Sociology Index


Potlatch among some North American Indians of the Pacific coast is an extravagant and competitive ceremonial feast during which a person or a chief, gives presents and also gives away or destroys possessions in order to enhance his or her class and social status. A potlatch is a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States. Potlatches are also a common feature of the peoples of the Interior and of the Subarctic adjoining the Northwest Coast. Potlatch is a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples. Potlatch is part of social customs and traditions of the First Nations peoples of the Pacific north-west coast, where a ceremonial period of feasting included lavish giving away, and also destruction, of goods and property.

Potlatch is a feast marked by distribution and destruction of valuables, as a demonstration of wealth and status, characteristic of the Kwakiutl and some other Northwest Coast Indians. The act of giving out gifts was possibly the most dynamic aspect of the traditional Athabaskan potlatch. This was a generous act of sharing one's wealth with the rest of the tribe, and simultaneously a show of the abundance and superiority of the host. "Potlatch" is anglicized from the Nootka word patshatl, which means "giving." Those who gave away or destroyed the most property during Potlatch Feast earned the greatest social prestige. Anthropologists have described potlatch ceremonies as a form of ‘war with property’.

Potlatch was de-criminalized after World War II, and the potlatch ceremony has re-emerged in some communities. In many potlatch is still the bedrock of indigenous governance, as in the Haida Nation, which has rooted its democracy in potlatch law. The word comes from the Chinook Jargon, meaning "to give away" or to make a ceremonial gift in a potlatch. The Potlatch also had important elements of economic distribution, social bonding and political processes, all central to the maintenance of a society. The potlatch ceremonies of Native Americans were a form of barter that had social and ceremonial functions that were at least as important as its economic functions.

Between rival groups the potlatch could involve extravagant or competitive giving and destruction by the host of valued items as a display of superior wealth. Consequently when the potlatch was outlawed in Canada (by an act that was later repealed) some of the most powerful work incentives were removed, to the detriment of the younger sections of the Indian communities.

"In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his 'power' to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his 'power' was diminished." - Dorothy O. Johansen, Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest.

A potlatch is a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States. - Harkin, Michael E., 2001.

Potlatch in Anthropology, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes.

The traditional potlatch among Athabaskan peoples was a gathering that combined aspects of competition, peacekeeping and a show of wealth. - Laurence A. Goldin, The Land is Ours, 1996.