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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Potlatch derives from the Nootka word patshatl meaning ‘gift’ and describes the feasts that were, and have again become, a feature of Native American society in NW America. That there was a break in the tradition is entirely due to the apprehension the feasts and their attendant ceremonies caused the English and American rulers of these territories. The Canadian government banned all potlatches in 1893 and the USA followed suit early in the 20th century. They are once more permitted. Commemoration of a significant event, a death, say, a marriage, or the raising of a totem-pole, would prompt a family or tribal chief to hold a feast, inviting rivals and familiars both. Among the rituals was ceremonial gift-giving. This apparently gratuitous gesture had, however, important ramifications. The scale of the gifts marked the status of the host. Furthermore, a potlatch attended meant a future potlatch to reciprocate and, at this return event, the level of giving and feasting had, of course, to be raised a notch or, maybe, several. People were therefore enmeshed in a spiral of wanton generosity. It might take several years to husband sufficient resources to host a potlatch of one’s own on the scale required. The ethos of conspicuous wealth was carried to such a pitch that a host might happily burn several canoes and piles of blankets before the eyes of his guests just to show he had more to spare. As Native Americans came into closer contact with the manufactured goods of European colonists, thus having more objects to trade and then dispense, so the frenzy of potlatches increased. This was at the root of governmental disquiet. And there were other competitive aspects: the scale of the meals provided, public displays of singing and dancing, and even contests of prowess in eating were reported: harbingers of those races to down the most hotdogs at a sitting. These affairs have excited the attention of anthropologists (Mauss, Georges Bataille) and sociologists (Thorstein Veblen). Their significance resides both in the meaning of the gift in such a society, and the importance of the public feast and commensality in the construction of social relations, points not lost on readers of Beowulf or any medieval chronicle.