potlatch (pŏtˈlăchˌ) [key], ceremonial feast of the natives of the NW coast of North America, entailing the public distribution of property. The host and his relatives lavishly distributed gifts to invited guests, who were expected to accept any gifts offered with the understanding that at a future time they were to reciprocate in kind. Gifts distributed included foodstuffs, slaves, copper plates, and goat's hair blankets, as well as less tangible things such as names, songs, dances, and crests. In return, the host was accorded prestige and status in direct proportion to his expenditures. The potlatch ceremony also involved dancing, feasting, and ritual boasting, often lasting for several days. Various theories have been proposed by anthropologists to account for this seemingly irrational ritual. While the emphasis varies from group to group and through time, the potlatch clearly was the fundamental means of circulating foodstuffs and other goods amongst groups, validating status positions, and establishing and maintaining warfare and defense alliances. Contact with Euroamerican populations in the early 19th cent. brought about a massive depopulation among aboriginal northwest coast societies. At the same time, the growth of the fur trade led to an influx of industrially manufactured trade goods. Under these conditions, the potlatch came to serve as a means by which aspiring nobles validated often tenuous claims of high rank, increasingly through the ostentatious destruction of property. This led both the U.S. and Canadian governments to outlaw the practice beginning in 1884. Potlatching nevertheless continued, though covertly, until the ban was lifted in 1951, by which time the ceremonies no longer involved property destruction.
See P. Drucker and R. Heizer, To Make My Name Good (1967); A. Rosman and P. Rubel, Feasting with Mine Enemy (1971, repr. 1986); H. Codere, Fighting with Property (1950, repr. 1988).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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