Potlatch In Anthropology Research Paper

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‘Potlatch’ refers to a ceremonial exchange complex of aboriginal peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America. Originating in precontact practices, the potlatch evolved in the nineteenth century into a quasicommercial system of acquiring prestige through large gifts—and occasionally destruction—of native and trade goods. Among the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island and neighboring groups, the potlatch came to include a supplemental economy of loans and interest, allowing for prestations so large that they beggared the host. This extreme form, appearing between roughly 1870 and 1930, earned it a central place in the ethnographic imagination.

1. History And Origins

1.1 Precontact Trade And Ceremonial Exchange

‘Potlatch’ derives from the Chinook jargon word patshatl, to give. Chinook jargon was a trade language centered in the Columbia River basin, but extending north to the central Northwest Coast. It predates European contact, and served as a lingua franca among groups engaged in aboriginal trade. Archeological evidence suggests the existence of intergroup ceremonial exchange alongside precontact trading relations. However, it is clear that such exchange was both quantitatively and qualitatively different from the historic potlatch. It involved modest amounts of animal pelts and a few types of prestige goods, and was known under different labels in different areas. It reaffirmed but likely did not alter rank relations within and between groups. Thus, it is fair to say that the potlatch, as a translocal institution, was a product of the fur-trade era.

1.2 The Fur Trade: Influx Of Wealth

The early fur trade of the 1770s and 1780s involved Russians, Spanish, British, and Americans. Trade focused on the sea otter and was conducted primarily from ships. This had a limited effect on aboriginal groups. However, by the late 1780s the sheer number of trading vessels, and the shift to land-based trading, had begun to bring changes. The transfer of the Spanish colony on Juan de Fuca Strait to the British in 1793 marked the beginning of a process that would see Hudson’s Bay Company forts established all along the coast, and eventually a substantial colony at Victoria. To the north, the Russians established a fort at Sitka, in Tlingit territory, and to the south, Americans established posts on the Columbia in the 1810s. The shift to land-based trade brought with it an influx of wealth and trade goods, as well as epidemic disease, and a broad range of new cultural influences.

Despite the negative effects of contact, the early nineteenth century was characterized by an efflorescence of art and expressive culture on the Northwest Coast. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the plastic arts. The introduction of metal woodworking tools and, somewhat later, commercial paint, allowed for an explosion of art in the form of masks, architectural elements, storage vessels, and free-standing monumental sculpture. Such objects were commissioned with new commercial wealth; these objects, in turn, were vehicles by which this wealth was displayed and validated. Wealth had always been closely associated with rank. The problem arose in that rank was ideologically a closed system: a limited number of ranked positions, associated with titles, privileges, and symbolic property (‘crests’) were believed to exist, and these positions were filled in accordance with regular principles of descent and succession. However, during the fur trade period nouveaux riches rose to prominence. New crests were created for them by artists who were experimenting with both themes and techniques. Simultaneously, such persons also staked claim to unused traditional crests or those in dispute. The potlatch was the forum in which such claims were made public, and were either validated or rejected by the larger community.

1.3 The Dominion Period: Response To Traumatic Change

After the 1860s, which saw both Canadian Dominion and the US purchase of Alaska, aboriginal groups were increasingly encapsulated within Euroamerican political, social, and economic institutions. Simultaneously, the full effects of disease mortality were being felt, producing upheavals in aboriginal society. The potlatch, an effective means of dealing with demographic and social change, was mobilized to address issues such as the amalgamation of groups, the lack of personnel to fill important rank positions, changing relations with Euroamericans, and changes in the relative status of local groups. In the process, potlatches became larger and more expansive. A wide range of aboriginal practices, such as shamanic winter dances, became incorporated within the potlatch. Simultaneously, the potlatch replaced intergroup violence, which was suppressed, as a means for gaining prestige at neighbors’ expense.

During this period, the potlatch was suppressed by Canadian authorities, who passed a ‘Potlatch Law’ in 1885. Although unenforceable for most of its existence, it did result in famous prosecutions and convictions of Kwakiutl potlatchers in 1923. In addition to criminal punishment, the state seized ‘potlatch goods,’ including ritual objects. These provided the basis of ethnological collections at museums in Ottawa and Toronto. In the 1970s and 1980s, these items were returned to Kwakiutl communities at Cape Mudge and Alert Bay, which have built museums to house them.

2. Geographical Range And Variation

2.1 The Northern Potlatch

The northern region, consisting of matrilineal societies, used the potlatch primarily in the context of funerals and succession. For the Tlingit and Haida, potlatches were between moieties, and stressed cooperation and solidarity between hosts and guests. A minor theme of competition was introduced, with two separate guest groups attempting to outdo each other in the degree of ‘comfort’ provided to the host. Tsimshian potlatches were similar, but, lacking moieties, were somewhat more agonistic. They were associated with marriages, as well as other life-crisis rituals; marriage was seen in oppositional terms. In addition, potlatches were used to make territorial claims.

