Potlatch

noun

  • A Native American gift giving celebration where the host presents gifts to confirm social status
  • A festival or party

verb

  • To bestow or impart (a gift)
  • To accept (a gift)
  • To put on or have a potlatch

Usage

We all love to receive gifts, but sometimes it can be just as exciting to give them to friends and family. There's no want of occasions for gift giving, either: with birthdays, weddings, and graduations there are plenty of reasons to celebrate throughout the year. Most of us don't think of the traditional American Thanksgiving as a holiday where presents are exchanged, but if it were, it would certainly be a potlatch like no other! In fact, certain Native American tribes have been known to practice this type of ceremony, meant to celebrate many of the same values as Thanksgiving, at various times throughout the year!

The potlatch is a Native American ceremony where the host bequeaths gifts to his or her guests according to their status and destroys his own possessions in a luxurious show of affluence and rank. After all of the gift exchanging is over, guests are then expected to "compete" with the host by destroying some of their valuables in order to reaffirm their own social standing. This custom often occurs at the celebration of weddings or other important occasions for the community. However, it is mainly held to commemorate a succession in which a new title is bestowed upon an heir. The potlatch was famously established by the American and Canadian Indian tribes of the coastal Pacific Northwest, particularly the Kwakiutl who were settled in what is now British Columbia, Canada. The Kwakiutl were known for putting on these elaborate ordinances, which included feasting and great gestures of generosity by those in attendance. Not everyone in the tribe had the privilege of holding a potlatch, though: only esteemed members of the clan who held leadership positions could put on such a show of extravagance. The main purpose of the potlatch was to confirm or assert one's position. In cases where someone had lost his prestige or respect in some way, a person might hold a potlatch to regain his status. The ceremony had previously been illegalized in both Canada and the United States as an "uncivilized" tradition until it was again made legal in 1951. Certain Northwest Native American tribes and those that share their ancestry continue to observe the custom to this day as a way to celebrate and remember their rich heritage.

Potlatch can also refer to any type of festivity or celebration where people are gathered together. A party where there is food, dancing, or any other merriment would be considered a potlatch. There's no need for elaborate ceremony or destruction of property to enjoy this kind of potlatch!

As a verb, potlatch means either to give or receive, usually referring to a present. Drawing from the noun form of potlatch, the verb includes both halves of the exciting gift exchange. A new leader might potlatch their guest a wooden sculpture just as the guest could potlatch a generous gift in return. In a more general sense, to potlatch can signify giving or holding a feast, wild party, or both!

Example: During the potlatch, the chieftain gave a speech to thank all of his guests.

Example: We held a crazy potlatch for my sister's 16th birthday.

Example: The college students would potlatch almost every weekend, carousing until the sun came up.


Origin

Potlatch comes to us directly from the Chinook Jargon word potlatch meaning "gift" or "present." Many of the languages of Pacific Northwest Native American tribes, such as Nootka with its word patshatl which means "a giving," share similarities with this quasi-creole language. In the mid-19th century, potlatch evolved to refer to the gift giving tradition of these clans.

Derivative Words

Potlatching: This verb refers to the acts of feasting, gift giving, etc. that takes place during a potlatch.

Example: Potlatching might seem strange to outsiders, especially those who love their possessions.

Similar Words

The word potluck, although not related to potlatch, shares a similar spelling and meaning. Potluck can refer to whatever is available or offered in a situation where a person might need to trust in the "luck of the pot" or draw. More specifically, a potluck is a meal where each guest contributes a dish, such as an entry, side, or dessert, for everyone to share. It's during these gatherings that guests are hoping that their contemporaries will provide a scrumptious meal, although they're taking a chance on everyone else's tastes! Granting that a potluck dinner could easily become quite the potlatch, or festivity, we usually want to save the word potluck to describe a smorgasbord created by its recipients.

In Literature

From Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene:

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish…I should also give some space to Amotz Zahavi's idea that altruistic donation might be a ‘Potlatch' style of dominance signal: see how superior to you I am, I can afford to make a donation to you!

In his book, Dawkins gives examples to explain how animals' inherent selfishness is necessary for their continued survival. He agrees with evolutionist Amotz Zahavi that even seemingly altruistic actions are actually selfish in nature. Dawkins compares competitive altruism to the gift exchange at a potlatch: the host tries to impress and outdo their guests by giving them presents!

Mnemonic

  • A potlatch could turn into a gift-giving match!

Tags

Celebration, Gifts, Feasts, Native American


Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of potlatch. Did you use potlatch in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.