Sample Research Paper on Outlawing of the Haida Potlatch Ceremony

Outlawing of the Haida Potlatch Ceremony


The Haida tribe was one of the Native American communities whose beliefs systems were passed down orally through different techniques such as songs, stories and dances. This community held the belief that they were surrounded by supernatural beings which were in the form of spirits (Gates 20). These spirits according to the Haida community were connected to lining things such as trees and water. Potlatch was the name that the Haida gave to varieties of their celebrations. The word Potlatch was used to mean the act of giving. The ceremonies were planned for about one year and the celebrations were majorly defined by some changes in an individual’s life such as marriage, puberty, naming and birth among other life changing events (Raibmon 60). The main objective of this paper is to conduct a study on the outlawing of Potlatch among the Haida. This will be realized through understanding the role and relevance of the ceremony among the Haida and the events that led to the outlawing of the event.

The Potlatch among the Haida

Potlatches among the Haida comprised numerous social ceremonies that were provided by a host as a way of establishing or upholding his status with the society. Despite the popularity of this type of ceremonies among the Haida, the ceremonies were always held to signify the occurrence of significant events in families (Cole 23). For instance families planned and conducted events such as the birth of a child, the first menses of a daughter, marriage of a son or the death of significant members of the family (Gates 40). It is important to note that among the Haida, potlatches were relatively different from other ceremonies since when gut are invited into potlatches they were expected to share food items and receive gifts or payments from the host of the ceremony. Another difference between the potlatch and other ceremonies among the Haida was that the event was held by the common members of the society and they invited those who were perceived as elites within the same society. The ability of the elites to recognize the event, attend and accepts the gifts provided was a sign that the host was a recognizable members of the society (Raibmon 66).

The chiefs among the Haida had the frequency of organizing these ceremonies as a way of establishing their authority within the society and gaining the allegiance of the most influential personalities in the society. In addition, it was also a way of influencing other commoners within the society to ensure that they were in support of their chief due to the endorsement by the elite population (Cole 25). Other than the political association between potlatches and the organizers, these ceremonies were also perceived as platforms up [on which economic and ceremonial ownership privileges was declared, displayed and formally transferred to the rightful heirs. For instance among the Haida, marriage ceremonies were used as platforms where fathers recognized the efforts of their sons and appreciate these efforts through the provision of property that they were to inherit from their parents. These were gifts that the said son was expected to transfer to his children in the future (Gates 43).

The process of preparing a Potlatch among the Haida

The essence of Potlatch was based on the planning which was characterized by meticulous preparations. For instance among the Haida, the chief was responsible for the initiation of a Potlatch through an invitation to the council to a feast about one year prior to the potlatch. The invitation of the council was used as a platform of making it known to the community that the chief has the intentions of hosting such an event (Cole 28).

There was also another method that was used among the Haida to plan for a Potlatch. This was through the decision of the chief to engage in a quiet distribution of his wealth to the elite members of the society and then wait for the time when the wealth would be retuned in with some form of interest (Pritzker 20). From the practice of wealth distribution and the returning of the property, the chief together with his council of elders would then draft an elaborate budget for an impending Potlatch. Within the budget, the chief together with the council of elders would then decide on the amount of wealth that each invited guest, who were majorly the elite, would be given (Gates 43).

During the preparations it was the responsibility of the host to decide the amount of food needed and the types of gifts such as woodcarvings, personal items and furs among other gifts that would be distributed to the invited guests. For the host family the process of preparing for a potlatch would also include physically practicing deprivation activities such as sexual abstinence, ritual bathing, limiting the amount of food and drink that they would take (Gates 45). In addition, they were also expected to engage in rituals that could ensure some form of luck to the participants. The host families were also expected to engage in constant and frequent practices of the songs and dances that would be performed during the potlatch. The period of one year was provided to enable members of the host family to engage in adequate preparation as a way of ensuring that all the songs and penances were performed flawlessly (Cole 29).

