What is a Potlatch?

Potlatch figure welcoming guests
PMAE # 2004.1.808

Potlatches were social occasions given by a host to establish or uphold his status position in society. Often they were held to mark a significant event in his family, such as the birth of a child, a daughter's first menses, or a son's marriage. Potlatches are to be distinguished from feasts in that guests are invited to a potlatch to share food and receive gifts or payment. Potlatches held by commoners were mainly local, while elites often invited guests from many tribes. Potlatches were also the venue in which ownership to economic and ceremonial privileges was asserted, displayed, and formally transferred to heirs.

"Interior of Habitation at Nootka Sound" John Webber

"Interior of Habitation at Nootka Sound"
John Webber (British), April 1778
PMAE # 41-72-10/499

Most native cultures on the Northwest Coast had potlatches, including the Nuu-chah-nulth, Coast Salish, Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, Haida, Nootka, Tsimshian, and Tlingit. These events were held either inside large longhouses, like the one depicted in this 18th century painting by John Webber, or outdoors.

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