2.2 The Southern Potlatch

South of the Tsimshian, social organization was cognatic, with a matrilineal orientation in the north becoming more patrilineal in the south. Among the Nootka, potlatches were essentially private entertainments sponsored by a chief for his people, and thus stressed social harmony. Elsewhere, however, potlatches were primarily agonistic. Marriage potlatches, including those held to repay bridewealth, were couched in military terms. As group membership and rank were less fixed in cognatic societies, they were more the object of political manipulation, and thus of representation in the potlatch.

2.3 The Kwakiutl Potlatch

The extreme example of agonistic prestation was provided by the Kwakiutl, who live in northeastern Vancouver Island and the adjacent islands and mainland. During the 60 years after Dominion, the potlatch intensified to the point that Benedict (1934), in her flawed analysis of Boas’ material (Boas 1966), described the Kwakiutl as ‘megalomaniacal’ and ‘paranoid.’ Fierce competition among brothers, cousins, and affines for succession to titles, the existence of numerous latent titles, the rise of a nouveaux riche class called ‘Eagles,’ and a system of intergroup ranking, all contributed to the intensity of the potlatch, which participants viewed as warfare by other means. Potlatches opened with guests arriving in war regalia, and a mock battle on the beach, reminiscent of the murderous raids that were endemic to this area.

Kwakiutl potlatches were predicated on rivalries between chiefs and, by extension, their groups. In addition to the usual means of amassing wealth, would-be hosts engaged in a system of loans with 100 percent interest, which allowed lenders to build fortunes quickly, and borrowers to obtain last-minute infusions. The currency was Hudson’s Bay Company blankets, supplemented and eventually replaced by cash. Copper shields were the ultimate valuable; bid up in previous transactions, ‘coppers’ reached cash values of several thousand dollars. In addition, trade goods played an increasing role. By the start of the twentieth century, manufactured items such as shotguns, washing machines, and pool tables were given away, along with quantities of flour, rice, cloth, and utensils. In some of the most extreme potlatches, goods including coppers were destroyed.

3. Functional Accounts

3.1 The Potlatch As Total Social Phenomenon

The French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1990) noted that the potlatch is an integral element of the rank system of Northwest Coast societies. It is a mechanism by which claims to rank status are validated or challenged, and changes in social order are communicated to the larger community. The potlatch rests on opposition between host and guest. The host—a chief or high-ranking person and, by extension, his social group—was concerned with conducting certain types of business: naming heirs, contracting marriages, conducting funerals, proclaiming new titles and privileges. This business was witnessed, in a juridical sense, by the guests, who were paid for their service. Potlatch gifts went beyond mere payment for services, however, since they were also taken as prima facie evidence for the validity of the claim.

Wealth was a necessary concomitant of high rank. High-rank positions implied a certain degree of extraordinary power, similar to the mana of Polynesian chiefs, which necessarily resulted in wealth. Inability to provide an abundant potlatch would seriously undermine the legitimacy of the claimant’s assertions. By the same token, an extravagant potlatch could ‘fasten on’ a title, merging the holder’s social identity with the permanent qualities of the title. Such acts were seen as a sort of reincarnation, by which the living title holder became incorporated in the title, which encompassed the holder’s predecessors and mythical founder. For chiefly positions, the ascendance of a new holder was often marked by events symbolic of the (re)creation of the social world, including human sacrifice, the razing of old chiefly houses and poles, and their replacement by new ones.

In chiefly succession potlatches, a broad range of political, legal, and economic issues were implicated. In all groups, chiefly titles involved territorial claims of some sort. These titles were based on mythical narratives, set locally, and taking place at the beginning of human history, thus staking aboriginal claim to land. In some groups, such as the Nootka, such territorial claims were very specific and resembled Western notions of ownership. In all Northwest Coast cultures, chiefs were minimally seen as stewards of the land and its inhabitants, and were responsible for regulating relations between human and nonhuman populations (which were believed to include more than the flora and fauna recognized by biological science). This was accomplished by ritual means, including prayers, attraction magic, and first fruit rituals. The latter were used to regulate the seasons on fish and game. Although the informing ideology was moral, not ecological, such regulation had the effect of conserving resources.

The potlatch thus involved relations between the social group and the nonhuman outside world, the prehuman myth world, and the group’s ancestors. In this way, the group was situated within a larger universe, and was thus defined and delimited. Potlatches likewise served to delineate the internal organization of society, and the functional relations obtaining between its components. In a general sense, one potlatches to one’s affines, who constitute the friendly other. In northern matrilineal groups, this opposition was absolutely clear. Especially in the moiety system of the Tlingit and Haida, one’s affines were a separate corporate group; the cooperation of the two sides presented an image of social totality cosmological in scope.