Purpose of the Potlatch among the Haida

One of the objectives of the Haida community was to ensure the accumulation of wealth by engaging in local production and foreign trade. Through this approach to trade, the community ensures that surplus products were traded in hard economic times of included in the potlatch systems (Gates 46). The investment opportunities were relatively limited among the Haida due to the subjection of all residents to similar factors that influences their economic wellbeing such as raids and climatic conditions. This made it important for the community to develop systems that could enable them to invest in different sectors of the society to guarantee the possibility of economic stability (Taylor 30). The institution of Potlatching was therefore established as a technique that could facilitate economic transactions and provided the assurances that the investment made on the local members of the community would be secure and be returned with adequate interests. Other than investing on the local members of the community, the Haida also used potlatches as a platform of investing in other communities as a way of boosting the likelihood of gaining more returns (Raibmon 68)

From the economic perspective, potlatches were perceived as a way through which members of the Haida community repaid or redeemed themselves from debts or any form of wrongdoing. In addition, these ceremonies were also ways through which the hosts were able to remunerate the local members of the community and the gifts that took witness (Gates 56). It was also a way through which the disabled and the destitute members of the society benefited from the generosity of the hosts. During initiation ceremonies the economic benefits of potlatch were basically to reward the elders for the efforts that they had made throughout their lifetime to the community (Pritzker 20).

From the political perspective potlatches were ways through which the chiefs were able to gain more trust of the people that worked as their subjects. This is because through the reward systems the workers and other members of the society appreciated for their effort to the chief (Taylor 34). In addition, through organizing and participating in potlatches the chiefs were able to legitimize and bolster their wealth and that of the nobility. This is an indication that through these activities the chiefs among the Haida were able to hold their ranks and boost their prestige as the main source of authority (Gates 68).

Among the Haida, Potlatching also had a socio-cultural significance. For instance it was used as a platform for demonstrating the amount of wealth that the host community possessed. This was determined by the number of guest thaw t were invited for the ceremony and the types of gifts that were provided. Other circumstances, the demonstration of the amount of wealth were also facilitated by the braking of canoes and their provision of new ones. Social cohesion was also an objective of organizing potlatches (Gates 70). This is because through such ceremonies members of the community could be brought together to witness and participate in common activity. In addition through potlatches it was also possible to inculcate social values such as generosity, kindness and empathy as part of the practices within the community. This made the organization of potlatches an essential part in enhancing the continuity of community practices and values (Melton 41).

Outlawing of the Haida potlatch ceremony

The arrival of the European settlers into the Haida community did not result in an immediate opposition to potlatch ceremonies. This was until the arrival of the European missionaries and government official in the Haida ceremonies (Raibmon 70). According to the missionaries it the practice was against the moral practices of Christianity considering that it encouraged members of the Haida community to engage in different activities such as cannibalism (Gates 65). In addition, the dances that characterized the activities during the Potlatch were largely demonic considering that they were appealing to the spirit world. According to the European community a continuation of the potlatches would diminish the possibility of restoring moral sanity among the Haida and it would be prudent to outlaw the practice (Melton 48).

The colonial administration was concerned with the negative effects that Potlatching had on the ability of their ability to ensure complete assimilation of the Haida into the political, economic and socio-cultural systems. During the colonial periods, Christianity was introduced as part of a new religious practice that different members of the Canadian and American communities were accepted to embrace (Gates 78). However, through Potlatching it was relatively difficult for the colonial administration to eradicate the cultural practices that were unique to the Haida community. According to the Canadian community the evil nature of potlatches was on the assumption that it produced in diligence, thriftlessness and the attitude of roaming from one village to another (Pritzker 20). This in the view of the colonial administration was against the ability of families and other members of the community to engage in meaningful and constructive development among the Haida. The Christian community in Canada and in America perceived the event as encouraging prostitution hence it was vied as an activity that was in disagreement with the acceptable moral habits within the society (Melton 49).

The European missionaries and the settlers argue that potlatches that were attributable to marriage ceremonies were largely immoral in terms of the promotion of fidelity in marriages. This was because during the ceremonies, women were able to obtain the status of guest by getting married several times (Gates 78). From the perspective of the Haida these marriages were largely symbolic and were used as ways through which families could obtain the right to engage in dances. In addition, once they had acquired these rights it was possible to transfer the rights to the family of the bride. The decision by the European community to outlaw the practices was viewed to have been informed by misconceptions on the objective of the potlatch in relation to promoting the wellbeing of the community (Cole 30).

