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The Potlatch is a ritual defined as a means of economic exchange, redistribution and accumulation of wealth with the aim of gaining

prestige and titles amongst the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest (Paper, 2007: 118). The ritual occurs on various occasions such as births, naming ceremonies and weddings (Benedict, 1935). There are three main explanations of the potlatch: the classical explanation, the cultural-ecological explanation and the Marxist explanation. The best explanation of the potlatch is the Marxist explanation. Among the Kwakiutl people of the Pacific Northwest wealth is represented by blankets and other items exchanged in potlatch activities (Boas, 1897). Kwakiutl society is made up of small groups of people (mostly kin) called numayhe which is represented by a chief. Each numayhe is ranked by their wealth and prestige (Ridsdale, 1997: 7). When a man holds a potlatch celebration he formally invites a congregation, another numayhe, of people to witness a special family occasion (Ridsdale, 1997: 7). As the chief of his numayhe he is the host and gift giver of the event - chiefs hold no actual power but act on behalf of their numayhe (Ridsdale, 1997: 7). When potlatch gifts are given they are given disproportionally according to rank and it is required that the receivers recognise the prestige of the host of the potlatch (Ridsdale, 1997). The host is able to then apply certain privileges and/or distinctions to his family name provided that they are recognised by other members of society (Ridsdale, 1997). Ridsdale (1997) emphasises that the potlatch gifts should not be seen as loans but as true gifts even though gifts will generate reciprocal action. The potlatch is extremely competitive thus much time is spent by men preparing for them. Often men aim to shame other men by showing that they have wealth in blankets and through their abilities to host large festivals (Boas, 1897). Conflict is also resolved through the potlatch in that whoever owns the most wins. Ultimately there is a redistribution of wealth and power as well as resources through the potlatch ritual (Ridsdale, 1897). The main explanations of the potlatch seek to find the underlying reasons behind the potlatch. Codere (1950) gives an explanation known as the classical explanation of the potlatch which is derived from Boas (1897). Codere (1950) argues that rivalry potlatch exchanges are a substitute for physical violence and warfare. Codere (1950) believes that all

potlatching was an expression of rivalry and aggression to another group of people and that the aim was to gain prestige using potlatching. Codere (1950: 2) says that potlatching is a way of gaining status by putting heavy interest on potlatch items that are given, the rates of which increase rapidly from 100%. According to Codere (1950) potlatching is also a way of legitimising hereditary status in a ranked order. Codere (1950: 108) says that potlatch originates from war which is why there are many references to war in songs and language linked with potlatching and believes that gaining social prestige was a key part of war within Kwakiutl society. Codere (1950: 118) says that instead of using weapons to settle rivalries indigenous people used property so instead of wars of blood there were wars of property. Codere looks at the introduction of western colonies as one of the reasons for an increase in potlatching due to the suppression of warfare by colonist rulers (1950: 127). Codere gives more evidence showing that the increase in potlatching was a result of new technology brought in by colonists allowing groups to exploit the land more efficiently and increase the amount of time groups spent on potlatch activities. At the time, according to Codere (1950: 63), the Kwakiutl experienced fantastic economic surplus. The economic surplus in turn meant that the importance of social rank became less meaning that groups would allocate a fair amount of energy into maintaining or attaining social rank (Codere, 1950: 68). Codere (1950) sees the potlatch as a system with property, sales, credit and interest. Piddocke (1965) counters Coderes explanation of the potlatch with a cultural-ecological explanation. Piddockes first argument against Codere is the time in which her account of the potlatch took place, a time of when western contact was high and much of the indigenous population had been victims of various diseases brought in by westerners such as smallpox (Piddocke, 1965: 253) showing that Coderes idea that economic surplus was created by the potlatch is wrong because there was a smaller population with access to the same abundant resources. Piddocke also highlights the presence of non-traditional wealth created by trade with westerners (1965: 253). Piddocke argues that before contact with the west there was no source of wealth and the potlatch could have been used as an effective method of food distribution if the limit of subsistence was reached. Piddocke continues by saying that within the potlatch there is no use of interest or in fact an expectation by the giver to receive equal or more in return saying that it if a chief complains it but that the

