The Potlatch Essay

2784 words - 11 pages

For one to understand how the traditional potlatch acted to regulate and structure First Nations Societies one must be given some insight into the traditions and beliefs of First Nations people. Specifically, I will attempt to convey the traditions and beliefs of my culture which is Heiltsuk. Traditions and beliefs were an integral part of many Aboriginal societies. Many ceremonies are performed during a potlatch and although they may seem to be trivial to others, they all serve a purpose and were considered to be very important to those who performed them, and those who participated. The potlatch is considered the centre of an Aboriginal society; traditionally it was the forum where economic, social, judicial and educational needs were addressed.A potlatch is hosted by the chief of the family and is held to commemorate a special occasion or a matter that needs to be dealt with. The most influential in aboriginal society is that of a chief; people in traditional Heiltsuk society were ranked in the following order; Chiefs, nobles, commoners, and slaves. This was common in most Aboriginal Societies. It is the job of the chief to make sure that everything is done to his standards and satisfaction. He must also make sure that his family complies with the appropriate traditions laid out in their culture.Hosting a potlatch is a huge undertaking. In the traditional and contemporary teachings, Heiltsuk chiefs are considered to be the leaders and this status is maintained only by the support of their extended families since it is his family that rallies behind him and gives him emotional and financial support. The family also does a lot of the preparation that is involved in the planning of a potlatch. It takes time to accumulate the gifts, the food, and to organize the events that are going to occur during the potlatch. The amount of food and gifts that are presented at a potlatch was seen by the Europeans as a waste and they had no understanding of how important the potlatch system was to Aboriginal society. A contemporary potlatch still takes a lot of time to plan and the whole family must support the chief since a potlatch these days could cost in excess of $10,000.Potlatches are held for many reasons. The first to be examined will be how the potlatch helped to economically sustain Aboriginal communities. Many Aboriginal societies throughout British Columbia used to gather in different communities to potlatch. Traditionally, these gathering would be held for days and even weeks at a time. During the potlatch many gifts were given to the chiefs, nobles, and sometimes the commoners who attended the potlatch. The more that was given out in a potlatch by a chief the more his status was elevated. The reason the process of gift giving elevated a chief's status was, traditionally, the amount that was given out by the host of the potlatch was expected to be returned to him with interest at a later date. This practice could be seen as an investment in the host...

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