The potlatch: the celebration of resilient indigenous peoples

The potlatch – which translates as gift – serves as the basis for the conception of various masks and regalia to be on display at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. Seen at the exhibit will be the creations of the Kwakwaka’wakw, a First Nation of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

Thousands of years have passed since the Aboriginal peoples of the Northwestern Coast began celebrating one of their most important cultural events, in which gift giving serves as a sign of strong and lasting bonds of the community.

“Elders viewed and view giving as a mirror of what the creator does; giving good things of need to people and then people giving once again to others,” says William Lindsay, director of the Office for Aboriginal Peoples at Simon Fraser University.

In each First Nations community along the Northwestern Coast of Canada and the United States, the potlatch is celebrated uniquely. However, its historical significance, traditional sanctity and social meaning can be found as a commonality in all celebrations of the potlatch, says Lindsay.

Potlatch poles at Musqueam Reserve, British Columbia, 1898. | Photo courtesy of William Lindsay

Potlatch poles at Musqueam Reserve, British Columbia, 1898. | Photo courtesy of William Lindsay

The act of giving gifts is the basic ritual of the potlatch. According to Lindsay, furs, blankets, carvings, copper and different foods are traditionally among the goods given to attendees of the potlatch, having been prepped and stored months – sometimes years – before the celebration itself.

The inspiration for holding a potlatch is often a special milestone in the life of an Aboriginal community member or family. A marriage, birth, memorial and other such memorable happenings sparks the start of months of preparation by a family or an entire village for a potlatch.

Many purposes of the potlatch

What many people don’t realize, says Lindsay, is that economic, political, social and cultural functions are fulfilled in the potlatch. Economically, the family who gave away surplus goods would be taken care of in the future during a downtime in their life. Politically, the dissemination of stories and cultural rites reinforced the importance, and during the ban on the potlatch by the Canadian government, the struggle of Aboriginal peoples’ way of life.

The coming together of peoples, the grandeur of revered speakers, the meals served and oral histories shared, as well the dancing that takes place reinforces the enriched cultural bonds of Aboriginal peoples during a potlatch, says Lindsay.

Historical resilience

William Lindsay, director of the SFU Office for Aboriginal Peoples is Cree-Stoney | Photo courtesy of William Lindsay

William Lindsay, director of the SFU Office for Aboriginal Peoples is Cree-Stoney | Photo courtesy of William Lindsay

The potlatch, along with other spiritual ceremonies, was outlawed by the Canadian government in 1884 and remained so until 1951. Terms such as “wasteful” were used in an effort to justify the government’s ban on the ceremony, and as a result, many of the masks and other artistic artifacts were confiscated and sent to museums.

The powerful resilience of Aboriginal peoples was evident when potlatches continued to be held by families, states Lindsay. During this time, shortening the span of the potlatch to a weekend of festivities became common. Despite this fight for their culture, the government tightened restrictions on Aboriginal communities and during the 1920s, arrests and jail time weren’t unheard of as a consequence for the celebration, according to Lindsay.

Since the ban was lifted in 1951, the potlatch has been held in high regard as a culturally and economically significant celebration for Northwestern Aboriginal peoples of Canada. The reasons behind the celebrations remain sacred nowadays, and often are held over the weekend as a reminder of a time when communities had to celebrate in secret rebellion, says Lindsay.

While the gifts traded nowadays differ in detail, the basic ritual and its implications remain the same. The potlatch continues as a celebration encompassing the important spheres of peoples who value sharing, giving and rejoicing in a rich culture.


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