For the Dzawada’enuxw people, the potlatch serves many purposes: legal, cultural, social and economic. Potlatch means ‘to give’ in Chinook language. We developed a way of life based on giving away surplus wealth as part of a great feast. The contemporary word “potlatch” is new and is a generic term that covers many different types of ceremonials. It is used as a blanket term today to refer to all cultural ceremonials and lacks the specificity of the Bakwam’kala language but has come to be integrated into our understanding of our culture and the explanation of that culture to the outside world.
Within each tribe the ‘namima held a ranking of authority, which was recognized by the order of gift giving during potlatch ceremonies, the highest ranking chiefs receiving first. The standing of a clan’s position of authority was flexible. A clan could move up or down in its standing according to the potlatches given. The clan who provided the most abundance of gifts would rise to the top. For example, at one point the clan named after the original tribal ancestor, Kawadilikala, was the highest ranking ‘namima, but at the turn of the 19th Century they were ranked 5th. The wealth required for the potlatches was derived from the traditional territories of ‘namima holding the feast.
For the Dzawada’enuxw people the potlatch served a number of roles in traditional governance:
- they were central to the communication and maintenance of authority in decision making.
- they were used to mark events such as marriages, naming and transferring rights. In our oral culture, this was away to put important things on the records.
- they were a place where stories could be publicly recited, witnessed, contested and corrected.
- they served to ensure knowledge of our histories, laws and values.
- they provided a place for communal decision making with a high level of openness and participation of all community members.
In essence the potlatches provided the social cohesion that was necessary to enable our people and our traditional system of governance to thrive for millennia.