The word potlatch, roughly meaning 'to give', has Chinook and Nuu-chah-nulth origins. At a potlatch guests receive gifts from the host and in return they serve as witnesses for the bestowal of titles, crest and ceremonial rights. Although ranking in society was hereditary, territorial wealth and tribal status were not automatically assumed at birth. Large gatherings were necessarily to essentially affirm the changing power structure. Potlatches, often a week-long, generated a telegraph system for news that was word-of-mouth. They were held in most coastal First Nation communities, and some interior communities.

The federal government designed legislation to ban potlatches and tamanawas dances in 1884 and the statute to restrict these activities in British Columbia came into effect on January 1, 1885. Chief Justice Matthew Begbie rejected the federal prohibition as poorly written in 1889, leading to revised sanctions in 1895. The practice of potlatching mostly continued 'underground' and unprosecuted until a major crackdown in 1921 in which 49 people were arrested and 26 people were eventually jailed following a potlatch on Village Island hosted by Dan Cranmer. Confiscated items were transferred to major museums in Ottawa and New York, but many of these were returned to Aborginal collections in Cape Mudge and Alert Bay in 1979-1980. The potlatch ban was rescinded in 1951 when the Indian Act was revised.

With data from Alice Kasakoff about Gitksan villages near Hazelton between 1965 and 1967, John Winthrop Adams suggested in The Gitksan Potlatch: Population Flux, Resource Ownership and Reciprocity (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973) that potlatches were a procedure by which prosperous chiefs acquired and enhanced the fealty of their subjects and validated their claims to resources. This theory described as "economic determinism" was disputed by Philip Drucker and others as misleading and incomplete. Although the potlatch does traditionally verify names and social ranking, the combination of speechifying, dancing and gift-giving has variable functions in different coastal First Nations, serving to also celebrate marriages, honour the deceased, name children and mark the raising of houses and totem poles.

[See also H.G. Barnett, William Beynon, Franz Boas, Christopher Bracken, Helen Codere, Douglas Cole, George Clutesi, Philip Drucker, Irving Goldman, Bill Holm, Aldona Jonaitis, Abraham Rosman, Daisy Sewid-Smith and others]


Gitksan Potlatch: Population Flux, Resource Ownership and Reciprocity (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973)

[BCBW 2016] "First Nations" "Ethnology"