For centuries, the potlatch persisted as a sacred and significant social ceremony practiced by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, including the Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Coast Salish cultures.
In their book Potlatch as Pedagogy, Sara Florence Davidson and Robert Davidson describe the potlatch as: “the legal foundation of our social structure [which] ensured the transmission of our cultural knowledge.”
According to Davidson, the word ‘potlatch’ “referred to any ceremonial distribution of property among different coast peoples regardless of the specific nature of the event.”
This time of great feasting traditionally lasts for several days and includes dancing and performances in masks and full regalia. In Kwakwaka’wakw culture, the event is hosted by a numaym, or “House” comprised of a group of kin who draw their identity from the same ancestral founder.
Exploring the History of Potlatch
In his story “Tilted Ground,” featured in the upcoming graphic novel anthology, This Place: 150 Years Retold, author Sonny Assu explores the journey of his great-great-grandfather, Chief Billy Assu, who was one of the most respected and influential potlatch chiefs in Ligwilda’xw history.
Throughout the story, we are presented with two alternate versions of the potlatch: the perspective of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs and that of the members of the Ligwilda’xw community as Billy learns to properly honour his ancestors during their ceremonies.
While the government agents repeatedly describe potlatch ceremonies as wasteful, misunderstanding the important cultural significance of sharing and distributing, the story highlights the importance of potlatch ceremonies as marking transitional periods, milestones, celebrations, and the cultural significance of sharing wealth among community members.
One panel in “Tilted Ground” shows Billy reflecting on the cultural differences between the government and the Ligwilda’xw, stating: “the mamala [white men or white people] always want to show off their personal wealth… For us it’s not like that. Material wealth is something that belongs to the greater community.”
A page from “Tilted Ground” by author Sonny Assu; artwork by Kyle Charles.
This belief is reflected in Potlatch as Pedagogy, where Sara Florence Davidson states: “the potlatch was considered the ‘final avenue to establishing and upholding social status for the Haida as for other societies of the Pacific Northwest’.”
On April 19, 1884, the Canadian government amended the Indian Act to ban the potlatches completely.
However, as Sonny Assu shows in his story, “Tilted Ground,” the law was ignored by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, who continued the tradition despite the new legislation.
The potlatch ban was not only unpopular with Indigenous peoples, but many non-Indigenous people also disagreed with the ban. One of them was the anthropologist Franz Boas, who began field work with the Kwakwaka’wakw in 1886 and also makes an appearance in “Tilted Ground.”
Throughout “Tilted Ground” Sonny Assu explores the important cultural significance of the potlatch, as well as how his great-great grandfather helped shape the future of the Ligwilda’xw.
He tells how Billy, after becoming the chief of the Wiweqayi, determined that the most effective way to preserve their way of life was to teach English to the Wiweqayi. This way, they could negotiate on their own behalf and take jobs in emerging industries.
Sonny states: “his vision was not about assimilation… but adoption.”
As Sonny explores in the story, the money coming into the community gave Chief Assu the means to buy more colonial and traditional goods, which allowed him to hold larger and more elaborate potlatches. He became so renowned for his potlatches that he was eventually honoured with the name “pasala” meaning “to give many potlatches.”
To this day, potlatch signifies the value of generosity as a mark of social stature: those members of the community who have an abundance use potlatches to share their material wealth with their community publicly and openly.
Discover more about the rich social significance of these ceremonies by pre-ordering your copy of This Place: 150 Years Retold today. Teachers can also incorporate concepts from potlatch in their classrooms with Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony, which can be purchased here.