The Potlatch


    The term potlatch refers to a ceremony in which members of one extended family bestow a great deal of wealth on guests. It is an ancient practice, one at the heart of the cultural lives of speakers of Tlingit, Kwakiutl, Nootka, and other languages of the Pacific Northwest. Potlatches take place in ceremonial centers such as the one depicted at left in Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island and one in nearby Alert Bay.

    In earlier times the Canadian government considered potlatches (along with the languages used at them) as "savage," and it tried to abolish the custom. However, the severe laws enacted only drove the potlatch underground, and the intolerant legislation has been repealed. In the last forty or fifty years, the practice has revived and remains an important institution in the cultures of the Pacific Northwest, one in which the local languages play a vital role.