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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

the custom of partying - Potlatch

Ever heard of noun “Potlatch” and its meaning ??

Some of you would have enjoyed the yesteryear “Chinna Gounder” the Vijayakanth starrer – the storyline was the village panchayat man (local Judge) known for honesty and deliverance of authentic judgments; the opening scene itself was one where all the locals (18 patti – eighteen villages) would arrive to hear the pronouncement .

When the heroine runs up huge debts, she organises ‘moi virundhu’ – a function where all villagers are invited, come, eat and then keep money below the plantain leave – so that she gets the money required. Very cinematic indeed.

The meaning of Potlatch is explained as a gift economy or gift culture, in a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards ( no formal quid pro quo) but mostly simultaneous or recurring giving ensures circulation and distribution of valuables within the community.    It is a case of reciprocity which is a common feature in some traditions. One such example is Maori of New zealand. In its primitive days it was the good but in modern days this would obviously only be treasured possessions. It is a ceremony where gifts are bestowed on guests in a show of wealth, the guest would turn host sooner and try to surpass the earlier act. This perhaps in stark contrast to barter economy or a market economy. The Customs of the area or the Sect regulates the exchanges though this would not be explicit or formal or written. In Chinook language, potlatch means gift.

To the Indians of Pacific Northwest, Potlatch is a ceremony to bring people together to share something amongst themselves. There exists a legend in their land that two girls once plucked feathers from a magical bird in forest and shared them with those colourless birds. From that time the other birds also started having coloured feathers as they had their turn to return. The native Indians celebrating Potlatch exchange beautiful gifts – as an invitation bundle of twigs are sent. In the function, they make merry by singing, dancing, story telling, eating and swapping expansive gifts.

Before the invasion of Europeans, the gifts included storable food, fish, canoes and even slaves. Giving a potlatch enhanced the reputation of the giver validating their social ranking. Prestige was proportionate to lavishness. Much later Canada and US made potlatching illegal, largely at the urging of missionaries and Govt. agents. The Canadian statute – the Indian Act was amended in 1885 stating that “Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the "Potlatch" or the Indian dance known as the "Tamanawas" is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not more than six nor less than two months in a jail or other place of confinement; and, any Indian or other person who encourages, either directly or indirectly an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, or who shall assist in the celebration of same is guilty of a like offence, and shall be liable to the same punishment.” This became a black law as the participating guests were also punished and the Agents were given free hand to try, convict and sentence offenders.

As fate could have it, the ban was repealed in 1951 as sustaining customs and culture of their ancestors was believed to the way of life and reportedly even now indigenous people hold potlatch ceremonies openly in restoration of their ancestral ways.


Regards – Sampathkumar.

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