Prestige and the Distribution of Wealth main content.

Prestige and the Distribution of Wealth

Part of Northwest Coast Hall.

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Exhibition Text

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 whol