Native American Potlatch Ceremony: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

The potlatch ceremony of the Northwest Pacific Coast is one of the most famous and intriguing cultural rituals ever documented by anthropologists. Learn about the history of the potlatch and its contribution to modern anthropology.

The Pacific Northwest Coast: The Heartland of the Potlatch

Totem Pole
Totem Pole

Native Americans from the Northwest Pacific Coast are probably best recognized by totem poles, monumental art pieces that they used for storytelling. Among social scientists, however, Northwest peoples are famous for their innovative cultural practice of the potlatch. In fact, it is difficult to think of an indigenous ritual practice more central to anthropological thought than the potlatch. Potlatches are often one of the first cultural practices presented in introductory anthropology courses.

Background to the Potlatch Ceremony

Ancestral Mask

Potlatches are practiced by a number of different groups across the Northwest Pacific Coast of North America, and they vary substantially. Most information about potlatches is known from the Kwakiutl, or Kwakwaka'wakw. In fact, the etymology of the term actually derives from 'gift-giving' in the Kwakwaka'wakw language.

In general, the potlatch is an ostentatious display of wealth. A leader will gather the community together for feasting, gift-giving, and even destruction of valuable objects to promote the social standing of the leader's house, or numaym. A numaym is an ancestral house group with its own land holdings, oral history, leaders, and cultural practices. Each numaym is associated with a distinct ancestral mask, which is used in dances at the potlatch ceremony. Potlatches are held for religious holidays, weddings, and other social occasions. House groups compete against one another in an effort to display, give away, and destroy ever larger amounts of wealth. Imagine politicians today gathering up all of their prized possessions - cars, smart phones, computers, and televisions - only to give them away or destroy them altogether!

The Importance of the Potlatch to Anthropological Thought

Franz Boas
Franz Boas

Early European anthropologists set out to document the cultural practices of the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before they were completely lost, and they were baffled by this peculiar practice. Franz Boas, known today as the father of American anthropology, compiled most of what we know about the potlatch. In turn, the study of the potlatch was central to the founding of anthropology as a discipline.

Boas argued that the potlatch was integral to Kwakwaka'wakw society through its promotion of social cohesion, hospitality, and competition. This was a completely alien form of governance to the Europeans, and it enriched anthropologists' ability to understand non-western ways of social organization. Gifts and feasts provided a way for poorer community members to survive and influenced them to follow certain leaders. Hospitality was a way for leaders to maintain their social standing, and competition between houses meant that there was always a push to produce more in order to give more and more away.

Understanding the potlatch helped birth what Boas termed cultural relativism, the idea that each culture can only be fully understood on its own terms, rather than comparing it to western customs. This idea was revolutionary in fighting colonial and racial stereotypes about foreign cultures, because it argued against the idea that cultures evolved from simple to complex societies, an idea that was used to stigmatize non-western groups. The idea of cultural relativism endures as one of the founding principles of anthropology today.

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