Potlatch (Anthropology)

A potlatch is a gift-giving ceremony as practised on the Northwest Coast of North America, in societies such as Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Haida and Chinook. It was recorded by numerous ethnographers, including Franz Boas, and has been re-analysed by others in more recent times. The term is also employed in a looser sense for ceremonies in other parts of the world, such as Melanesia, where feasting and gift-giving practices are similar to those of the Northwest Coast Indians.

From an ecological-functional perspective, the instability of resources in the Northwest Coast (including salmon and wild plants) made redistribution desirable — from those with resources in any given season to those who lacked them. People who accumulated sufficient resources to hold a feast could do so, and even barter away food beforehand in order to acquire other goods to give. Kin would assist their kin, and commoners their chiefs, in building up the necessary stockpile of goods to give away. The gift-giving was ostentatious. By giving, the donor showed off his wealth and reaffirmed his social position. Accepting gifts was a mark of recognizing the superior status of the donor.

Typical occasions when potlatches were held included births and deaths, initiations into secret societies, and weddings. They were also held at the death of a chief (when his successor would hold one in order to assert his authority and influence), after a public embarrassment (as a face-saving device) and simply when one kin group acquired enough wealth to give it away. The potlatch system was highly competitive; it depended on rivalry between powerful individuals as well as on the principle that the donor is morally superior to the recipient.

The institution reached its most elaborate form among the Kwakiutl from 1849 to 1925. What had been gift-giving evolved into the wilful destruction of wealth. Those who could afford to burn blankets in front of their rivals, for example, not only showed off their higher status; they denied their rivals the potential for acquiring the goods for themselves. Government authorities eventually banned the practice, but potlatches of a more benign nature continue today: Northwest Coast Indians still use this Chinook word to describe feasts held, for example, at weddings, where cash give-aways keep alive the spirit of the potlatch system.

The potlatch is a classic example of an economic institution embedded in a wider social structure. For this reason, it is often used by substantivist economic anthropologists to show the impossibility of analysing exchange divorced from its social context. It was important for Marcel Mauss (1990 [1925]) for much the same reason: it illustrates well his notions that society functions to redistribute material resources, that there is in cases like potlatch societies a ‘totality’ made up of gift-exchange and its wider context, and consequently that ‘gifts’ are never really free.

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