Potlach Economics 101

By Malcolm McColl

A man dies and goes to heaven, and there he meets God at the Pearly Gates. God happens to be wearing a beautiful Chilkat blanket in the tradition of the Pacific Northwest coast and He says to the new arrival, “Welcome to heaven. It’s good to see you. Now you have one question to answer to get in the door. Tell me one thing that my blanket says.”

Artists from the Pacific Northwest specializing in the Kwakwaka’wakw tradition were creating masks and other cedar carvings in preparation for a potlatch. While at work in the carving studio, one of the artists explained potlatch. Before the birth of “Industrial Nations” in the late 1800s, the people of the Northwest coast conducted a thriving economy complete with complex international trade.

This complex arrangement, said the carver, must have fascinated close observers who came in the wake of Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 in ever-increasing numbers. Whatever these people observed, they soon came to believe that potlatch had to be stopped. When the colonial preachers came to the people, proclaiming their traditional language and dances “demonic,” they also urged them to burn their beautiful handmade regalia because “there are no Chilkat blankets in heaven.” The potlatch was made illegal in 1884, and the Canadian government spent the next 50 years dragging the evidence into the fire.

What did the usurping authority find offensive in potlatch? The international trade of the region comprised a vast complex of economic drivers, including everything from elaborate masks to mats with inlaid family crests as well as fanciful inlaid hats and all manner of household products. Everything was manufactured and traded on an annual basis between more than a half-dozen nations. Within nations, each village had specialties.

Look at the last-gasp photographic evidence containing house fronts, totem poles, bighouse screens, clothing, hats, and masks of any Clan House Chief found from the northern-most Tlingit to the southern-most Kwakwaka’wakw. They all insisted on being photographed with their work. Add to this incredible tableau the intricate and absorbing detail of the Chilkat blanket, and add to that the minute detail of several family crests perfectly etched into an ivory spoon.

The carver, a natural born historian, was quick to point out that nations where rich potlatch culture developed are the very nations where art forms are the most intricate and detailed. The symbols and imagery practically bend the mind trying to figure them out. When you look at masks and evocative images in the Pacific Northwest coastal style, perhaps you are looking at a visual economic statement. The design itself holds information about the terms and conditions of agreements drawn between governments regarding distribution of nationally generated wealth. The compendium of so-called clan art found in and on a Hereditary Chief’s Big House could be a highly evolved record of an economic development system replete with “corporate” symbols and advanced accounting methods.

Part of the potlatch system was essentially a trade-based economic engine run by Clan Chiefs who had hereditary jurisdiction over lands, waters, resources (natural, manufactured, and human), and all matters of protocol in delivering goods and services. The potlatch was designed to be the mechanism of trade between nations, says the carver. Potlatch-oriented economics accommodated international relations between Haida, Tlingit, Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Gikxsan, Bella Coola, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Nuu Chah Nulth nations all the way to the bottom of Vancouver Island. The Coast Salish nation was notably absent from the system, and potlatch trading protocols went no further south.

The complex of potlatch protocols defied all the usual barriers to trade within the Pacific Northwest. It was an international operation working throughout several government entities and could only be trusted if economic order was preserved. This fell along the lines of vast wealth belonging to nobles, people of standing, and this was recorded in forensic detail. These were rich nations led by rich people. The complexities of an immense tableau previously described are yet to be recovered, except for the well-known family crests that provide a code to understanding potlatch economics. This means “statements of title” are completely understood by people who know their family shields.

The potlatch was run secretly by societies blood-loyal to House Chiefs, and these societies protected treasures (the accounts) among other things. A usurping authority designated these societies shamanistic and marked their members for extermination. Further compounding the misery of colonialism, about ninety percent of the people in these nations died of disease. Those who were left had the meaning of paintings, etchings, images, and carvings erased from their minds by a brutal system of residential schools. Adding insult to injury, these people were denied access to an economic system of their own design, since who’s to say theirs was not a reasonable prototype for today’s international trade system in commodities, goods, and services? It was a terrible irony for these people to have to sit on Indian reservations observing a close derivative of traditional creative endeavours governing the world economic structure, and yet they were not allowed to participate according to the Indian Act.