There is an old ancient Haida saying that is, “A great chief dies poor”. The Northwest coast region takes a great pride in the act of giving. The value of generosity was measured by how many gifts are given. It is used to measure wealth in their region. When a certain host or leader wanted to bring all of the people together they would call for a potlatch. A potlatch traditionally takes months of preparation in preparing gifts for the invited guests, housing, food, as well as theatrical entertainments and the rehearsal of great stories. Before I get into some of the more interesting aspects and experiences of a potlatch tradition I want to give a brief history of the coastal people that still use this dignity system today.
The Northwest coast Indian people inhabited a narrow belt of Pacific coastland and offshore islands from the southern boarder of Alaska to northwestern California. This specific region had extremely lush and full vegetation with vast amounts of waterways. “The region contained more than forty different languages that belong to very different linguistic families that include the Athapaskan, Azteco-Tanoan, salishan, Wakashan and Penutian and a linguistic isolate, the Haida peoples” (Giacona, Peck 2013). The potlatch was seen as a system of economic, political and social exchange, it essentially served as a banking system that distributed goods within the community and built strong lasting relationships with its neighboring people. The greatly enjoyed abundance of resources in this region allowed for people to settle in villages that consisted of large rectangular wooden long houses. These houses would hold several families with some being matrilineal or patrilineal decent. The recognition of cultural ownership is crucial for this region. Certain songs and dances belong to the whole culture, but most are individually owned or belong to the members of a specific society within the group.
The raising of a totem pole, a coming of age, a birth, marriage, death, or to honor a great deed are all reasons for a host or chief to call for a potlatch. For the winter ceremonials the duration of these potlatches might be as long as a month. During the entire potlatch music is being produced and played. Musical and theatrical events performed by secret societies and individuals each day and evening, concluding with special songs to distribute gifts to each guest. “More importantly, these potlatches allowed the hosts to present their group’s history and to provide venues for people to learn the songs and dances. Often different cultures would pass along a dance with its accompanying music as a gift in marriage or through agreements between the cultures” (Giacona, Peck 2013).
In communities today, potlatch feasts are celebrated within a shorter time frame of about one day to a long weekend. Personal stories and experiences of potlatches can capture the essence of what the tradition is all about. Robert Davidson and his family wanted to pay...