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?
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.