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It's Not The Thought That Counts

"Every Indian or person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival
known as the 'Potlatch' … is guilty of a misdemeanour, and liable to imprisonment
for a term not exceeding six months and not less than two. Every Indian or person
who encourages an Indian, either directly or indirectly, to get up such a festival … or
to celebrate the same, is guilty of a like offence and shall be liable to the same
Subsection 114 of An Act Respecting Indians (The Indian Act), Chapter 43 of the
Revised Statutes of Canada, 1885
The word potlatch derives from Chinook, a general lingua franca of the North American
Pacific Coast which mobilised elements of English, Spanish, French and a variety of First
Nation languages. In this trading vernacular, it meant 'giving away' or 'a gift'. And that "is the
only thing we all agree upon" according to two leading anthropologists in the area.
Yet this supposed agreement needs to be approached with caution. Not only has there been
controversy over the spelling of the word - with "patlach" and "potlache" being used - but
disputes persist as to the very nature of the practice. Many of these disputes were
negotiated across white discourses, within the colonialist administration's legal, police or
Christian missions or within the vast bulk of ethnographic literature. Disputes occur, too,
within the analyses of potlatch developed by First Nationals themselves. It is little surprise,
then, that disputes persisted in attempts by twentieth century critical theory to respond to
potlatch as a very different way of doing things.
But what, then, was this different way? I want to isolate three overlapping versions of
potlatch. These by no means exhaust the full range of published interpretations but render, I
hope, the complexity of this phenomenon.
In 1868, Gilbert Sproat, a functionary in the imperialist machine that in its North American
operations, as elsewhere, presided over an almost unimaginable destruction of lives, of land
and of cultures, offered the world 'Scenes and Studies in Savage Life'. He announced that the
"Indian who stands by your side in a tattered blanket, may have twenty new blankets and
yards of calico in his box at home. What he acquires beyond immediate necessaries goes to
increase this stock, until the high day comes in winter season, when he spreads his feast and
distributes gifts among the guests, according to rank … The giver does not now consider he
has parted with his property, he regards it as well invested, for the recipients of his largesse
will strive to return to him at their own feasts more than he has bestowed". Sproat is
referring here to the potlatch engaged in by the Kwakiutl people- now called the
Kwakwaka'wakw - of British Columbia.
The version offered by Sproat sees potlatch as a kind of loan, the repayment of which
(sometimes alleged to involve interest, sometimes not) is deferred to some later time when
it is returned in a similarly public space. This notion has been vigorously refuted by First
National Charles E. Nowell, through his assertion that, as might be expected, a sophisticated
system of loans was already established, loans which were referred to as ' di'donum', with
'yaq!wima' being reserved for potlatch.
The next version of potlatch to be unearthed from the various interpretations sees it as a
apparatus for the legitimation of social status. In Kaj Birket-Smith's work, it is argued that

