Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A potlatch is a ceremony among certain First Nations peoples on the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States and the Canadian province of British Columbia such as the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'kawakw). The potlatch takes the form of a ceremonial feast traditionally featuring seal meat or salmon. In it, hierarchical relations between groups were observed and reinforced through the exchange of gifts and other ceremonies. The potlatch is an example of a gift economy, whereby the host demonstrates their wealth and prominence through giving away their possessions and thus prompt participants to reciprocate when they hold their own potlatch. Although this sort of exchange is widely practiced across the planet (consider, for example, the Western practice of buying one's friends rounds of drinks), the potlatch is the example of this phenomenon that is most widely known to the public.
Originally the potlatch was held to celebrate events in the life cycle of the host family such as the birth of a child. However, the influx of manufactured goods such as blankets and pieces of copper into the Pacific Northwest caused inflation in the potlatch in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some groups, such as the Kwakiutl, used the potlatch as an arena in which highly competitive contests of status took place. In some cases, goods were actually destroyed after being received.
Potlatching was made illegal in Canada and the United States in the late nineteenth century, when the government considered such displays 'irrational' and a waste of valuable resources that would be better use to help Native North Americans develop and acculturate into Canadian/American society. As understanding of the true nature of the potlatch grew it was made legal once again; 1934 in the United States and 1954 in Canada.
Today people continue to hold potlatches and they are once again an important part of community life. They may be performed for a variety of different reasons depending on the traditional practice of the tribe and regional variation. Many if not most potlatches are today associated with the commemoration of a deceased individual, usually an important person in the community. Other reasons include totem pole raisings, payments for significant services rendered, political activities, community celebrations, and tribal gatherings. Gifts today usually consist of money or food, but may include blankets, clothing, dishes, household utensils, art, and nearly anything else which has some obvious value.
The potlatch has fascinated Westerners for many years. Thorstein Veblen's use of the ceremony in his book Theory of the Leisure Class made potlatching a symbol of 'conspicuous consumption'. Other authors such as Georges Bataille were struck by what they saw as the archaic, communal nature of the potlatch's operation—it is for this reason that the organization Lettrist International named their review after the potlatch in the 1950s. The potlatch has also become a model, albeit a sometimes poorly understood one, for the open source software movement and a variety of social movements.
- Kan, Sergei (1993). Symbolic Immortality: The Tlingit potlatch of the nineteenth century. Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.
- Mauss, Marcel (1925). The Gift 
- Masco, Joseph (1995). "It is a strict law that bids us dance": Cosmologies, colonialism, death and ritual authority in the Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch, 1849-1922. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 37(1): 41-75.
- Potlatch entry from the Encyclopedia of North American Indians
- On-line exhibition on potlatch from the Peabody Museum
- Potlatch Then and Now: a website on potlatch from a Kwakwaka'wakw cultural heritage organization
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