Imagine being invited to the house of the wealthiest person in town so that he could demonstrate his wealth by giving away expensive and prized gifts. The Native Americans of the Northwest called this a “Potlatch” and it was practiced “religiously” before the Russians, British, and Americans moved in.
Typically, the rich and powerful of the tribe would spend the warm summer months accumulating vast surpluses of food, blankets, animal skins, slaves, canoes and coppers. Then, on the occasion of a birth, death, adoption, wedding or other major event, these elite would hold a potlatch and lavish its less privileged guests with gifts. The gifts to the lower classes did not include resources that might aid in wealth gathering like fishing or hunting equipment or territory. These items and positions of status were reserved for the elite and were often given to relatives during a potlatch, to increase their wealth and status in the tribe.
Under this system, a person’s wealth was judged not by what they possessed, but by what they gave away. So, only the elite could host a
potlatch. Sometimes, a potlatch was held by competing aristocrats challenging the other to match or exceed his generosity.
As suggested by this ceremony, the tribes were highly stratified into nobles, commoners, and slaves. The children and families of the nobles were often separated from the commoners and they lived lavish private lives in separate residences rarely interacting with other members of the tribe.
The Northwest coast has always possessed an abundance of resources and food supplies. According to Anton Treuer, in “Atlas of Indian Nations”:
“The Pacific Northwest is an area with incredibly diverse ecosystems, climates, and human histories. The Olympic, Coast, and Cascade Mountains have a cold, alpine climate. The coast has an oceanic climate with verdant plant life on land and abundant marine life in the water. It is rich in fish, especially salmon, and myriad species of marine life. Fish, furbearing animals, large and small game, and humans thrived here in large numbers. Every part of the region is close to the
ocean, but hard to access by land from the east. This gave early inhabitants of the Northwest Coast protection from powerful outside groups and easy access to food. The human population in the Northwest Coast grew quickly and remained denser than most parts of the world.”
The elite believed that they were the descendants of mythical animals who descended to earth and became human by removing their animal masks. This mask was passed down through the generations from father to son and the holder of the mask was the leader of the “numaym” or family. The numaym was akin to what we refer to today as the tribe and included the aristocracy as well as the commoners and slaves. Because the fertile Pacific Coast enabled the inhabitants to build permanent, stationery residences, the different numayms rarely travelled or roamed beyond their individual territories. consequently, there were many different languages and dialects spoken in this relatively small region.
The leaders of the numayms flaunted their wealth in their elaborate dress, regally adorned houses, extravagant and ornate totems, and, as mentioned before, lavish potlatches. But as the Russians, and later British and American settlers moved in, the numaym tradition of Potlatching was viewed by missionaries and government agents as “a worse than useless custom”. Missionary William Duncan wrote in 1875 that the potlatch was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized.” As a result there were numerous laws passed to try to ban the Potlatch.
I love this response by Chief O’waxalagalis: “It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours.”
Today, Potlatches still occur and are increasing. The bans had all been repealed by 1951 due to the numaym’s tenacity and the governments’ inability to police them.
Author of the “Cherokee Chronicles“
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