Derived from the Nuu-chah-nulth word pa-chitle, “to give,” the term potlatch refers to a ceremonial event that marks a birth, marriage, death, house-raising, or significant transaction. Potlatches involve ritualized exchange of gifts; the value of the gifts given or received both reflects and determines a clan’s status.
Potlatches are closely bound up with visual and performing arts as well as with family and clan relationships. Tangible gifts exchanged include masks and other carvings, blankets, and coppers. Names, hereditary dances, and other privileges are passed along to family members or special guests. Storytelling, speeches, narrative songs and dances are key components of the festivities. Potlatches have played a key role in cultural and material exchange, the perpetuation of ceremonial traditions, and the definition of individual and clan status.
From 1885-1951, potlatches were banned in Canada, based on objections by missionaries and others who viewed them as extravagant and contrary to Christian values. In recent years, potlatches have tended to be more limited in scope and socioeconomic influence, but continue as an important means of preserving cultural heritage.
First Nations peoples of the Northwest Coast typically lived in villages along the shores of protected inlets and bays, where they had a year-round food supply and could therefore live in permanent structures. They used the abundant large cedar trees to build longhouses that were 50 to 150 feet long and 20 to 60 feet wide, large enough to accommodate several families. The Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, Clatsop, Coast Salish, and Multnomah peoples all lived in longhouses, which are still standing in certain areas.
To build a longhouse, people would fell trees and bring them to the village, where they would cut them into logs and planks. They constructed a frame of logs and covered the frame with planks secured with wooden pegs. In order to maximize warmth, the longhouse had no windows and only a front door. There were smoke-holes in the roof, and cedar mats created partitions among areas used by different families. The open layout of the interior enabled the resident families to host potlatches and other large ceremonial gatherings.
Each family occupied an assigned place in the longhouse, with a fire pit for cooking and heat. Bunk beds lined the walls, with storage areas above and below the beds.
Houses stood side by side along the shore to form villages. A house post, or totem pole, stood outside each house. House posts were carved with family crests to identify the rank and family heritage of the occupants.
Longhouses are still built on occasion, principally for ceremonial use or as a way of honoring and perpetuating family and community traditions.
The Inuit living in northern Canada and Alaska were traditionally nomadic. During the summer they lived in tents framed with cut poles or driftwood and covered with animal skins. In winter they built igloos, dome-shaped structures made of hard-packed snow blocks. Both kinds of dwellings were easily constructed with readily available materials. Inuit who lived in areas with more trees built partly subterranean log and sod houses, a more permanent type of dwelling used mostly in winter, as the subterranean part held in heat. Sometimes a dozen or more of these dwellings formed a small village settlement.
Totem poles are monumental sculptures, often painted, that are either freestanding or integral to the structure of a longhouse or other building. Totem poles display clan crests, provide visual narratives of legends associated with a clan, identify social status, and welcome visitors. They may portray animal, human, or spirit figures. Many poles are carved with multiple interlocking figures, arranged not hierarchically but either as part of a narrative structure or according to artistic considerations. Others have a single figure atop a plain pole. Raising a full-scale totem pole requires a group effort that reinforces social solidarity within a village community.
Welcome poles, generally depicting a single large-scale human figure, stand near the shore or riverbank at the place of entry into a village. They serve to welcome guests and sometimes to assert power in the presence of strangers.
A rare type of totem pole is the mortuary pole, used to support the grave-boxes traditionally used to contain the remains of the deceased. Memorial poles are placed in front of a longhouse to honor the departed.
Shame poles, or ridicule poles, are erected to embarrass someone who has an unpaid debt or who has committed another kind of transgression. They are removed once the wrong has been righted.
Totem poles were not traditionally preserved for posterity but allowed to weather and eventually disintegrate. They were representational and symbolic rather than sacred objects in and of themselves.
Model Totem Poles
Model totem poles, carved of wood or argillite, began to appear in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1860s, when the carving of full-sized totem poles had tapered off in the wake of population decimation by smallpox and in the face of Canadian and U.S. government policies of acculturation. Missionaries also disapproved of totem poles as expressions of pagan belief. Most model totem poles were produced for sale to outsiders. Carvers used the same types of images as those used on full-scale poles, but model totem poles were not facsimiles of large poles, which belonged to particular families and had ceremonial significance to their owners. Model poles, however, have served to preserve and carry forward elements of traditional imagery.
By the mid-twentieth century, a revival of totem pole carving had begun, and totem poles now appear in a variety of public spaces. Restoration of historic totem poles has also become an important artistic occupation. Totem poles often function today to honor indigenous peoples as important members of a multicultural society and to recognize their historical legacy.
“Among the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, the music varied in function and expression. As some groups have more cultural differences than the rest (like the Coast Salish and the more northern nations), there remain a lot of similarities.
Some instruments used by the indigenous were hand drums made of animal hides, plank drums, log drums, and box drums, along with whistlers, wood clappers, and rattles. A great deal of the instruments were used mostly in the potlatch, but also carried over in to other festivities throughout the year.
The songs employed are used with dancing, although it is also for celebration, which at times may not be accompanied by dancing. Most singing is community based. There are some solo parts, often the lead singer would begin in the first line of each round of a song, but not long solos. For some ceremonies, solo songs would be used by men and women without the accompaniment of any person or drum.
