The History of Potlatch and Native American Currency

The History of Potlatch and Native American Currency

Most of us have been to a potluck party at some point in our lives, where each person brings a large dish of food to share with other guests. The name is partly influenced by a Native Indian tradition called potlatch. In many Native tribes, a potlatch was not just a party but an entire type of economic system. The word itself can be translated as "a gift" or something that is given away to others. Read on to learn more about this interesting tradition and how it was challenged through history.

What is Potlatch?

Potlatches were and still are typically planned as a celebration of a major event. For example, it might be a celebration of a birth, a wedding, or other types of major life milestones. People put a lot of thought and effort into planning a potlatch and in some cases the planning is even done a year in advance! Originally, a potlatch was also a way to show how wealthy or well-off a family was. In this way, the person hosting the potlatch proved their social rank within the community. It also served to build allies and relationships with other prominent members in the tribe.

Potlatch Ceremony and Traditions

Men of the tribe typically received invitations and they could in turn extend invitations to those they chose to accompany them. Gift giving is a central part of a potlatch. In its earliest forms, people would give away food to others in the community during the celebration. Later on it was also extended to gifts of material objects such as blankets, carved decorative items, coiled baskets and beads or shells that were used as Native American currency. Before the actual event, the host spent much time and money into purchasing and preparing food and gifts for the guests. Often the expenses were so high that the host would need to get a loan. Sometimes guests would also bring gifts if requested, and these were redistributed among the attendees. It was common to feature dances, story-telling, and dramatic skits as entertainment. Later on when European settlers moved into the area, new industries like the fur trade encouraged Natives to give other gifts like furs, and even weapons and slaves!

Effects on Native American People

A potlatch wasn't always simply about generosity and building stronger relations with others. Sometimes when a humiliating event befell an important member of the tribe, the community would hold a dignity potlatch. They did this as a gesture to show that the affected person was still held in high esteem. On the other hand, a vengeance potlatch was quite the opposite! In this situation, one clan or family would try to convince another clan that they competed with into hosting a potlatch. The reason was because it was common knowledge that a potlatch was an easy way to quickly lose a large amount of one's wealth. Vengeance potlatches were very unhealthy for the community since they created a negative type of competition. Often they could even result in destroying a clan.

The Potlatch Ban

During the 1800s in Canada and the United States, the new North Americans who had originally emigrated from Europe were working hard towards gaining power over the Native Americans. One way to do this was by converting them to Christianity. In doing so, they complained that potlatch traditions encouraged non-Christian values and that they were a waste of valuable resources. The governments of both countries declared a ban on potlatches, claiming that the custom was destructive and unnecessary. Those who violated this new law could be jailed for several months.

Potlatches Today

Later on during the 1900s, the federal governments realized that they had wrongly taken away a very important aspect of Native American culture. In 1934 and 1951, the U.S. and Canada respectively repealed the law, so that potlatches could once again be legally celebrated. Even today, people still host potlatches, although modern versions are a bit different. People no longer give so much that they end up bankrupt or utterly poor. However, they do save up in advance in order to purchase plentiful amounts of food and gifts for their guests. Modern gifts include items like decorative beaded objects, carvings, clothes, or money. It is a wonderful way for Natives and those of Native origin to honor special people and remember the traditions of their ancestors.