Pacific Northwest Coastal Native Americans - What is a Potlatch? Illustration

What is a Potlatch?
Pacific Northwest Coastal Native Americans
in Olden Times for Kids

Native American festivals and holidays are as richly diverse as their culture. Festivals can reveal a great deal about culture. A most interesting cultural festival, celebrated by most Pacific Northwest Native Americans, was the potlatch.

What is a Potlatch?

A Potlatch is not just a party. A Potlatch is a magnificent and planned party. It's a really big deal. Planning for a potlatch might take an entire year, or even longer! Today, as in olden times, each person invited to a potlatch receives a present. This present can be as simple as a pencil or as complicated as a carving. At any particular potlatch, everyone receives the same present.

Big Event Potlatches: Native Americans in ancient Washington State have always been generous people. In olden times, other tribes visited the rich coastal Native Americans in the Puget Sound area hoping to trade pelts of fur for dried seaweed for sea salt flavoring, dried fish, dried clams, dried salmon, and dried meat. They were delighted with their greeting.

The Kitsap Peninsula and the Puget Sound area soon became the meeting place for nearly all of the tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Each fall, tribes from up and down the coast would gather in the Puget Sound area to celebrate a potlatch and prepare to trade.

A Potlatch was (and still is!) a wonderful festival with weddings and stories (the tall tale type) and feasting and dancing and trading.

Dignity Potlatches: In olden times, potlatches were not only given only for big events. They were given for everything. If an important person fell off a canoe, a small but elegant and costly potlatch would be given to offset the humiliation of the fall. You could not be laughed at. You could not lose dignity. These were important beliefs in Native American culture. One way to regain or to establish dignity was to host a potlatch.

Vengeance Potlatches: There were even vengeance potlatches. If you wanted to knock a clan down a step or two, you might try to trick them into giving a potlatch to use up some of their wealth. People tried very hard not to lose their temper and be tricked into giving a costly potlatch to save face. So, if a clan had more wealth than yours, you tried to ignore their insults. Understanding and using the potlatch system for your own clans' advancement took great skill.

The competition to show how wealthy you were, no matter how untrue, nearly destroyed these early people.

Fur Trade Wealth:

What saved them was the fur trade. The fur trade was introduced by the white men. Furs were easy for these early native people to get. They were wonderful hunters. Fur trade wealth poured into the Pacific Northwest. The white traders also had steel tools. With the coming of the fur trade and steel tools, many native people were able to gain the wealth they needed to climb the social ladder of their culture.

For Kids 

Story: How Raven Stole Crow's Potlatch, retold by Lin Donn, illustrated by Phillip Martin

Native American Festivals & Holidays

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