The decision by the Canadian government to outlaw the practice of potlatches in 1885 was also motivated by the belief that the acquit ion of property in the form of gifts was a technique that inspired laziness among members of the Haida community. This in the view of the Canadian government was a setback to the ability of the company to engage in meaningful economic developments and expansion of the country’s market (Pritzker 20). According to the government, the country was in need of labor fort the natives in Canada and this could not be realized since the Haida spent must if their time organizing and participating in potlatches (Cole 36). Different economic activities such as the market oriented businesses and the local canaries needed to be expanded and boosted in terms of their capacity of production. This could only be realized by elimination of traditional activates among the Haida that require d more energy to complete. The Federal Canadian Indian agents had also developed a great concern on matters they perceived as problems arising from the expansion of Potlatching activities (Gates 100). This was because through such expansion initiatives, the native Haida were more involved in outdated and largely irrelevant customs that were incongruent with the activities that had characterized the modern world (Raibmon 77).

The process of outlawing the Potlatch was however met with numerous rebellions from the Haida community. This was because; the ceremonies marked the passage of important life stages (Raibmon 78). The holding of these ceremonies in the view of the Haida was also one of the ways through which important cultural values were communicated to the younger members of the society. Potlatches therefore were essential ways through which the continuity of the Haida community was guaranteed (Melton 110). This explains why despite numerous arrests by the colonial and the subsequent administration in Canada and in America, the Haida were in demand to be allowed to continue with their activities. In addition, the decision by the legal administrators to outlaw the practice was perceived as an approach aimed at eradicating the community (Cole 40).

The outlawing of the potlatches was characterized by the arrest of various members of the community who defied the requirement of the law. There was however challenges related to the implementation of the law. This is because there were no definitions of what potlatches as from the legal perspective (Pritzker 38). This explains why it early legal efforts at prosecution failed to materialize and the cases were unsuccessful. The inability of the government to engage in adequate enforcement of the law against potlatches was an indication the legal systems did not have any proper understanding of the roles and purpose of potlatches to the Haida community. There were also perceived enemies of the Haida community (Cole 40). These were individual s from communities that had also ready given in to the requirements of the colonial government to form the Federal Canadian Indian agents. These agents often used the law as a mean of punishing the Haida for their resistance to modernization. On numerous occasions, the agents also circumvented the law against Potlatches to arrest members of the Haida community for charges such as trespassing (Melton 102).

The ambiguity of the anti-potlatch laws was used as an attempt to ensure the possibility of completely eradication the practice from the Haida. Despite the understanding that Potlatching remained an illegal practice, members of the Haida community developed mechanisms of engaging in the practice through in secrecy (Cole 43). This is because they had the belief that it was their right to participate in the practice despite is illegalization. One way by which members of the Haida tribe ensure that they continued with the practice was by scheduling it during stormy weather. This was because of the knowledge that the authorities could not travel into the community in stormy weather (Melton 120).

Outlawing potlatches also altered the normal practice of the ceremony. This was because it became relatively difficult for members of the society to engage ineffective planning such as the preparation of songs and dances, adequate preparation of gifts and the invitation of guests. The disjointed nature of the ceremonies meant that gifts could at times be handed over separately from the time when dancing took place (Melton 123). In addition, the community has to improvise ways of presenting the gifts and participating in the activities. For instance gifts were disguised in the form of charity donations and the songs and dances were modified to minimize the appeal to the spirits. Despite their attempt to practice the ritual, it experienced major setbacks considering the unending demands for economic expansion and economic events such as the great Depression, and other intrusions from the eternal world (Cole 44).


Potlatches among the Haida comprised numerous social ceremonies that were provided by a host as a way of establishing or upholding his status with the society. Potlatches were ways through which the chiefs were able to gain more trust of the people that worked as their subjects. The decision by the Canadian authorities to outlaw the practice was because of the belief that potlatching would diminish the possibility of restoring moral sanity among the Haida and it would be prudent to outlaw the practice. Haida community developed mechanisms of engaging in the practice through in secrecy. This is because they had the belief that it was their right to participate in the practice despite is illegalization.

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