Potlach 

It is the interplay between donation and recognition, between attentiveness and services in return that makes the promotional product work: Without the act of giving and the psychology behind it, there wouldn’t be any promotional products. In the present edition of eppi magazine we are introducing a new series on the cultural history of gift-giving, which dates back thousands of years. The theme of the first article: the Potlatch.

 

The Potlatch

The Potlatch festival had an elementary social function among the Native Americans on America’s Northwest coast. Here, it was not the person who owned the most who gained the most respect, but instead the person who was able to give away the most gifts.

Indianersquad

Five men of the Kwakiutl and Clayoquot tribes in ceremonial dress.

Of course we too have event agencies, hire locations, wedding planners and catering companies – but even our most decadent festival can’t compete with the efforts that a clan of the Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Nakoaktok, Haida or other native tribes of the American Northwest coast went to for a Potlatch. This is the reason why many of the Native Americans from the Northwest Pacific only experienced such a festival once in their lifetime.
There were many potential occasions: the appointment of a new chief, a birth, a wedding, the death of a high-ranking person, the initiation of youths in the circle of the adults, the erection of a totem pole, etc. The reasons for the gift-giving ceremony were often trivial, the actual motivation being the reinforcement of one’s own social status. In each case the decision to hold a Potlatch was decided jointly by the respective family – the word Potlatch derives from the Chinook jargon and simply means “to give away“ or a “gift“. The decision was followed by a period of preparation, the length of which was determined by the time required to accumulate the necessary large quantities of food and gifts. Carved and painted spoons, bowls, boxes, blankets and many other artistically designed objects were made especially for Potlatch festivals. As well as everyday commodities, special prestigious items were also given away, including for instance painted copper plates, which increased in value every time they changed hands.

Of course the number of guests varied, depending on the status and wealth of the host. Particularly affluent clans owned special buildings called “Longhouses”, so that they could accommodate a large number of guests and cater for them for many days.
An exact procedure was determined for theactual festival, the duration of which depended on the scale of the celebrations. As well as the catering and gift-giving ceremony, rituals also played a major role at the festivals: Each Potlatch offered the opportunity to publicly demonstrate and secure the existence of family rights and privileges in the form of masks, dances and songs. The more high-ranking guests present as witnesses, the more valid the claim.
Furthermore, the guests also found out “who they were”: The type and manner of the catering – through the use of different sized bowls measuring up to two metres long – reflected and determined the status of the recipient in the same way that the order and the manner in which the gifts were distributed did.
Holding a Potlatch enabled the hosts to establish themselves within the hierarchy and to gain a higher status, which was manifested by titles. For instance there were around 650 such titles among the tribes of the Kwakiutl, which expressed a specific ranking within the society. Somebody who had never held a Potlatch was considered to be a simple member of the tribe.
However, Potlatches were not merely indicators of the hierarchical structure: They were also an elementary part of the economic and social system, because the needy particularly profited from the redistribution of the goods.

Indianer

Hakalahl, chief of the Nakoaktok, a subtribe of
the Kwakiutl with a copper plate, a so-called
“Wanistakila“, which were exchanged at the Potlatch.
The name “Wanistakila“ means “clears the whole
house out“ – an allusion to the value of the plates.

“Battle of material?”

These aspects were often not taken into account – the West solely considered the Potlatch to be a “Battle of material“, which led to the ruin of whole tribes. However, as so often before, it was in fact only outside influences that lead to an imbalance of this gift-giving economic system. As a result of their contact to the Europeans and a high mortality rate due to the diseases arising from this contact, important positions within the community became more frequently vacant – the result being that a lot more Potlatches were held than previously, because a large number of young chiefs were seeking recognition. The goods provided by the European immigrants made it possible for them to offer strong competition – and indeed some of them drove themselves and the mtribal group they were responsible for into ruin in the proceeds.
The Potlatch was banned in 1884. Although Potlatches were occasionally still held in secret, the ban that wasn’t lifted until 1951 had a disastrous effect on the structure and the cultural life of many tribal communities.
Ethnological studies on the Potlatch emphasised very early on that the ritual was far more than a mere “orgy of squandering“ and that they contributed greatly towards the theory of reciprocity (“giving and taking”), which also plays an important role in the modern economy – particularly in the marketing sector, where gifts are definitely not a waste of money. TB