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Potlatch Festivals
Nature Bulletin No. 509-A   December 1, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Thursday of this week was Thanksgiving Day, originating from a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers in October, 1621. Harvest festivals have been customary in many lands since time immemorial but the Nez Perce Indians of Idaho and eastern Oregon have a peculiar one called a Potlatch.

That word is included in the Chinook jargon used by Indian tribes along the Pacific coast from Oregon to Alaska, where the Nez Perces once lived, in their commerce with each other and with white people. It was derived from patshatl, meaning "a gift" or "giving" in the Nootka language spoken by tribes living on Vancouver Island, and was applied to festivals having nothing to do with harvests. They were not an agricultural people.

The Indians who inhabit that northwest coast used to be fierce fighters and daring sailors. They went to sea in big dogout canoes, fashioned from cedar logs, to fish, harpoon whales and engage in battles. The more northern tribes -- especially the Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl and Tsimshian -- built houses and large communal lodges of logs or planks, carved and painted with symbols and effigies of mythical birds, beasts and supernatural beings. Before their homes stood tall totem poles: cedar trunks carved and painted to represent the owner's crest, rank, and life history. There were similar memorial columns for dead chiefs. They had many artists and craftsmen skilled in woodwork, copperwork, painting and the weaving of blankets or of baskets.

The potlatch, with its rigid etiquette and traditional ceremonies, was a most important feature in the lives of those Indians. Although differing considerably in some details among various tribes, the potlatch was a feast at which the host gave away quantities of goods. The more lavishly he gave, the more he was respected. Even if it beggared him, he and his family and their village and tribe must not lose "face". Big deal!

Every important event in a man's life was an occasion requiring a potlatch: his birth, when he was named, when he was initiated into a secret society, at his marriage, when his totem pole was erected, and at his death. Each person was born with a claim to use the properties of his family and clan but could not do so until his name, crest, and title to them had been formally announced. That was accomplished during a potlatch. Most of these were small affairs, held whenever convenient and confined to members of his family and village, or perhaps other villages of that tribe. Even so, in order to stage one honorably, it usually took 3 to 4 years for a man to accumulate enough property.

The intertribal potlatches given by rival chiefs were elaborate shindigs commonly lasting a week. Two sumptuous meals were served each day. Between them, while the young men played games and held tugs of war, the older people went from house to house -- gossiping, eating and trading. At night they gambled. During that week, the chief might burn hundreds of blankets and destroy several canoes to demonstrate his wealth and superiority! On the last day, after a long speech, he distributed lavish gifts. Within a reasonable time, the other tribe was honor bound to hold a "return" potlatch and twice as many gifts.

At one of these festivals, a chief gave away $500 in money, 40 guns, 6 large canoes, 400 blankets, and quantities of robes, baskets, beads, etc. To the rival chief he presented a large shield-like copper plaque which, through years of trading and giving, had acquired the value of 7500 blankets. Several hogsheads of rum were consumed at that potlatch and it became a drunken orgy.

Nowadays, in Canada, only a few "family" potlatches are permitted.

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