Potlatch is a tradition that goes far back in history. This ceremony was usually held in the period from October to May and was of great public importance. The study of the etymology of this tradition indicates that the Indians related their ideas about wealth to this concept. The essence of this festive event was to disclose the generosity of the Indian family or member by which they could achieve respect and recognition.
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The Custom and Its Significance
Potlatch used to be a ceremony, which could last for several days and included the essential distribution of gifts to the people invited, ritual dances, and a variety of foods. Potlatch could be organized for various reasons, but it was always a significant event in the life of the people. For instance, potlatch could be arranged to celebrate the birth of a child, to praise the leader inauguration, to rejoice the first hunting of the son in the family, to feast a marriage and so on. Thus, all of the most crucial changes in the life of an Indian were commemorated by this ceremony. In general, the purpose of the tradition was to notify the tribespeople of the new stage of life and to attain social recognition through bringing gifts. Despite the diversity of reasons for the celebration, there were three main occasions for the potlatch, which were a wake, building a new home, and honoring of the child.
The funeral was a ceremony, which was of great importance in the life of the Indians; in fact, many researchers believe that the funeral ceremony laid the foundation for this tradition. In this type of potlatch, the religious beliefs of people and their ideas about the property were manifested. During the ceremony, everything that belonged to the Indian was buried with him or her (jewelry, weapons, clothing). Another important reason for potlatch was connected to the building of a new home. In addition, this type of holiday has also been linked with the installation of the totem pole or a tombstone. The Indians tried to invite to this festivity as many visitors from the remote villages as possible and to give them generous gifts. Another important reason to celebrate, as mentioned above, was the birth of a child and the construction of the house in connection with this event. The construction of dwellings was justified by the fact that children were born with no social status, and they could attain it through the distribution of a large amount of wealth.
At present, there are still tribes that practice this ceremony. For instance, Kwakiutl are among those who honor this old tradition and follow the main rituals of it. Although the potlatch that is held today is different from that of its historical form, it is still celebrated. The tribe, in its turn, has enriched it with the customs of Kwakiutl.
This cultural custom reveals the religiousness of the peoples and tribes and the way of expression of their economic views. Potlatch was a way of investing the capital in growth. In addition to religious and economic importance, this tradition had the psychological and social implications due to the fact it was a way of introducing and establishing the right of the family to the land. Thus, the ritual act of giving was a profound and multifaceted cultural phenomenon.