Northwest coast potlatches

Northwest Coast Potlatches

The potlatch was traditionally the centrepiece of communal, ceremonial and economic life on the Northwest Coast. Although potlatching differed significantly from tribe to tribe and even event to event and many peoples, particularly in the southern part of the Coast, call potlatches by a different name, all tribes hosted some variation on this ceremony.

Potlatching is often described as a feast, and feasting was certainly a major part of any potlatch celebration, but this fails to properly describe the range of activity which a potlatch entailed. Potlatches were feasts, dances, religious observances, economic redistributions, demonstrations of feats of strength and endurance, trade negotiations, and marriage, birth, death and chiefly ascension ceremonies all mixed together. The greatest potlatches happened infrequently, were hugely anticipated and long-remembered, tied into networks of reciprocal conflict and alliance that stretched across generations.

A potlatch would be announced months in advance, but its likely that they would have been planned for years if not decades--the host steadily building wealth, measured largely in trade goods such as blankets, well in advance. Masks and regalia would be commissioned from the tribe's carvers, robes from the weavers and messages sent out widely to the guests. These would include not only family and close friends, along tribal and clan lines but also enemies and rivals; anyone with any authority in local hierarchies would be invited, and refusal to attend would be considered a grievous insult. Most especially, invitations would be sent to those to whom the host owed a debt or whom they wished to place under obligation. Some of these debts may have been incurred at potlatches decades earlier by the host's father or grandfather, but all were remembered and all had to be repaid.

At the appointed date, the visitors would arrive in their finest canoes, accompanied by family entourages. All Northwest Coast villages are situated on the waterfront, usually in a protected bay or estuary, and the canoes would be sighted far off and welcomed to the community with songs and dances, the visitors replying with their own, the chanting and drumming echoing across the water. On the shore, canoes drawn up on the shingle, the visitors would be warmly greeted in person by the host, no matter the secret enmity which might exist between them.

Once all were assembled, a process which might take several days, the feasting would begin in the host's longhouse. The largest potlatches could continue for four or five days, with food constantly being supplied by the host. Foods would include meat, fruit and boiled vegetables, but the greatest delicacies were seafoods, such a salmon or halibut, prepared in stews, smoked or roasted over an open fire. All of these foods would be heavily coated in oolachen, a special grease made from rendering candlefish, which was rich and thick. It would be ladled onto the food by the host from specially-made bowls using ladles of wood or goat-horn.

After dark, great open fires were lit inside the longhouse. Some accounts of potlatches record that there were some hosts who deliberately built fires so large they set the roof of the longhouse on fire and then feigned unconcern until a guest suggested that it be put out to jeers from the other, more stoical guests. These feats of unconcerned nonchalance were common. Another chief was reported as forcing his guests, one by one, to drink an entire ladle of grease; those few that were able to avoid vomiting were cheered and given better seats at the high table. Games of all kinds were common, including dice and feats of strength and skill with bows and harpoons.

At the height of this event, rhythmic singing would begin, accompanied by rattles and drums. With the guests overfull from the meal and drowsy from the fire and smoke, masked dancers would emerge, dancing to the sound of the music. The singing would tell the histories and lineages of the host and his people, recount legends of the tribe and stories of the distant past. The guests would know these stories well and participate, often leaping to their feet to join the dances. One account among the Salish records an almost comatose elderly woman, seated almost comatose by the fire for the whole evening, who suddenly, on being passed a dance baton decorated with rattling puffin beaks, jumped to her feet and energetically joined the dancers, whirling around the fire until the song was done before handing off the baton and silently collapsing once more into her seat.

It was through such heady ceremonies that family lineages were passed from father to son (or often, from uncle to nephew), births or adoptions of children were confirmed and arranged marriages between chiefly families blessed. They reaffirmed the social, ceremonial and familial bonds of the communities among which they took place and passed traditional knowledge along to new generations through the songs and stories. Such ceremonies could last through several days of feasting, but they had a serious intent; as the feasts continued, senior members of the communities gathered with their guests for public negotiation over control of hunting territories, trading concessions, arranged marriages and peace treaties. These were conducted in the open so that all attendees would know the outcome and the participants held to their agreements. On the Northwest Coast, a man and his family, was only as good as his word; lose that by betraying an agreement and no one would do business with you in the future. Often, totem poles were raised to commemorate the event and the host as a permanent reminder of what had taken place.

The greatest obligations of the potlatch came on the final day. As guests prepared to depart, with much ceremony, the host would distribute the hoarded trade goods to each visitor, the amount dependent on their status. Status could be conferred by many factors, but one of the most significant was the matter of outstanding debts. The host, and their forebears, had attended many potlatches in the past and received gifts from their hosts. Now that they were hosting, they had to publicly match or exceed the value of the gifts they had received. This meant that if you had been gifted 200 blankets, you had to give the same person 300 or 400 blankets at your potlatch. This transferred the obligation to them and required them (or their descendants) to, one day, repay the debt at a potlatch of their own. Some hosts were so determined to prove their wealth and generosity that in addition to the gifts, they burned great heaps of blankets or even publicly killed slaves as a sign of their disregard for material possessions.

Most valuable and significant were the coppers. These were large shield-shaped copper plaques, often decorated with the crest of the host. These were the highest marker of wealth among peoples of the Northwest Coast and were only given to the most important visitors whom it was most crucial to impress. Coppers were hugely expensive, and marked a major transfer of wealth. Again, some hosts smashed coppers with rocks or threw them into the sea as a gesture of their wealth.

This was among the most important elements of the potlatch, and hosts would often be masked during this ceremony as a generous but dangerous spirit of the woods known as a D'zoonokwa or T'sonoqua, a wild woman who ate lost children but whose lair contained great riches. In an environment where a man was only as good as his friends and enemies recognised him to be, this ostentatious display of wealth served an important purpose. It marked you as a man who paid his debts, who could be trusted, and to whom all around him were indebted. It was known among some peoples as "Fighting with Property", as it established hierarchies without the need for violence.

Collection Information

These objects are only a part of our collections, of which there are more than 350,000 objects. This information comes from our collections database. Some of this is incomplete and there may be errors. This part of the website is also still under construction, so there may be some fields repeated or incorrectly formatted information.

The database sometimes uses language taken from historical documents to help research, which may now appear outdated and even offensive. The database also includes information on objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities.

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