"rank depended mainly on birth but, be it noted, only potentially, for wealth was a necessary
qualification or rather, it was indispensable for a man to assert or improve his position by
giving one or more potlatches in order to show his contempt for his property by giving it
away in a grandiose style". Potlatches are now defined as occasions for individuals to
reinforce their rank or even, in some accounts, to elevate their rank - with the corollary that
if the attempt should fail then the rank would diminish. The opportunities for a potlatch of
this nature are apparently numerous - ranging from initiation into secret societies, through
adoption of a new name, and on to celebrations of puberty, kinship marriages, the arrival of
the first salmon and relatives being pierced in the lip, nasal septum or ears.
In certain circumstances, a high-ranking individual would pursue the logic of the potlatch to
its ultimate conclusion. In George Shaw's 1909 'Chinook Jargon and How to Use It', a First
Nationals observed that "the potlatch was the greatest institution of the Indian, and is to
this day. From far and near assembled the invited guests and tribes and with feasting,
signing and chanting and dancing, the bounteous collection was distributed: a chief was
made penniless. The wealth of a lifetime was dissipated in an hour, but his head ever after
was crowned with the glory of a satisfied ambition: he has won the honour and reverence of
his people. It was a beautiful custom; beautiful in the eyes of the natives of high and low
Should someone, especially if high rank, have suffered an indignity - perhaps a feather fell
from his or her costume during an important ceremony, perhaps he or she stumbled on
entering another's home - they can perform a potlatch to recover their prestige by
presenting a blanket to the a relevant individual. If embarrassed person believed a
malevolent spirit had been invoked in order to make him or her appear ludicrous, the
potlatch would have to be more spectacular. Perhaps involving hurling the blanket on a
nearby fire.
This last instance prepares us for still a third version of potlatch as it becomes an instrument
for the settling of grievances between individuals and between clans. In this process,
quantities of blankets, sacks of flour, calicoes, canoes, furs, fish oil, weapons, grease and
money would be donated to those assembled to bear witness to this competitive potlatch
or, more dramatically, would be destroyed.
One case involved a kinsman of a specific group who claimed the right to an honorific title
and accepted gifts accordingly. A woman determined she had a more legitimate claim to the
title. She gave a potlatch in front of several tribes, recounting, as she did so the complex
traditions that contextualised her actions. Producing a copper - a decorated shield, around a
metre in diameter and the equivalent of 5000 to 7500 blankets - she then paid an important
chief to cleave the copper at a symbolic point. Others were paid to cut pieces from the
copper, reducing its value further. As a culmination, a kinsman was ordered to tow the
remains of the copper out to the sea. In reposes, the rival sent for an even more valuable
copper before cutting it into pieces, presenting fragments to the various chiefs and then
lobbing what remained into the sea. At this point in the proceedings he would be deemed to
have won had not his contestant then strategically secured promises from a number of
significant tribal chiefs to the effect that they would produce more and more coppers which
he would have to match until he eventually went bankrupt leaving the woman the victor.
The ability to draw on the reserves of a wider collective indicates that the potlatch system
operated to prevent any individual possessing undue influence on general affairs.

The potlatch was itself open to exploitation and one text indicates that a cynical chief made
a habit of touring a particular area singing insulting tunes ("I have my foot on the necks of
the Nitwi chiefs") that forced the listeners to offer splendid gifts as potlatch to counter his
invective. Indeed, potlatch could be employed in pursuit of practical jokes. If a group of First
Nationals were seated around a fire a mischievous host might pour oil into the flames in an
act of potlatch. Were any of the seated individuals to move from the by now blazing furnace,
they would effectively lose a certain amount of status and, while retreating, would have to
throw blankets or money onto the inferno while those that remained behind laughed at the
unfortunate's expense.
Potlatch, whichever form it took, could be involve the redistribution or destruction of
massive quantities. At a Klallam potlatch, during the latter part of the nineteenth century,
550 guests were invited and $1340 was donated to those present. In 1936, during the
depths of the Depression Era, the value of the gifts passed out during another potlatch
amounted to no less than $29,000.
Some of the First National contributors to the anthropological work on potlatch appear to
argue that it was little different from white present-giving practices. "The Potlatch to us is
just the same as Christmas or any other feast is to the whites", said one. According to
another, the tactical alliances designed to frustrate any individual's attempt to succeed at a
given potlatch are "just like white people in politics. It is just like a white politician running
for election - he has to have a lot of friends so he can get a lot of votes". Moreover, it is
repeatedly stressed that the potlatch occurs within the context of the interpretative
judgements of 'councils of chiefs' - thus potlatch itself is not enough to win disputes to
needs to be endorsed by the all-too-familiar adjudications of quasi-parliamentary
institutions. More than this, it could be pointed out that potlatch can only function in a
society where savings are made - without such stockholding there can be no resources to
donate or destroy - and where objects and actions are accountable to some set of criteria.
Despite attempts to diminish the apparent differences, the white system was sufficiently
affronted by their alleged wastefulness to attempt, over 50 unsuccessful years, to outlaw
the "baneful effects of potlatch", which "retarded civilising influences and encouraged
idleness among the less worthy Indians."
In 'The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case Study', Christopher Bracken argues that the white
critique of potlatch meant revealed that for them, "the gift is the sign of this outer
boundary" the point at which "a pure loss without return, the gift, marks the zone at which
civilisation ends and barbarism begins. Or so it seems".
So it indeed seemed to a great number of European theorists in the twentieth century. For
Marcel Mauss, potlatch could be interpreted in such a way as to represent a system of
exchange that radically departed from conventional approaches. For Georges Bataille, pure
expenditures - gambling, poetry, pleasure and potlatch - require a loss "that must be as
great as possible in order for that activity to take on its true meaning", and thus exceed the
"principle of utility" that structures the white world. For the Lettristes, the notion of the
potlatch was sufficiently inspirational to be worthy of adoption as the title of their journal.
The idea of potlatch also animated the Situationists. Raoul Vaneigem argued that the
"sacrifice-gift, the potlatch - the game of exchange or loser takes all, in which the size of the
sacrifice determined the prestige of the giver - obviously had not place in a rationalised
economy. Forced out of the sectors dominated by economic imperatives, it re-emerged in
values such as hospitality, friendship and love: refugees doomed to disappear as the

