Potlatch Giving

Tom and I recently had the fantastic privilege of visiting the incredible state of Alaska for two weeks. We began our trip in the southeast panhandle which included stops in Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan. Beyond all the magnificent wonders we experienced, we learned about the native indigenous people, a large portion of whom are called the Tlingit (pronounced “klinget”) people. We were fascinated to learn about how the Tlingit were all descended from two lines (following the lineage of the mother) designated by the eagle (hunters) or the raven (gathers).  To this day, they only marry someone from the other branch and a husband takes on the clan of his wife and her mother.

In the Tlinget tradition, the status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources but by who distributes or gives away the most resources to others. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods.

One of their most beloved and endearing traditions is the Potlatch ceremony which I found particularly fascinating. A potlatch is a gift-giving feast most of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the U.S. still practice today. The word potlatch comes from the Chinook jargon meaning to “give away” or “a gift;” originally from the Nuu-chah-nulth word paɬaˑč, to make a ceremonial gift in a potlatch.

Tlingit people use the ancient tradition of storytelling, dance, and song to pass their history from one generation to the next and they host elaborate potlatches to witness these events.  Potlatches are celebrations given by a hosted clan to mark histories, to celebrate the raising of a house or totem pole, to acknowledge the giving of a Tlingit name, or to honor a new chief. A memorial potlatch was hosted to give respect and “payback” with gifts to the opposite clan for the comfort given to the deceased person’s clan or family. The presentation of food was important. Intricately carved spoons, grease bowls and large feast dishes were used.

When a Tlingit child is born, they are given their first name, usually associated with the place they were born. About a year later, the child’s family will hold a potlatch and give gifts to the guests in attendance on behalf of the child. During this potlatch, the family will give the child their second name. Once the child has reached age 12, they are expected to hold a potlatch of their own by giving out small gifts that they have collected to their family and people, at which point they receive their third name.

One of the best excursions we took was a floatplane tour of the Misty Fjords outside of Ketchikan. It was magical, and our pilot Sal was a native-born Tlingit whose great-grandfather was one of the founders of his tribe. Sal explained the tradition of the potlatch to us and described that when someone experiences a loss or hardship like a family member’s death or misfortune, the opposite tribe would rally around with whatever resources were needed such as food, money, vigils, or just a helping hand or willing ear. It was expected, then, at some later date that the clan who was the recipient of this care and comfort would arrange a potlatch where food, time, gifts, and celebration deemed not just equal to but greater in value than the gifts bestowed were “repaid.” Sal told us that no one from the other clan could so much as fill their water glass, let alone serve themselves or want for anything during the potlatch. They were expected to receive their “repayment” of kindness and service as way of honoring the gifts of love and help extended at a time of need.

I was fascinated by the Tlingit culture of acquiring wealth and status not by how much you accumulate to keep for yourself but by how much you accumulate to give away. Additionally, I admired the idea of repaying kindness and support with an even larger gift of appreciation as well as teaching this tradition and instilling this value at an early age with their young children.

Imagine if you had this same culture in your business and/or family?  Imagine if we gave status and honor to those who gave the most away to others? What would it be like if we always gave something of greater value than we received from our neighbors, teammates, or loved ones during our time of need? What if we raised our children or indoctrinated our new team members from the very beginning to value service, giving, and repayment of kindnesses.

Maybe a potlatch ceremony is just what our workforce, family, and world needs? Maybe we could be the first to instill this tradition. And if fresh salmon is on the menu, I’ll be there!

“If there is a Spruce tree standing in the forest, and next to it is a Cedar, and there is Hemlock there as well… if one of them falls down then all of their roots get weaker.  That is the same way it is with us.”

~ Delores Churchill, Haida Weaver

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