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Northwest Coast Native American Potlatch

The Northwest Coast Native American potlatch (or potlach of Native Indians) is a type of ceremony among Native peoples living in the Pacific Northwest region in both the United States and Canada. The potlatch has been practiced by nations such as the Haida, Salish, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Kwakwaka’wak for thousands of years.

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Potlatches can be held to celebrate births, rites of passages, weddings, funerals, puberty and honoring of deceased. These celebrations will typically include a feast, music, some theatrical performances involving tribal masks and spiritual events. The host family of each potlatch will also demonstrate their wealth and social status by distributing gifts to the guests. Gifts included food, canoes, blankets, copper and many other types of items. Potlatches will often elevate the prestige of the hosts even more.

Potlatches were also used to assert or formally transfer to heirs, certain economic or ceremonial privileges. The gifts were therefore used as payments to the guests for being witnesses to claims since written records were not produced.

Lower status families would hold potlatches on a local scale while the elite would invite guests from many tribes to grander events. Sometimes, rival families would be in competition to outdo each other in elaborate potlatches. The potlatch itself would either be held inside a large longhouse or outdoors.

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Unfortunately, missionaries considered the potlatch to be demonic and satanic. As a result, they were able to get the Canadian government to ban potlatches in 1885. The US government also placed a similar ban in the late 19th century. Potlatches continued on a much smaller scale and in secrecy away from non-native eyes. The bans on the potlatch were eventually lifted in the US in 1934 and in Canada in 1951.

Potlatches are still held today but of course, the types of gifts are also more contemporary and can include useful household items, Native art as well as cash.

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