dictatorship of qualified exchange (market value) colonised everyday life and turned it too
into a market". Indeed, the Situationist painter Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio embraced this idea in
his own creative practice. His pittura industriale were massive, one was allegedly 115 metres
long, and were designed to destroy the art market by soaking up in one excessive sale all the
available investment. The paintings were sold by the metre and when the first giant canvas
sold out at L10,000 per metre and the art market was still intact, another one was hastily
prepared and valued at L40,000 per metre. That, too, sold out, the art market showing no
signs of collapse. Finally, for Jean Baudrillard, re-examining anthropology could offer a
glimpse of a social system that could revel in excess, waste, non-reproduction, the
gratuitous and the non-utilitarian in a defiance of what is assumed to be the logic of
capitalist economic relations.
As these theorists renegotiate potlatch for their own purposes, they adapt its meaning in a
variety of ways, a meaning that as we've seen, was never fixed anyway. For all of these
theorists, however, potlatch relates in someway to the idea of the gift, and the idea of the
gift suggests, in its turn, a transcendence of the existing economic order.
But does the gift really transcend capitalism? George Gilder, whose books constituted bedtime reading for Ronald Reagan, believed that capitalism and gift systems were not
incompatible. The individual capitalist, in setting up a costly enterprise that may fail is
effectively making a gift of money and energy to society, one that has no guarantee of
return. Is this gift one that bears comparisons to potlatch as a quasi-loan, the repayment of
which will be secured by the capitalist when other entrepreneurs risk their own capital in
support or when the collective consumer risks their money in response? Are 'fat cat' salaries
and golden handshakes in their sumptuary and in their lack of logical relation to any criteria
of value really that far from the world of excessive, non-returnable gifts? Moreover,
capitalists' participation in huge charitable donation - tax breaks aside - may themselves be
relateable to gifts whose purpose, like that of certain potlatches, is to secure for the likes of
George Soros and Lord Sainsbury prestige in the eyes of others? Are black-tie charitable
auctions, in which the caricatures of industry assemble in drunken competition to outbid
each other for trinkets not, in some senses, parallel to rivalry potlatches.
If the gift system does not, after all, exceed certain formations within decadent capitalism
can it be said that the gift itself retains any value? For there to be a pure gift there cannot be
any return to the giver. As Christopher Bracken argues, "if I know that I have given, then, at
the very least, I receive in return, the knowledge of my own generosity and I congratulate
myself for my deed. But as soon as I take satisfaction for my gift I begin to pay myself back
and my gift returns to me. Similarly, if the recipient of the gift perceives it as a gift then, at
the very least, that person owes me a debt of gratitude. Yet as soon as the recipient is
obliged to pay something in return, even if that 'payment' only means acknowledging that
gift - my gift runs the risk of its being [returned in gratitude] to the person who gives it".
So where does this leave us?
Potlatch, I believe, retains an inspiration beyond the definitional disputes and beyond the
errors of cultural interpretation. With potlatch we see the potential of a community to
exercise a joyful distance from the value of individualised possessions, to relish the
ephemerality of our holdings before they are inevitably returned to the collective pool, to
employ things as means rather than ends, means that may deliver assistance to others, may
disperse humiliation and may even dissipate conflict.

The gift, too, I believe, retains an inspiration beyond the cold logic that signals its inherent
impossibility. I acknowledge that gifts are corrupt, are attached to the supposed waste of
gratification and gratitude. Yet, potlatch itself may indicate that 'corruption' and 'waste' are
worthy qualities. Let us recall Vaneigem's belief that the gift takes refuge in "hospitality,
friendship and love", fragile places in which it is precisely not the thought that counts.