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potlatch(pŏt`lăch'), ceremonial feast of the natives of the NW coast of North America, entailing the public distribution of property. The host and his relatives lavishly distributed gifts to invited guests, who were expected to accept any gifts offered with the understanding that at a future time they were to reciprocate in kind. Gifts distributed included foodstuffs, slaves, copper plates, and goat's hair blankets, as well as less tangible things such as names, songs, dances, and crests. In return, the host was accorded prestige and status in direct proportion to his expenditures. The potlatch ceremony also involved dancing, feasting, and ritual boasting, often lasting for several days. Various theories have been proposed by anthropologists to account for this seemingly irrational ritual. While the emphasis varies from group to group and through time, the potlatch clearly was the fundamental means of circulating foodstuffs and other goods amongst groups, validating status positions, and establishing and maintaining warfare and defense alliances. Contact with Euroamerican populations in the early 19th cent. brought about a massive depopulation among aboriginal northwest coast societies. At the same time, the growth of the fur trade led to an influx of industrially manufactured trade goods. Under these conditions, the potlatch came to serve as a means by which aspiring nobles validated often tenuous claims of high rank, increasingly through the ostentatious destruction of property. This led both the U.S. and Canadian governments to outlaw the practice beginning in 1884. Potlatching nevertheless continued, though covertly, until the ban was lifted in 1951, by which time the ceremonies no longer involved property destruction.
See P. Drucker and R. Heizer, To Make My Name Good (1967); A. Rosman and P. Rubel, Feasting with Mine Enemy (1971, repr. 1986); H. Codere, Fighting with Property (1950, repr. 1988).
potlatcha ritualized ceremony for the exchange of gifts and thereby the establishment of social standing and honour. It is found among various peoples of the northwest coast of North America. In its extreme form, potlatch could involve the symbolic public destruction of large amounts of goods, a practice which European colonizers banned. See also GIFT EXCHANGE AND GIFT RELATIONSHIP, KULA RING.
(“gift” in the Nootka language), a form of redistribution of personal wealth that arose in the period of transition from a primitive communal society to a class society. The pot-latch was first described in the 19th century among the North American Indians of the Pacific Northwest. It was later observed among several other cultures of the world.
Traditional festivals served as an occasion for potlatching and added a ceremonial aspect to the event. After a lavish feast and dancing, which lasted several days, the organizers of the potlatch —elders, chiefs, and sometimes the entire clan—gave away all of their property to those invited. The potlatch hampered the development of private ownership but at the same time was a distinctive form of recognition of social and economic inequality.