The Northwest Coast peoples produced a genuinely high culture (ranking with that of the Pueblos of the Southwest or the temple-mound people of the Southeast) without benefit of agriculture, a very rare event in the history of humankind. Instead of pottery and agriculture, the Northwest Coast peoples, extending along the coast from the Alaskan Panhandle to coastal Oregon and northern California, created exquisite baskets and wood bowls that they filled with the bounty of the forests and the sea. The Saskatoon berry, which they harvest, for example, contains three times as much iron as prunes and raisins. The bounty of the ocean and forests was so abundant and so skillfully exploited by the Northwest Coast peoples that most were able, during the summer, to lay up enough food (much of it dried) to last the winter. The major sources of protein for the Northwest Coast peoples were fish and sea mammals. Among the Makah, the word for fish is the same as the word for food.
The social and economic lifeways of Northwest Coast peoples evolved very differently compared to those of Native peoples across the rest of North America. While many other American Indian peoples were democratic in their political orientation, the Northwest Coast peoples maintained a very strict caste system. They also maintained an economy that was not communal, like those of many other Native peoples in North America. In a Northwest Coast village, everyone had a class, and everything had an owner.
Because the chiefs controlled access to food, shelter, and even spiritual sustenance, the societies of the Northwest Coast peoples were more hierarchical than even that of the Aztecs or the monarchical societies of Europe during the period of first contacts with Native America. No councils of chiefs existed to exercise restraint on them. Customs did exercise restraint on unbridled power, however. A good chief gathered power by being generous to those "under the arm." The ceremonial potlatch was an expression of this ethic: On one level, it was a display of wealth by the chief or chiefs hosting it; on another level, the intricate gift giving of the ritual bespoke an inherent desire to distribute the bounteous wealth of Northwest Coast Native American societies. The potlatch thus consolidated the power and authority of its hosts by reminding lesser nobles and commoners that the high chiefs controlled every aspect of village life.
The mild, rainy winters of the Northwest Coast are a time of elaborate socializing and ceremonies. The potlatch often became a festival of wealth squandering between rival chiefs. Everything about the potlatch bespoke ostentation. Guests arrived in ornately carved canoes, flanked by assistants, all dressed in their best clothes. Once at the potlatch, which might have been planned for years, guests were expected to feast until they became ill from overindulgence. Competing chiefs wore headgear topped with special rings that indicated the number of potlatches they had held. In a social and economic context, the potlatch indicated the value the Northwest Coast peoples placed on status. The ostentation of the ritual also bespoke a society of surplus—one so successful at adapting to its environment that its members virtually had resources to burn or otherwise consume with reckless disregard for necessity.
Northwest Coast ceremonies, including the potlatch, were not usually concerned so much with the economic motives of getting and giving as with enhancing social status, honoring ancestors, and sealing personal relationships. According to Duane Champagne, the potlatch "should be understood from within its own cultural and institutional framework, and not be too easily compared with self-interested materialism" (1989, 110). Similarly, the emphasis on rank in Northwest Coast societies was not simply an imitation of Western hierarchical societies. Instead, the Tlingit concept of rank was integrated into that people's belief that proper behavior in the present (such as contributing to potlatches, fulfilling one's clan obligations, and submitting to the collective will of the house group) could cause a person to be reborn into a more aristocratic lineage.
The word "potlatch" is anglicized from patshatl, meaning "giving." Such giving could take many forms. At a grease feast, for example, precious oil sometimes was splashed on fires until erupting flames burned members of competing households. Sometimes the spattering oil set their cedar clothing aflame. As a potlatch continued, the value of gifts usually rose steadily. After the rival chiefs had given away valuable cedar boxes and other expensive items, one chief might up the ante by sacrificing a slave with a special club called a slave killer. The "giving" chief might then hurl the scalp of the slain slave at his rival. Slaves also could be freed at potlatches. Another act of potlatch oneupmanship was the giving and destruction of large copper plates that served as currency of very high denomination, in the thousands of dollars if converted into U.S. currency.
Like most other aspects of life among Northwest Coast peoples, the potlatch was carried out with rigid, time-honored formality. Parts of the ritual were rehearsed insults, in which one chief often dared the other to give away ever more precious objects, such as large canoes that were carved out of huge tree trunks and used to hunt whales. Some of the insults were very personal. The Kwakiutl may have been adopting a European custom from the Hudson's Bay Company when they complicated the potlatch by demanding 100 percent interest on gifts, a postcontact wrinkle in the ritual in which the act of giving now incurred a debt at twice the value of the original gift.
The Northwest Coast peoples hosted a number of other ceremonies and rituals in addition to the potlatch. Some of these rituals were associated with secret societies (exclusive groups of genetically unrelated individuals, sometimes called sodalities by anthropologists). Perhaps the most important such ritual among the Kwakiutl-speaking peoples of the British Columbia coast was the cannibal dance, in which an individual, seized by an emotional frenzy, pretended to consume the flesh of another person. Illusions and fakery enjoyed a high degree of prestige among the Northwest Coast peoples, and a small bear might be cooked in such a way that it resembled a human being, to be consumed during the cannibal dance. The person doing the cannibal dance might enliven the atmosphere by seizing bits of skin and flesh from members of the audience.
Bruce E. Johansen
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