Potlatch description in First Nations Awareness: Putting It All Together by Karin Clark
The Potlatch is a major ceremony that marks important events in the lives of Pacific Northwest Coast First Nations people.
A Potlatch is a First Nations ceremony that publicly records First Nations history and takes care of economic business. Events like marriages, births, deaths, the giving of names and privileges, are recorded - not by writing them down, but by being placed in the memories of the witnesses in the audience. Witnesses are invited to come to a Potlatch from many other communities. Relative ranking and how people and groups are related to one another is recounted during a Potlatch. Witnesses are paid to remember the information given during an event and be able to tell about it in the future. The family that is giving the Potlatch pays the witnesses with many kinds of gifts.
These Potlatches were the way that the rights of chiefs were made clear and the Potlatches held the First Nations society together much as rules and laws hold society together today. But missionaries and government officials believed that the Potlatches should be banned. The Potlatches were outlawed from the 1800's until 1951 and First Nations people who were involved in Potlatches were punished.
"Southern Kwakiutl chiefs told anthropologist Franz Boas, who arrived to observe and record customs soon after the Potlatch was outlawed:
'Do we ask the white man, "Do as the Indian does?" No, we do not. Why then do you ask us, "Do as the white man does?" It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbours. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law. We shall observe ours."' From Wisdom of the Elders by Ruth Kirk
In 1951, the law against the Potlatch was repealed and some of the special ceremonial artifacts have been returned to the communities from which they were taken. But many things were sold to private collectors and museums around the world and are forever lost to the communities that once owned them.
Today, the Potlatch is still being used in First Nations societies to celebrate major community events.