with all that is sacred to the Indian that their forced discontinuance will tend to destroy what moral steadiness is left to him. It was during these ceremonies that I heard the old men of the tribe exhort the young to mend their ways, that they held up to shame the young women who had gone to Victoria to lead a life of shame and that they earnestly discussed the question of requesting the Indian agents to help them in their endeavour to bring the young back to the good moral life of old.

"And the cruelty of the ceremonial exists alone in the fancy of those who know of it only by the exaggerated descriptions of travelers. In olden times it was a war ceremony and captives were killed and even devoured. But with the encroachment of civilization the horrors of the old ceremony have died out. I heard an old chief addressing his people thus: ‘How lovely is our time. No longer do we go in fear of each other. Peace is everywhere. No longer is there the strife of battle; we only try to outdo each other in the potlatch’, meaning that each tries to invest his property in the most profitable manner, and particularly that they vie with each other in honorably repaying their debts.

"The ceremony of the present day is no more and no less than a time of general amusement which is expected with much pleasure by young and old. But enough of its old sacredness remains to give the Indian, during the time of its celebration, an aspect of dignity which he lacks at other times. The lingering survivals of the old ceremonials will die out quickly, and the remainder is a harmless amusement that we should be slow to take away from the native who is struggling against the over-powerful influence of civilization."

Outwardly the Potlatch follows quite a uniform pattern along the entire coast. Preparations may go on for several years in which time vast stores of food are gathered and blankets or other articles intended as gifts are collected. Among the Haidas the success of the proposed Potlatch was assured by an investigation committee who looked over the food supply as well as the proposed gifts and not until they had voiced approval could the aspiring chief send out his invitations.

If the guests came from a distance they did not go immediately to the appointed place but landed their canoes nearby where faces were painted in the approved manner and festive attire put on. Then, when all was in readiness, they made a triumphal arrival, singing a peace song from their canoes. This song was answered by the host and his clan who stood before the house which invariably faced the beach. When the visitors landed they went into an appropriate dance before the host after which the entertaining chief gave his welcoming dance. All were then ushered within and seated in opposing groups, according to rank. Feasting followed and there were many speeches by the host or his appointed orators, wherein he was glorified and his rivals scorned and belittled.

Presents According To Rank

Presents were distributed each day, according to the rank of the recipient. Since wealth and rank were practically synonymous, those of high degree received the most costly presents. It was an insult to give too little and an invitation to trouble to give too much. The reason for this was obvious. Each gift had a string to it, that is, it could not be refused and within a reasonable time it had to be returned with interest, else the recipient was disgraced and took a social fall. To give too little implied that the host underestimated his guest’s ability to repay and would cause deep resentment. But if he wanted to down a social rival he purposely gave more than he could ever repay. This was a dangerous procedure, for the guest might risk a bloody feud with his rival rather than fall beneath him socially.

To ascertain the financial status of each of his proposed guests, the host might employ scouts to spy out information that would aid in achieving the desired result of the Potlatch. For, as Boas has said, the Potlatch was the Haida’s system of banking and social security. Judicious gift-giving meant a handsome financial return in due time and would insure the independence of the host in his declining years, or of his children should he not live to receive the returns himself.

The word "potlatch" comes from the Nootka via the Chinook jargon and means "to give." The institution is said to be Kwakiutl in origin, spreading north and south along the coast for a thousand miles or so, and even into the interior. However, it is a different sort of "giving" even when no ceremony is involved. For instance, if a man has two canoes and his Indian friend has none, the Indian might casually remark that no man needs two canoes, or that he has no canoe, or needs one, or any other of a number of subtle hints. When he believes the canoe owner to be sufficiently impressed of his desires he "potlatches" his friend something he believes to be equal in value to the desired canoe. Then, if within a reasonable time the canoe is not forthcoming, he takes back his gift, and the deal is off. White men, not understanding this procedure, have coined the term "Indian-giver" for anyone who takes back a gift.

Less than a decade ago, a band of Canadian Haidas, visiting their Alaskan cousins in a village across the line, distributed gifts throughout the village upon their arrival. However, on the day of departure all such gifts were gathered up from each house where they had not been "wined, dined, and variously feted."

Payment for services rendered was made at potlatch-like ceremonies, only here the "gift" had no strings attached, for a man in this instance was only paying current debts. These debts might represent wages due for assistance in building a house and would be discharged at the house-warming ceremony, or more correctly the "house-drying-out" ceremony. Or they might have been incurred as the result of a funeral wherein the opposite phratry did all the work.

Great ceremonies of "Potlatches" were held by the Nootkas when they presented their daughters to society; by the Kwakiutls when they purchased or sold a chief’s copper, or at the naming of a child, piercing the lip for labrets or any other ceremony that had to be publicly witnessed.

At the funeral gifts were made to the singers who by their songs helped assuage the grief of the bereaved. But none of these were true potlatches in that the "gift" was merely payment and did not have to be returned.

The Potlatch as a native institution in Southeastern Alaska died at the turn of the century. However, it is not entirely forgotten and many of the older inhabitants still recognize Potlatch obligations. An interesting revival occurred at Wrangell in 1940. The community house and totempoles on Shakes island had just been reconstructed by the U.S. Forest Service and plans were being made for appropriate dedication ceremonies. It was then that Kudanake, the legal successor of Chief Shakes who died in 1916 expressed the desire to take the name and position to which he was entitled. And so the idea of the Wrangell Potlatch was conceived.

In order that the local Chamber of Commerce might aid financially, it was adopted by Kudanake and several thousand dollars made available for the festivity. Kake natives were invited to dance opposite the chief’s clan and confederates. The Potlatch was colorful and realistic even to those who could not understand the Tlingit tongue. In the course of the Potlatch, conducted entirely by tribesmen, two young natives, a boy and a girl, received honorary names and Kudanake assumed the traditional title of Shakes, the seventh to bear that name.

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