chief only requires that at some point in he will receive the amount given, even if it be over years or through generations (Piddocke, 1965: 255). Many of the people that received potlatch gifts would be unable to reciprocate and that much of the importance of rank was receiving of potlatch (Piddocke, 1965: 255). Piddocke points to Curtiss distinction between the potlatch and lending-borrowing as two completely different systems however creditors could use the potlatch as a way of getting the public to support their claims (1965: 255). Piddocke also points out that the lending-borrowing system was only present in Kwakiutl society and not throughout the North-west coast (Piddocke, 1965: 255). According to Piddocke (1965: 256), potlatches prior western contact were only held by chiefs as they were the only people with enough wealth to hold them. Piddocke describes the potlatch as the giving of a feast and gifts by a numayhe, represented by a chief, to another numayhe. The more the host of the potlatch gives the more prestige is received by him and if the guest numayhe is unable to reciprocate completely himself and his numayhe would gain prestige whilst the other would be shamed (1965: 257). Piddocke (1965: 257) says that the potlatch occurs on multiple occasions and can be used to shame another numayhe or make peace. Piddocke (1965) says that variable food production, potlatches, the interconvertibility of food, wealth and prestige and status rivalry among Kwakiutl people are all interlinked. His final point is that his explanation of the potlatch would result in Coderes (1950) explanation. Piddocke (1965) includes the possible effects of change in his explanation the potlatch which Codere (1950) failed to do. Suttles cultural-ecological approach only has minor differences in that Suttles does not treat wealth and food as directly interchangeable but that the potlatch mediates the giving and there is no element of barter. He supports this by saying that wealth is of varying utility and that food was given to reciprocate given wealth rather than traded for it (Suttles, 1960: 300). However there he does draw the indirect link by saying a numayhe with a lot of food is able to allocate time towards producing wealth (Suttles, 1960: 300). Suttles emphasised ecological differences (different ownership of resources) between different numayhe as key reason for the potlatch taking place. Suttles (1960: 304) concludes that the potlatch is a part of a larger socio-economic system allowing high food production and equal distribution of food within Kwakiutl society.

The last explanation to put in contrast to the others is the Marxist theory which places emphasis on the rank system (Ruyle, 1973: 603). Ruyle says the following about the Marxist interpretation of the potlatch: there is a rank system however rank is not to be considered as class and the prestige system is adaptive in its nature and functioning (Ruyle, 1973: 603). According to Ruyle (1973: 604), the Kwakiutl society is a society of rank and not class, in the proper sense of the term; because within the society there is no strong divide between those of noble decent and others. One of the core ideas of this explanation is that the potlatch was used as a mechanism to create and support an upper class with wealth and privileges with the prestige system legitimising the exploitive fashion of the potlatch Ruyle (1973: 617). The Marxist approach identifies classes; slaves (non-kin), commoners and chiefs (Ruyle, 1973). Marxism states that in any class system there is an attempt to advance upwards in the class ranks by individuals. Marxist explanation simply puts forward the idea that there was an upper class that used systems such as the potlatch to exploit lower classes in the society who believed that they could attain the same social standing through potlatch (Ruyle, 1973). Ruyle (1973: 605) argues the cultural-ecological explanations by saying that no evidence of food being given away during hard times presenting a clear deficiency in cultural-ecological theory where the ecology of the system is determined by existing initial noble lineage. The higher class rank of chiefs would enable them to dominate production and use the surplus that was created by commoners and slaves (Ruyle, 1973: 607). Each explanation presents a generalised idea of the potlatch in which gifts are exchanged at a ceremony in order to obtain wealth in exchange for prestige. The classical explanation of why this occurs uses a corrupted (by western influence) version of the potlatch which explains the reasons for the potlatch as the redistribution of wealth and the accumulation of prestige and as a tool of pacified war. The cultural-ecological explanation sees the potlatch as network of factors that influence each other to result in the equal distribution of food and wealth however not taking into the account its needs for a fluctuating food supply. The Marxist explanation makes things clearer and presents a potlatch outside of western influence where a small group of chiefs of specific lineage entitling them to various rights to resources use the potlatch as a way of legitimising their control of food production and wealth. The Marxist explanation works best in describing the potlatch as its argument defines it prior to arrival of westerners.

References: Boas, F. 1897. The social organization and the secret societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. Washington. Codere, H. 1950. Fighting with property. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Paper, J.D. 2006. Native North American Religious Traditions: Dancing for Life. Praeger. Piddocke, S. 1965. The Potlatch System of southern Kwakiutl a new perspective. South Western Journal of Anthropology, (1965) 21:244-264. Ruyle, E. 1973. Slavery, Surplus And Stratification on the North West Coast. Current Anthropology, (1973) 14:603-631. Suttles, W. 1960. Affinal Ties, Subsistence and Prestige among the Coast Salish. American Anthropologist, (1960) 62:296-305.