This Day in History
Haida Indian Potlatch

On a day like today in the 1500’s...

More than any other part of America, the Northwest coast - from Alaska to Puget Sound - was to be the crossroads of civilizations. The Haida, and other Northwest coastal tribes, had developed an advanced and complex civilization long before the coming of the Europeans. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Spanish, the Russians, and the British contested for control of the coast all the way down to the Bay of Saint Francis. In the 1790s the newly independent Americans discovered its wealth of fur and its potentialities for the China trade, and joined in the struggle. In that process the highly developed Indian culture was subverted and largely destroyed.

Mr. Künstler presents here a picturesque and dramatic scene from the Northwest Indian’s social life. The “potlatch” ceremony, practiced throughout the area, with its accompanying richly carved totem poles, splendidly decorated canoes, and ostentatious insignia and costumes of office and rank, was as elaborate as any at the fabled Court of King Arthur. The potlatch ceremony, which combined the giving of lavish gifts with the destruction of property - the latter occurring only after contact with white civilization - has something of that social and psychological significance that Thorstein Veblen found in the ceremonial extravagances of the very rich in capitalist civilizations.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.