Potlatching Among The Kwakuitl Essay, Research Paper
The Kwakiutl are an American Indian tribe that live on the northern shore of Vancouver Island in British Columbia and on the adjacent mainland in a country with a coastline almost as long and inletted per square mile of territory as that of Norway (Bohannon, 1966). The Kwakiutl are significant in that they engage in a very unique form of exchange known as potlatching .
A potlatch was a ceremonial given by a chief and his group, as hosts, to guests composed of another chief or chiefs with their respective groups, at which the guests were given wealth goods as gifts (Drucker, 1967).
Kottak (1982) defines a potlatch as a festive event where, assisted by other members of their communities, sponsors gave away food, blankets, pieces of copper and other items. In return for this they got prestige. To give a potlatch enhanced a son s reputation and prestige increased with the lavishness of the potlatch and the value of the goods given away with it.
Bohannon (1966) offers another definition of the potlatch. The word potlatch is derived from the Chinook language and it means gift . The potlatch is a ceremonial occasion on which one exchanges or gives gifts to one s rival, who is a man occupying a status closest to one s own in the ranked hierarchy. Potlatch involves the giving of property by one holder of a position to the holder of an equal or higher position. The former does this to maintain the glory of the rank he holds and the glory of the ancestors from who he inherited the position (Bohannon, 1966).
The Kwakiutl are more obsessed with rank than most other peoples in the world. They created artificial shortages and their striving for high social position was an integral part of the economy. In addition there was an organisation made up of a number of ranked but heredity officers, each one marked by crests, ceremonial privileges and titles. The ranking of positions was neither automatic nor unchangeable and each position was reaffirmed by potlatches (Bohannon, 1966).
During the winter the Kwakiutl did very little in the way of production activities but rather turned their attention to ceremonial activities and potlatches. Potlatches were usually given on important occasions. Potlatches were held in association with marriage, births or initiations or they were held in connection with winter dances or other religious rituals (Bohannon, 1966). Potlatches were also held to celebrate marriages, births, deaths, adoptions or the coming of age of young people. A potlatch may be given as a penalty for breaking a taboo such as behaving frivolously or performing ineptly at a sacred winter dance. Potlatches to save face could be prompted by an accident even as trivial as capsizing a canoe or the birth of a deformed child (Haviland, 1989).
Among the Kwakiutl the most important potlatch counters were blankets. It was necessary for the potlatcher to collect as many blankets as possible through wise investments and precise interest rates and then to convert the blankets into other types of goods (Bohannon, 1966).
Before the advent of bales of blankets and other mass-produced trade articles, native wealth was used. These items were scarce for one of several possible reasons. They were rare in nature like the nuggets of copper used to make coppers. They could also be a long time in the making, like labouriously manufactured canoes or robes. This meant that even a populous and industrious group would need years to assemble enough wealth articles for a potlatch (Drucker, 1967).
Codere (1950) provides an example of how a blanket potlatch works. This is a case in which a man wanted to set up his son in a potlatch position from which he himself was retiring. He arranged for several members of his tribe to give his son a hundred blankets. The son then took these blankets and gave them to other members of his own tribe, who paid a hundred percent interest for keeping the blankets for one year. These people also, then, at the time that they returned the hundred blankets gave him another hundred blankets which the boy would eventually have to return at the same one hundred percent interest rate.
The boy, then, on this occasion had his original hundred blankets, his hundred blankets interest and the hundred blankets that had been given to him. He now gave these blankets out to friends in other tribes, who returned them in a shorter time and with less interest. This gave the boy a total of about 450 blankets. His father then decided that it was time to hold a potlatch. The boy took his 450 blankets and amidst vast ceremonial made his presentations.
Two hundred blankets went to repay the original loan at one hundred percent interest. Another two hundred went to repay the second loan, made when his first gifts were returned, also at one hundred percent interest. This left him with fifty blankets to give away.
Among the most extravagant potlatches are those given for rivalry or vengeance (Haviland, 1989). Rivalry potlatch can be regarded as an application of the face saving technique: it was the standard procedure when dignity had been injured, a claim to status had been challenged or a man was insulted (Kottak, 1982). A man who considered himself insulted would retort either by making one spectacular gift to the individual or by organising a wider distribution of property. This act was a challenge; it invited the enemy to match and outdo it by a return gift or a further distribution (Mair, 1965).
Potlatching actually consists of a whole cycle of individual potlatches each of which is an occasion for a person to ostentatiously convert certain types of wealth into other types of wealth. The actual giving was done with great ostentation and with vast amounts of bragging about the investment skill and intrepidity of the position holder. The rival was openly dared to do anything half as theatrical (Bohannon, 1966).
Potlatches are not only empty, irrational competitive ceremonies. A village enjoying an especially good year had a surplus of subsistence items, which it could exchange for wealth and wealth could be converted into prestige. Potlatches distributed wealth to other communities who needed it and in return the sponsoring communities gained prestige (Kottak, 1982).
Potlatching also prevented the development of permanent social stratification. When wealth was given or destroyed it was turned into a nonmaterial prestige. Potlatching tribes were content to destroy their surpluses rather than use them to widen the socioeconomic distance between themselves and fellow tribesmen (Kottak, 1982).
In a potlatch a surplus is created for the express purpose of gaining prestige through a display of wealth and generous giving of gifts. Unlike the conspicuous consumption in our own society the emphasis is not so much on the hoarding of goods which would make them unavailable to others. Instead the emphasis is on giving away, or at least getting rid of, ones wealth. Thus potlatch serves as a leveling mechanism, preventing some individuals from accumulating too much wealth at the expense of other members of society (Haviland, 1989).
It is ecologically feasible for the Kwakiutl to try to intensify production using prestige and the privilege of boasting to reward those who worked harder and to encourage others to work harder (Harris, 1996).
When an impoverished and unprestigious group could no longer hold its own potlatches, the people abandoned their redistributer-chief and took up residence among relatives in a more productive village. This led to the recruitment of additional labour power to the workforce about a particularly effective redistributer (Harris, 1996).
In addition to the sociopolitical aspects of potlatching there are also environmental factors that need to be considered.
Potlatchers are hunter-gatherers but when compared to other foragers they were more like food producers. In contrast to most other foragers their environments were not marginal. They had access to a wide variety of land and sea resources. Most important foods were salmon, herring, candlefish, mountain goats, seals and porpoises (Kottak, 1982).
The living standards of the Kwakiutl are among the highest in the world because there so many resources and large amounts of material necessities available to them. Probably no other place in the world offers so many riches for so little work (Bohannon, 1966).
Resources fluctuate from year to year and place to place, on the north Pacific coast. Salmon and herring are not equally abundant each year in a given locality. One village may have a good year while another experiences a bad one. Later their fortunes reverse. Therefore although the overall natural environment of the north Pacific coast is favourable, resources may vary in time and place.
The spheres of exchange are widespread because they are cultural adaptive mechanisms. They help the population to adapt to their environment (Kottak, 1982). The Kwakiutl categories of wealth are different from those involved in other economies because of the fact that they live in such abundance. This means that subsistence items themselves do not really enter into the potlatching institutions (Bohannon, 1966).
Potlatch is essentially dependent on the environment to ensure that the social and political spheres of the community function properly. If there was not an abundance of natural resources the potlatch would not be able to take place in the way that it does and the world would not have the opportunity to see a perfect example of reciprocal exchange.