Potlatches and Feasts

The term potlatch or potlach is a Chinook jargon word meaning “to give.” The term comes from peoples of the Pacific Coast but was later used to describe similar ceremonies held by other groups. These ceremonies were a way to publicly confirm important life events such as births, coming of age, marriages and deaths. An important part of this ceremony came when the host presented gifts to every guest attending. The value of the gift often corresponded with the status of the guest or their previous contributions to the family. The host gained status by redistributing his belongings.

 

Although the family might be left impoverished, this was a temporary condition until they attended another potlatch and received gifts in turn. In the early days, these celebrations could last for weeks at a time with much visiting, dancing and feasting.

 

Potlatches were outlawed by the Canadian government in 1880. Missionaries, Indian Agents and Mounted Police regularly halted what they considered to be heathen ceremonies, concerned that the givers were bankrupting themselves by giving away all their possessions. They did not understand the complex system of reciprocity that ensured no one would ever go wanting. Many of these ceremonies were then modified to coincide with holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

 

This unjust law ended in 1951 when, during further amendments to the Indian Act, the Potlatch ban was deleted. Today many of our ceremonies such as a headstone potlatch are based on potlatch traditions.

 

Section 3 of An Act Further to Amend The Indian Act, 1884:

“Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the “Potlach” or in the Indian dance known as the “Tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment ... and any Indian or other person who encourages ... an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, ... is guilty of a like offence ...”

Potlatch at Moosehide, December 26, 1912.

C.F. Peterson photographer. Dawson City Museum,1990-54-10