Misrepresenting the Potlatch

  • Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff


The potlatch is at once an exotic commonplace and a favourite object of philosophical speculation. Like other indigenous terms – most prominently ‘mana,’ ‘totem’ and ‘taboo’ – ‘potlatch’1 is well-known both within and beyond academe; it appears in general dictionaries2 and it is a staple of introductory anthropology courses. Yet despite such a wealth of references, there is nothing self-evident about the term ‘pot-latch’ and the ethnographic realities it is meant to describe. This is mainly due to the fact that the term has a chequered past and initially highly political overtones. Instead of referring primarily to hard facts of ethnography, it lies at the core of a particular representation of (alien) otherness that dominated late nineteenth-century history in British Columbia. Under the impact of massive European settlement potlatching became the target of the civilising endeavours of Protestant missionaries, leading to anti-potlatch legislation designed to foster the assimilation of the Northwest Coast peoples into Euro-Canadian society. As a result, ‘potlatch’ came to subsume the precarious coexistence of ‘civilised’ settlers and ‘savage’ Indians under colonial rule. This initial (mis)representation of the potlatch was carried over into professional anthropology, where the definitions arrived at by the coloniser were hardly probed.


Northwest Coast Gift Exchange Indian Agent Prestige Good Economic Ideology 
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  • Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff

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