Usually slow in tempo and accompanied by a drum. Principal function of music in this area is spiritual; music honors the Earth, Creator, Ancestors, and all aspects of the supernatural world. Sacred songs are not often shared with the wider world. Women and men, families own their own songs as property, which can be inherited, sold or given as a gift to a prestigious guest at a Feast. Professionals existed for some communities, but music is taught and then rehearsed. For some nations, the tradition was those who made musical errors were punished, usually through shaming. Employing octave singing, but rather than running up and down the scale, it is not uncommon to jump notes and go from bottom to top or top to bottom in a couple of notes. Vocal Rhythmic patterns are often complex and run counter to rigid percussion beats. The tribes would dance in groups in circles.”
What do the First Nations Tribes have in common? How are they different? How does their art differ?
People of the Northwest Coast lived in small villages along the Pacific coastline from northern California to Alaska. They spoke many different languages and were relatively isolated from each other. However, seven tribes north of Washington state, shared a similar culture and traveled from village to village to inter-marry, wage war, celebrate Potlatch, trade goods and take slaves.
In the north live the Tlingit and Tsimshian tribes. The Haidas inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Nootka people live on the west coast of Vancouver and the Kwakiutl occupy northern Vancouver Island and the connecting mainland. From the Fraser River south, live the Coast Salish. The Bella Coola
Each tribe had its own unique set of beliefs, customs and ideas by which they lived. However, there were a core set of beliefs and customs that characterized the culture of the peoples of the Northwest Coast. (This is a very short description—a lengthy description was written by J. A Morris, Curator, Vancouver Art Gallery and can be found in the Source book)
- Humans shared the world with animals, fish and birds. They all understood the same language and were considered equal. A belief that man was totally dependent on the goodwill of the animals for food meant that man should please them. Entire legends evolved around the animals common to the environment. The Raven, Killer Whale, Salmon, Frog Woman, Bear, Wolf and Eagle were heroes of myth and legend and depicted in stories, songs, mask, costumes, dances and other artifacts.
- A social structure existed in the among the tribes of the Pacific Coast. At the top were the Chiefs and their wives. Some Chiefs were more powerful than others. This ranking was often based on ancestor descent, wealth as displayed in the potlatch of by their wisdom. The middle rank of the tribe included the four or five families living in a Chief’s household. The bottom of the social system were the slaves. Slave were traded between tribes or taken in war and preformed the menial chores of the household.
- The potlatch was basic to all Northwest Coast social life. This elaborate and lavish feast including the giving and receiving of gifts. It was the way to publicly claim rank and status in the village and was a means to establish a person to achieve higher rank. With the sharing of goods between neighboring villages it also provided economic benefit to the hosting party.
- Winter Ceremonies and the Secret Societies—During the winter months when it was cold and night came early, the villagers would hold elaborate performances. These performances were often a rite of passage for the young members of the tribe. Through the use of “supernatural spirits” dancing and singing, the young of the village would be taught traditions and legends of the village.
- Art of the Northwest Coast—“The art was a bold and vivid art pervading all of life. The animal forms that decorated their objects were familiar and important forms to them. “ (People of the Potlatch, page 27) Materials and techniques included woodworking, carvings in stone, ivory, bone, argillite and horn, painting, basketry, weaving and textiles, clothing, dance costumes, jewelry and body decoration.
Source: People of the Potlatch, Native Arts and Culture of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Vancouver Art Gallery with the University of British Columbia (page 27).
The “Copper” was used by the First Nations people as a form of money and wealth. It was made out of “Native” copper which was found in the land where they lived, and superficially resembled a shield. Considered very rare and hard to obtain, raw copper was traded from the Athabaskan Indians in the Interior Plains, or from the white man in later times.
Coppers were beaten into shape and usually painted or engraved with traditional designs. Most Coppers were fairly large, often 2 to 3 feet tall and a foot across.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Copper is that they were given names so that their worth and heritage could be passed on. A Copper was only worth what it was last traded for, and it could only be traded for a larger amount the next time around. Consequently, some Copper values became highly valuable – worth the total of 1,500 to 2,000 blankets, a couple of war canoes and hundreds of boxes and bowls.
No matter what the original value was the next person who wanted it had to trade more in exchange for it. Only the richest and most powerful could afford the price of an old Copper. Many Coppers were in rather shabby condition as a result of having been used in quarrels between Chiefs.
To the Kwakiutl, the ownership and display of a Copper became an essential for the proper conduct of a marriage or important dance ritual.
A man whose family’s honour had been injured by the actions of remarks of another would publicly have a piece cut from a valuable Copper and give the piece to the offender. That person was obligated to cut or “break” a Copper in return. The broken pieces could be brought up and joined into a new Copper or used to replace pieces missing from a “broken” one.
The most valuable Kwakiutl Coppers tend to be rough and patched since they have the longest history and have been broken the most often. Coppers that have been broken have a certain prestige value that is quite independent from their monetary value.
This information was copied directly from the Northwest Tribal Art: Gallery of Fine American Native Arts, Seattle, Washington