The Potlatch

The Potlatch


          The potlatch may be one of the most misunderstood social mechanisms in history.  When settlers and traders arrived on the Northwest coast, they were invited to great week long winter parties where every one was fed, and fed very well, and great quantities of goods were given away.  To them it was incomprehensible that a person could give away all their goods, it even seemed evil.  The thing they did not understand is that in a non-literate society there has to be a social mechanism for a person to establish his right to names, territories, houses and privileges.  On the North west coast that mechanism is the potlatch.  Please notice that I did not say “was”, as the potlatch system is alive and well!  Essentially what takes place is that all the assembled guests are paid to witness the event, meaning that in future if there were to be a dispute they would all be obligated to come forward and say that they had witnessed the event, and it really did happen, no disputes.  In addition to the assembled guests there would be several formal witnesses who would be persons of position, power, and social stature, these designated special witnesses would be given more property than the assembled guests, and therefore have a greater obligation as witnesses.

Old photo of Kwakwakewak potlatch

Look at all those bracelets!

It does not matter what the event, birth, death, naming, marriage, if you get invited to a potlatch, it is an honor and you should go.  For one thing you will enjoy the best of native food and hospitality, and make lifelong friends.  We have been privileged to be part of many potlatches, both as participants and as suppliers of special goods to be given to witnesses.  If you are planning and working toward a potlatch, naming or memorial, contact us for pricing and a catalog.  We will work with you to get the things you need at the right price and on time!  If you want your own family crest on a bracelet we can do that too.

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3 Responses to “The Potlatch”

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  1. Janet Walker says:

    We even have a Potlatch Collection of Sterling earrings and pendants available all the time! See our earring page.

  2. Jennifer Bjarnason says:

    I have been looking for this image for a while, as I would like to use it – but there is no source for it. Do you know if it is a public domain image? Also – if you know who the photographer is, and where it was taken – that would be really wonderful information to have! Thank you!

    • Owen Walker says:

      Jennifer: The image belongs to either UBC Museum of Anthropology or University of Washington, I believe it was taken at Alert Bay Just before the Canadian Government made the potlatch illegal, both institutions have guidelines for publishing photos, that for the most part if we are sure the photographer is dead there is no copyright problems, this photo is well over 100 years old…..OW

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