3.2 The Potlatch And Marriage Exchange

Potlatches were associated with marriage in most areas; even where they were not, the potlatch was transacted between affines. Politically, potlatches were vital in renewing alliances among groups. Among the northern groups, whose aristocrats practiced preferential cross-cousin marriage, long-term stable exchange relations involving two or more local groups were established. Such groups provided political, military, and economic support, as well as external validation of chiefly claims. Among cognatic groups, no such long-term structural relations existed, but were rather produced and reproduced in a series of exchanges tied to specific marriages (payment and repayment of bride wealth, naming of children, funeral of a spouse). The connection between marriage and potlatching was so strong that in groups such as the Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, and Heiltsuk, aristocrats would engage in serial monogamy and even fictive marriage in order to obtain prestige from potlatching. Potlatching varied along several dimensions (size, number, occasion, agonism, and others) depending on the precise configuration of kinship, descent, and marriage rules.

3.3 The Potlatch And Ecological Variation

Since the 1960s, materialist scholars have viewed the potlatch as a virtual homeostatic mechanism, distributing personnel and food efficiently through space and time. The earlier conception of the Northwest Coast as free from food pressures is justly rejected. The potlatch is seen as having four distinct, but interrelated functions: (a) spurring overproduction, (b) encouraging storage of food, (c) allowing for the exchange of food for prestige goods, and (d) regulating group membership and territorial boundaries, matching resources with personnel. This approach assumes local variation in resources, a condition that does not exist everywhere, but is more pronounced in the north. Item (d) was effected much more often by warfare than by potlatching. However, these remain at least potential functions of the potlatch.

3.4 Rank, Class, And Political Power

Northwest Coast society was stratified by both rank and class. Potlatching was the domain of chiefs and nobles; however, both commoners and slaves played important roles in amassing resources. By definition, only persons with titles were in a position to potlatch. Potlatching thus reinforced vertical, as well as horizontal, social divisions. Simultaneously, potlatching was the mechanism by which social mobility was integrated into the social system.

The potlatch both manifested and represented political power. By drawing together a large number of guests, especially if they were from far away or their chiefs were especially high ranking, a host was demonstrating his prestige and political network. The material goods and food distributed were an index of his land holdings and their productivity, which ultimately depended upon the chief’s legitimacy. Potlatches were fora for authoritative political discourse, defined technically as monologic, multichannel, redundant communication. A significant aspect of this communication was an illocutionary speech act. This was supplemented with nonverbal media, including plastic arts and dance. The political success of a potlatch was usually measured in terms of the degree to which these utterances remained unchallenged. They may be challenged either directly, in rivalry gestures, or more subtly through various sorts of corrosive discourse, including humor. However, in some groups, such as the Kwakiutl, such elements were institutionalized within the structure of the potlatch. This had the effect of heightening tensions within the potlatch, and giving it a more game-like structure, in which a wide range of outcomes was possible.

4. Problems Of Reference

4.1 Reification

Given the degree of variation over space and time, it is unclear that the potlatch, as such, exists. Rather, our understanding of it is conditioned by reifications imposed by government agents and missionaries, anthropologists, and aboriginal people themselves. The Potlatch Law of 1885 first tried to specify ‘the Indian festival known as the ‘‘Potlatch’’.’ Problems of reference significantly delayed successful prosecution of the law. During this intervening time, the symbolic labor of many people served to bring descriptions and practice closer together.

4.2 Invention Of Tradition

Aboriginal people themselves reified the potlatch by defining their ceremonial praxis as potlatch, a foreign word and concept mediated through Euroamerican society. By the time Franz Boas recorded ethnographic data among the Kwakiutl in the 1890s (Boas 1966), the concept of potlatch was present. This consciousness of ‘the potlatch,’ on the part of both Boas and the Kwakiutl, was shaped largely by the existence of the Potlatch Law. Clearly, aboriginal practice and self-awareness of practice were conditioned by exogenous expectations and categories. It is not surprising that during a period of rapid change such an invention of tradition would occur. It allowed aboriginals to retain symbolic control of their destiny, by redefining novel structures and practices as traditional. Because of this useful quality, potlatching remains a common practice today.

4.3 The Potlatch As Anthropological Totem

The potlatch remains one of the most durable anthropological concepts, despite the reanalyses and deconstructions to which it has been subjected. Beginning with Boas, anthropologists defined potlatch as both self and other, transparent and exotic. This contradictory and mediational quality has made potlatch an especially useful metaphorical vehicle. Potlatch has been viewed as, inter alia, metaphorical banking, warfare, and mental illness. At the same time, various aspects of Western societies, including politics and consumer capitalism, have been compared to potlatch. Its hybrid nature, and its origins in the desire on the part of Euroamericans to describe aboriginals, and aboriginals to represent change and continuity, make it an attractive concept, but one that resists critical usage.


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