Prestige and the Distribution of Wealth main content.

Prestige and the Distribution of Wealth

Part of Northwest Coast Hall.


This scene depicts a dramatic moment in a late 19th century potlatch, as the host, a Tlingit chief (right), offers valuable gifts to the noble guest (left). This great Northwest Coast Indian ceremony features speeches, dancing, feasting, and gift-giving. Just as we sometimes try to outdo our neighbors in the lavishness of an important celebration, a Northwest Coast chief sponsoring a potlatch might try to humiliate a rival by overwhelming him with gifts.

But the extravagant display of giving costly presents and destroying property masks the ceremony’s true importance. Long a feature of Northwest Coast Indian life, the potlatch can serve, for example, to honor the dead, celebrate marriage, dedicate a new house or validate the transfer of titles. The potlatch guests, who perform ceremonial functions, receive gifts matched in value with each recipient’s rank. The whole community--chiefs, commoners and slaves--play prescribed roles in a potlatch.

Settlers, especially missionaries, saw the potlatch only as wasteful and heathenish. The Canadian government outlawed potlatches in 1884, but many Northwest Coast groups secretly continued to hold them. Today, with the potlatch once again legal everywhere, Northwest Coast peoples celebrate potlatches much like those of their ancestors.