Puyallup Tribal News

History: Potlatch

Watercolour by James Gilchrist Swan (1818 - 1900) of Northwest Native Potlatch


A potlatch was a gathering by invitation, done by the Puyallup people for years before European contact. The purpose of the potlatch was to celebrate many different occasions, and to connect the local and surrounding tribes.

A common reason to hold a potlatch would include celebrations of birth, marriage and death or reburial ceremonies. During these large gatherings, other activities would occur when such large numbers of Natives from the surrounding areas were in attendance.

Common activities that occurred at a potlatch included curing ceremonies, naming ceremonies, bone games, various sports, singing and dancing. Food was usually supplied by the host of the potlatch, and if specified, the guest would also bring food and gifts. If these activities occurred during the potlatch, the person would usually distribute gifts to those participating in an effort to thank them for their participation.

The person, who was to put on the potlatch, sent invitations in the form of small sticks to important men outside of the group of local villages and tribes. The men who were specifically invited were free to bring any relatives or friends of their choosing.

Gift giving by the host was how the power of wealth was demonstrated at the ceremony by the amount of property that had been accumulated and given away without creating debt to the host. This display of wealth was to establish prestige and economic standing among other tribes and groups. Unlike the white man who gathered riches to have power, the Potlatch man got rich in order to divide with his friends and be poor again.

Lead men from other tribes were invited so the host could try to consolidate his position with them. In this way, friendly relations between the host and the guest could be built.

The host of the potlatch accumulated property for great lengths of time to prepare for the ceremony. His family and housemates participated in making and accumulating gifts, stacking or hanging them around the host’s family house until the day of distribution. Coiled baskets, robes and blankets were important items to be shared with guests.

When the invited guest arrived at the potlatch, they came to shore in canoes, with the men coming in first. The leader or the warrior of the group started his power song and the others joined in, beating with their paddles on the canoe. Each group of guests landed at the potlatch site on different days.

When all the guest had arrived, the host would then hand out the gifts. The person hosting the potlatch called out the name and the amount his guest was to receive and his words were repeated by the men who gave out the gifts to the guests. The guest went forward saying, “ho,” in recognition of the gift. Every family was prepared to leave after they had received their gifts, and departed on the water back to their home.

At the end of the potlatch the host had considerably less wealth in his possession, but his wealth power had increased and so did his economic status. With this poverty came power. “A rich man made his name bigger.”

Potlatch Ban

In the late 1800’s the federal government wanted Native people to abandon their traditional beliefs and “heathenish practices” and adopt Christian and democratic values. But many Native people were not prepared to give up beliefs and practices that had been ingrained in their lives for thousands of years. At that time, missionaries, Christians and the Hudson’s Bay Company traders complained that the potlatch ceremony encouraged non-Christian beliefs and distracted the Native people from productive work. Supporters of this belief saw that potlatches were destructive and backwards, leading the people into poverty. The federal government agreed. In 1884, participation in a potlatch was made an offence with a penalty of up to six months in jail.

Current ways of life and giving

With the Potlatch Ban in effect, our people were stripped from our right to practice our traditional ceremonies and gatherings. But through the years the Puyallup’s have adjusted to these changes, without losing touch with our culture, traditions, and beliefs.

These gatherings today, are certainly not exactly as they once were, but many families work, save and put things away, knowing they will hold such an event in the future. The presentations at a potlatch are to show honor and respect to the receiving party with a gift, and the ceremony continues on to this day.

Puyallup people hold giveaways today, honoring loved ones in birth, naming ceremonies, and Canoe gatherings. A family will host a giveaway for a person who is about to dance for the first time, in recognition of an elder or tribal leader, as an honorarium for one who has been to war or to honor a loved one's passing. At the giveaway, a history of the person being honored is given and an explanation of the importance of their lives or particular deed or situation. An honor dance is then held using special tribal songs and honor songs are sung for each individual. The family members then "give" gifts to friends, visitors or other family members of their choosing. They give such items as cash, blankets, clothing, beadwork, or whatever the family chooses and is able to afford.

Giveaways are more commonly seen at large Indian gatherings and most commonly at Pow-Wows, where Indians come from all over in beautiful and colorful regalia, to dance to the traditional Indian songs.

In keeping with our traditions, our leadership continues to disburse gifts to the membership such as honoring our tribal elders with blankets, food baskets and monetary gifts. Other gift giving includes gift giveaways to thank honorariums for participating in funeral services and ceremonial gatherings as well as to people in attendance to show gratitude.


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