Potlatch, the Indian festival in which the rich gave away their belongings and was banned as anti-capitalist

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Canadian Parliament and the US Congress approved the unusual prohibition of an ancestral custom of the Northwest Coast Indians.

But not because they feared that it might reinforce their group sentiment and lead them to rebellion, as would happen in 1895 with the outlawing of the Sun Dance among the tribes of the plains, but because they considered it useless, immoral and contrary to the values ​​of civilization.

This forbidden tradition consisted of an annual festival in which, between music and dance, the wealthiest of the tribe parted with their belongings, giving them away or even destroying them. It was what they called potlatch.

It was missionaries like William Duncan and government Indian affairs agents like George Blenkinsop and Gilbert M. Sproat who reported negatively on the potlatch for going against capitalist spirit and constitute a savage practice that could negatively affect the tribes themselves

That is why in 1884 the Indian Act Canada issued a regulation of behavior for the more than six hundred indigenous peoples, whom it called First Nations, and it was of obligatory unilateral application.

The law, quite broad, sought the Indian assimilation to the white way of life, eliminating certain ancestral customs, forcing the abandonment of large families in favor of small family nuclei and placing aboriginal children in special schools for the corresponding re-education, on pain of being separated from their parents and placed in foster care.

An amendment to that law, added the following year and known as potlatch banspecifically vetoed the potlatch. Of course, those affected considered it an injustice and some openly disobeyed. At first there were no reprisals, but from 1921 there were arrests, finishing around twenty individuals of both sexes. in prison.

The potlatch formed part of the tradition of speaking peoples na-dené (Haida, Tingit), penutia (Tshimshian) and wakash (Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakiutl), as well as the culture Salishwhich occupied both the coast and the interior of British Columbia and the northwestern United States.

Potlatch at Port Townsend in 1859 (James Cillchrist Swan)Image: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

The name itself describes the idea, as it derives from the term paɬaˑč, which in the Nuu-chah-nulth language means gift or gift. However, each town endowed its potlatch of its own characteristics. Of course, they had elements in common, such as taking advantage of certain social events to celebrate it (weddings, deaths, adoptions, housewarmings and the like) and to do it fundamentally in the winter.

It was a hierarchical rite organized by a numaym, a kind of rich clan (although it also included its lower class members and slaves) and led by an old man associated with a totem. Each tribe was made up of several numaymeach of which had approximately a hundred people.

Logically, only accommodated they had sufficient capacity to carry out that custom. In fact, the heads of each vied with each other in displaying gifts; and if they thought they had not reached a sufficient level, they burned the rest in a bonfire.

Originally the gifts were in the form of physical and storable thingsWhat pemmican (dried meat), fish, oil, canoes, skins, slaves or copperssome sheets of copper from the lining of the ships that were carved in the shape of a T and served as sumptuous jewels.

However, contact with the white man brought a widespread enrichment through trade, parallel to a population collapse due to the absence of natural defenses against diseases.

This changed the concept of potlatch: a numaym He acted as a host to others, who met, sitting according to their hierarchy and following a strict protocol, to receive the distribution of hunting, fishing and gathering rights in the territory. In other words, it went from giving physical goods to privileges over natural resources. All this accompanied by ritual dances in which the officiants were dressed in the masks that represented their respective clans.

It is not difficult to see that deep down it is a complex form of social relationshipboth in the external order (between towns and tribes) and in the internal order (within each numaym himself and even of each family), to structure the wealth divisionwhich incidentally serves to determine the primacy of one clan over another and transmit privileges to successors.

And it is that what he potlatch It revealed that political power was not in the hands of whoever possessed greater economic power, but rather whoever distributed resources better. In other words, the one who distributed the most achieved supremacy because he surpassed the others in prestige.

Of course, this description of the potlatch It is general -based on studies on the Kwakwaka’wakw Indians in Vancouver- and in each town it adopted different characteristics and there were even several types.

Alaskan Indians arriving at a village to celebrate potlatch/Image: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

Over time, the humblest began to claim rights of those who until then had been deprived, with which the privileged had to increase the amount of gifts and extend the range of beneficiaries in order to compete with their rivals and maintain their social position.

The consequence of this was the squandering of huge amounts of assets because sometimes there were still things left over and what was done then was, as we said before, simply destroy them. Such destruction could reach astonishing levels: houses, plots, canoes…

Anthropologists often interpret this as a formula of geographical adaptation to available resourcesIn other words, a town that was going through a period of scarcity could benefit from the generosity of another that had a buoyant situation; and vice versa, since it was unthinkable not to return the favor when there was a chance.

But nineteenth-century whites saw in it only a absurd wasteHence, they incited the government to prohibit the ban, supported by the companies (who only found Indian personnel in summer, because in winter they dedicated themselves to spending their profits in that inconceivable way) and the religious, who denounced the immorality of some women having to prostitute herself to be able to settle the accounts of the potlatch of their husbands.

Potlatch at Alert Bay, 1912/Photo: City of Vancouver

So the aforementioned amendment typified it as minor offencesanctioning with a prison sentence of two to six months both the participation in that party and the incitement to its celebration.

We said at the beginning that the practical application of the law was a failure due to the deep roots of the tradition, the fundamental role that it played in their social and religious life, the displeasure that it aroused among the indigenous people and the difficulties in controlling the vast territory through which the tribes spread.

The anthropologist’s voice was raised against Franz Boas, who had studied the phenomenon in Vancouver and considered the ban nonsense. Some agents also considered the law unnecessary, assuming that over time the custom would decline with the education given to the new generations.

the proscription it was finally abolished in 1951 and the Indians recovered the potlatch as a way of vindicating their past and their identity, gaining strength in the 1970s and 1980s up to the present.


Akal Dictionary of Ethnology and Anthropology (Pierre Bonte and Michael Izard)/Potlatch. Native Ceremony and Myth on the Northwest Coast (Mary Giraudo Beck)/Handbook of North American Indians. Northwest coast (William C. Sturtevant and Wayne Suttles)/North American Indian Life. Customs and Traditions of 23 Tribes (Elsie Clews Parsons)/After the Fur Trade. The Aboriginal Laboring Class of British Columbia, 1849-1890 (John Lutz)