December 16, 2008

Kwakwaka’wakw holiday lessons

Tips From the Potlatch, Where Giving Knows No SlumpWhen Chief Cranmer’s ancestors hosted a potlatch, they displayed stacks of blankets and mountains of flour to be handed out to the masses, and singled out important guests for expensive silver bracelets and boats. A chief sometimes flaunted his affluence by tossing his own canoes into the fire or cutting up pieces of copper currency worth thousands of dollars.

Missionaries denounced the potlatch as “wasteful” and “heathen.” Canadian authorities outlawed the ceremonies and sent Indians to prison after raiding a potlatch in 1921 hosted by Chief Cranmer’s father. (For details, see TierneyLab.) But nothing, not even the Great Depression, could stop the potlatchers.

They went on holding underground ceremonies, sometimes in remote villages, sometimes by exchanging gifts under the guise of giving Christmas presents. In the 1950s, when the authorities finally gave up and lifted the ban, it was clear that the missionaries’ hopes of reforming the Indians were futile. Instead, the rest of society was assimilating the Indians’ ways by turning the holidays into a gift-giving extravaganza. Shoppers may try to restrain themselves this year, but gift-giving serves too many purposes for it to be abandoned, as Chief Cranmer understands.

“Even in hard economic times, the potlatch has always been the structure that enables people in our society to work together,” he says. Although the Indians’ traditional fishing industry has been devastated in recent decades, they’re still holding potlatches that typically cost the host chief and his extended family at least $30,000, sometimes $100,000.

What can the Kwakwaka’wakw teach us in our hard times?
The most important lessons include:Don’t forget your enemies. “A lot of attention has been paid to the competitive side of the old potlatches, but they also helped people avoid conflicts,” says Aldona Jonaitis, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska. “Besides strengthening the bonds within a family, potlatching enabled people to establish bonds and obligations with potential enemies outside the family.” Today, with families becoming smaller and more dispersed, giving gifts to outsiders—even ones you don’t like—is a better self-preservation strategy than ever.

Share the wealth. The missionaries who railed against the potlatch didn’t understand its larger social function. In return for recognizing the greatness of the host chief, the low-status guests were given food and gifts without any expectation of repayment. It might be seen as a successful example of “trickle-down economics,” says Aaron Glass, a potlatch scholar at the American Museum of Natural History.

“Even though the elite chiefs controlled the fishing grounds and the trade networks,” Dr. Glass says, “the potlatch functioned to make sure everyone had enough fish and that the excess trading wealth was redistributed to the entire community.” In hard times that function is especially important, so remember the neediest this year.

Ignore the Scrooges. For more than a century, the potlatchers in Chief Cranmer’s family have been rebuffing their critics with a simple explanation. “Outsiders may think we’re dumb for giving away our money when everyone else is trying to save, but we do it because we feel good,” Chief Cranmer says. “After you give away everything and are pretty broke, you’re supposed to be happy.” And he swears that’s just how he felt after his last potlatch.
Comment:  This is another fine example of how Native values and Euro-American values differ.


Unknown said...

I am a firm believer in 'potlatches', however as I am only 73 years old i am wondering what we gave before we had the whits man's flour, which is unhealthy in most instances such as frybread, Our ancestor's had no frybread before the white mans flour mills. And I am wondering what was really given away in the 'old days'. Does anyone know?

Rob said...

According to legend, the first patlatch was concerned with the exchange of feathers, long regarded as sacred objects by the North American Indians.

Potlatches were part of the way of life of many of the Indians of the northern Pacific coast of North America. Traditional gifts included weapons, slaves, furs, and blankets.

Potlatch gifts have always been a mix of precious goods, traditional art objects, practical items and storable foods. In the 1800s factory-made wool blankets were the standard potlatch gift, given away by the hundreds or even thousands. Other popular gifts included sacks of flour, cookware, and for high-ranking guests, copper, silver or gold bracelets.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, gifts included storable food (oolichan [candle fish] oil or dried food), canoes, and slaves among the very wealthy, but otherwise not income-generating assets such as resource rights. The influx of manufactured trade goods such as blankets and sheet copper into the Pacific Northwest caused inflation in the potlatch in the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries.