S.S. 10 D
Edward Jovan Quinlan

The Haida Potlatch

Hello and welcome Mrs. Kinakin's block B Socials 10 class to my (somewhat) amazing site showcasing my spectacular (I'm pretty sure about this) Haida Potlatch Project!

*paper confetti rains down from the ceiling and cheers erupt from the classroom*

In this project I'll deal with the following topics, in order from top, to bottom:

You can find the bibliography here

Enjoy! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask at any time during the presentation!

Edward Jovan Quinlan

Edward, what on earth is a Potlatch?!

The potlatch was one of the most important Haida ceremonies, and would often accompany the progress of high-ranking people in a house through the social order. They would be held to mark the giving of names, marriages and deaths. The building of a longhouse and the raising of the longhouse frontal pole was usually the most major potlatch any chief would give in his lifetime!

These great feasts usually occurred in the winter either inside the longhouse, or outside. The potlatch would be held following the season of gathering, hunting and preserving. Hundreds of guests would be invited to witness the honouring of the dead, the marriage of a chief, the inheritance of names, privileges and rights to land, and the recording of other important events in the history of a family.

Many, many years of preparation went into gathering the food required to feed the guests and the amassing of wealth to distribute gifts needed to pay for the witnessing of events. The gifts would be given in order to obtain or confirm social status, to share wealth, demonstrate his generosity and wealth and was even a way to stimulate economy! The potlatch would often last many days and nights and would be highlighted by speech-making and lavish fantastic theatrical performances and dance displays.

The speeches that were said at these potlatchÕs were important because of the fact that a host asserted his ancestral privileges to a certain dance, or spirit. Some of these speeches were songs and dances. Lavishly decorated masks and headdresses worn during the dances would illustrate the story of the supernatural being who had ŌgivenĶ the dance to either the host, or one of his ancestors.

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Well then Edward, how did they start?

Potlatches most likely came about through the custom of feasting. When there was a surplus for whatever reason (a successful whale hunt, a bounty of salmon), individuals would take this opportunity to feast their neighbors. On these special occasions a raconteur would tell the guests the extent and riches of the hosting chiefÕs territory whose food they would be enjoying.

When trade with Europeans in the 1800s resulted in greater numbers of material goods to be given away as gifts, feasting became only a part of the potlatch. Regardless of this, feasts were still held separately from potlatches, especially by families who could not afford to hold potlatchÕs on appropriate occasions.

At a feast guests were seated at potlatches based on status and were served with amazing formality by the host of the potlatch, with higher ranking individuals being served first. They would be given the best food, and would be given it in greater quantities than the other guests. These honoured guests would also use the hostÕs most elaborate and beautiful feast dishes: heirlooms depicting crests of families or clans.

The food served at potlatches varied seasonally. Usually it would include fish or seal meat, along with seal oil, in which all food was dipped. The host was expected to provide more food than his guests could possibly eat during the feast. This was done to spread the word of the hostÕs generosity because the left over food was often given to the guests to take home and share with other people.

An additional interesting bit of information is that the utensils used at feasts were lavishly decorated, and very fancy. Spoons, for instance, were plain wooden, or horn spoons, whereas feast utensils were elaborately decorated with copper, and would be made of horn. Bowls used on a daily basis were simple, plain and made of cedar. Feast dishes were highly carved or painted, and often were huge vessels, reflecting the emphasis on quantity. Some feast dishes were as large as small canoes, capable of serving five people at once!

Pictures of normal and feasting utensils

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Edward, what is this gift giving you speak of?

Gift giving varied greatly from tribe to tribe, and is commonly portrayed as extrememly competitive, with hosts bankrupting themselves, just so they could outdo their rivals and even the destruction of property. While this form of gifting characterized the practices of the northern groups, such forms of competition were considered inappropriate and frowned upon among the south coast.

Excessive gift giving was developed in the 19th century to negotiate status within and between groups, but this was not its only purpose, and reducing a potlatch to this simple rivalry is not fair and does not do these amazing feasts justice as they were also celebrations.

Gifts were also given to compensate guests for various actions, and were used as a method of thanking the clans and guests. They would also be used as a form of payment so guests would remember transfers of ownership they witnessed at potlatches. Because written records did not exist, the memories of witnessesÕ were crutial in keeping track of claims to ownership of various items such as land, hunting areas, etc. More importantly, the acceptance of payment signalled the recognition of the hostÕs ownership claims.

The gifts that were given depended on what resources were available and over time the items have changed. Before contact with Europeans, gifts would include canoes, slaves, blankets and even food. Coppers, carved pieces of copper, were reserved for high status guests as they were worth the most. But, over time, the gifts given changed and the variety and quantities of gifts increased as trade with European traders increased. Piles of trade blankets, sacks of flower, bracelets, and even sewing machines were given!

A cedar gift box and two coppers

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What are potlatches like today, huh smartypants?

Potlatches continue to play an important part of the lives of natives on the Northwest Coast. While the food served today is likely to be a meat stew as fish, the patterns of gifting would still be recognizable by the coastal tribes of long ago.

Parties, as they are sometimes called today by the First Nations, commemorate a significant event in a familyÕs, or clanÕs life. They are nowadays held for baby showers, the namings of children, anniversaries, graduations and also as memorials for the dead. These modern day potlatches can take up to a year of planning and can cost as much as ten thousand dollars for a family or clan to host a party. Most of the money is spent on gifts and foods for the guests.

Today gifts include house wares and other assorted items, but honoured guests, such as elders, or community leaders are recognized by name and received cash in addition to expensive gifts such as artwork and blankets and comforters.

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Are you done yet? *snores being heard in the background*

I chose this topic not only because I love ancient civilizations, but also because I have a great respect for the peaceful nature and love of life and respect for nature the Natives of the Southwest Coast had, and still do have, to this day. I also find it interesting that they have kept a hold of the ancient tradition of the potlatch and still make the headdresses and other assorted items related to the potlatch to this day.

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What?  You actually bothered scrolling down this far?  I PITY DAH FOO! =)

Oh yeah, almost forgot:

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