Above: Enforcer of Potlatch Systems Mask by Charlie Johnson
What is a potlatch?
For those who are not familiar, a potlatch is a centuries-old ceremonial practice that is integral to the culture and spiritual traditions of the Northwest Coast First Nations. A potlatch may be held for many reasons: to establish claims to names, powers, rights, and privileges, to confer rank upon an individual, to celebrate a marriage, birth, or another social event, and to mourn the dead. Part of these ceremonies includes the redistribution of wealth and the giving of gifts including clothing, hides, food, blankets, bentwood boxes, artwork, jewelry, canoes, and prestigious items. Some potlatches last several days and involve feasting, singing, dancing, and wearing regalia and masks.
In the late 1800’s the Canadian government implemented a ban on potlatches that lasted for over 60 years. But some potlatches were still held in secret to keep the practice alive and to preserve culture and knowledge. The ban was officially lifted in the 1950’s, and since then First Nations communities have worked hard to revive this tradition.
This rich and integral ceremony is practiced by Northwest Coast Peoples to this day.