Peripheral Participation and the Kwakiutl Potlatch

by Harry F. Wolcott
Peripheral Participation and the Kwakiutl Potlatch
Harry F. Wolcott
Anthropology & Education Quarterly
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Peripheral Participation and the Kwakiutl Potlatch

HARRYF. WOLCOTT University of Oregon

Invited to attend a memorial potlatch in 1987 that marked his own 25-year association with the Kwakiutl people of British Columbia, the author realized how the extended time frame offered a perspective not only on a celebrated Northwest Coast tradition but also on interpersonal complexities of culture acquisition and culture change as that tradition continues into the present. This account examines the potlatch from personal dimensions, a perspective missing from the expansive literature on an otherwise well-documented activity. Jean Lave's notion of "peripheral participation" is introduced as a framework for examining how humans find their "way in" to cultural events like this without

necessarily realizing the subtlety of their indoctrination.

Two of my long-standing professional concerns are joined in this article. One is an interest in contemporary Kwakiutl life, dating from fieldwork that began in 1962 and enriched through contacts that I have been able to maintain ever since. The other is a more global interest in culture transmission and, particularly, culture acquisition. Clearly these are related, but by initiating fieldwork with a focus on formal schooling, I dealt with the topic of culture acquisition only implicitly. Time is on my side now, and with the passing decades I see evidence for processes of cultural continuity and culture acquisition which were not possible for me to detect earlier.

The focal point of the article is Kwaluutl potlatchng and a particular potlatch to which I was invited in 1987. How people find their "way in" to such an activity is the processI want to examine by way of an interpretation, drawing on anthropologist Jean Lave's superbly suited concept of peripheral participation. I begn with some observations about the event itself, including a familiar feeling of finding myself peripheral to it.

The Sewide Potlatch

"There's no such thing as 'best seat' at a potlatch," I mused, searching for words to express my disappointment that the traditional dancing I had traveled so far to observe was now largely obscured from view. Once again I found myself both literally and figuratively on the fringe of a potlatch, an outsider looking in. My seat for most of the long evening of this second and final day of the Sewide Potlatch held at Campbell

Arlthropology 6 Education Quarterly 27(4):467-492. Copyright O 1996, American Anthropological Association.

River, British Columbia, in June 1987, was at the edge of a makeshft curtain through which dancers entered and departed the arena floor. Only a few feet away, on the audience side of the entryway, two rows of male drummers and chanters faced each other across wood planks, upon whch they beat song and dance rhythms. I consoled myself; my often-blocked view was considerably better than that of some drummers who sat through the entire program with their backs to the audience and dancers.

Intermittently, sight lines were also blocked by activity at this busy threshold between audience and backstage. New dancers stepped from behind the curtain, sometimes preceded by a semicircle of button- blanket-clad attendants who shelded a dancer from audience view until a dramatic moment of appearance. Alternatively, dances with many participants invariably exited into a pileup as those ahead edged their way among backstage helpers or another set of dancers readying for their entry.

Lighting presented another distraction. A complaint of early days (voiced by amateur photographers in particular) about the low light emanating from a central bonhre now had a technological counterpart: too much light from spotlights flooding the dancers and drummers. A two-camera video crew appeared to be documenting the entire proceed- ing. One floodlight glared directly at those of us seated near the entry curtain. The annoyance of the floodlights was partially offset by an implicit message they conveyed: picture taking was welcome. The ef- forts of the camera operator and his youthful assistants to record the dances were augmented by other still and video photographers, Indian and non-Indian alike,' who moved freely around the edge of the dance area in the semiauthoritative, semiapologetic manner of the serious amateur photographer.

Knowing the longtime interest in potlatching among professional staff at the provincial museum at Victoria (now the Royal British Columbia Museum), I assumed that the videotaping was on their behalf and was therefore "official." But I had been aware of differences and interfamily squabbling about filming these events, dating back more than a decade, arising particularly from the video photographer's need for a steady source of light, in contrast to the occasional flash of the still photogra- pher. Weeks before, a family agreement had been reached that any filming would be okay, earlier reluctance about its intrusiveness now giving way to technology that makes it easy to record such events in their entirety. What struck me anew was the realization that I had been party to the disagreement through so many years.

I had experienced that same sense of continuity through time the prior evening, in my familiarity not only with the dances but with the names of the dancers dancing them. Before departing on the two-day drive from Oregon to Campbell River, I not only checked my supply of high speed film but also purchased a new notebook, anticipating that I might feel an urge to assume the role of field ethnographer dutifully recording the sequence of participants and events. Positing now that others (e.g., the videotape crew, invited anthropologists) were doing that, I found my attention drawn not so much to the identities of the dance roles as to the identities of the dancers, family names I recognized when first names were unfamiliar. Further questions arose for me: Whose names were included among the dancers listed, whose were not? Who was otherwise actively involved, either visibly or in some critical behind-the-scenes activity? Who appeared to be taking calculatedly marginal roles? And who, by design, had stayed away altogether (at least as explanations were offered, or motives imputed to absentees)? What else was happen- ing that I could not "see" to make this potlatch possible?

The corner of the drumming area just a few feet away served impor- tantly as a sort of command post from which virtually all announcements or speeches were made over a single microphone. Honorees were invited to sit here during certain songs and dances, and from here host and master of ceremonies Jimmy Sewid made his pre- sentations and introductions. As each event began, the command post had to be advised and consulted and others alerted as to what was to happen next. I discovered that, although my seat afforded only an oblique view of dancers circling the electrically lit facsimile bonfire, it had compensating advantages. Sitting at the curtained entryway placed me in almost as good a position for observing "backstage" activities as for watching what the audience was watching. Dancers had to be located, perhaps fitted with headdress, mask, cape, or button blanket and lined up ready for their entry. Program substitutions had to be made, or standbys alerted in cases where someone "here just a minute ago" could not be found when a dance was called. The lengthy proceed- ings impelled a continual roundup of waiting performers forever drift- ing from behind the painted screen backdrop so that they, too, could watch what was going on.

And what does go on at a potlatch? As among other Northwest Coast peoples, the Kwakiutl potlatch has both maintained and transformed its traditional functions as a ceremony in which one or more hosts declare and validate claims to inherited ~rivilege.~

Hosts support their claims through their largess by calling forth dancers, drummers, and masks; by feeding guests (with fare ranging from apples, oranges, sandwiches, and coffee served between dances, to sumptuous buffet meals set sepa- rately); and by sending guests away with gfts of goods and money. The giving of gifts, as well as hosting the potlatch itself, validates the host's status, for as Franz Boas observed a century ago, "It is not as much the possession of wealth as the ability to give great festivals which makes wealth a desirable object" (1897:342-343). The gifts also validate the stated (and usually multiple) purposes for which any particular potlatch is gven: bestowing names, acknowledgrng important life-cycle events, redressing a wrong, or remembering loved ones. Memorial potlatchng may continue for years after a death. To accept potlatch gfts is to acknowledge the donor's intent, a practice reflected in the title of one major study of potlatching, To Make My Name Good (Drucker and Heizer 1967). Thus gifts serve as "payments" to guests summoned in the capac- ity of witnesses, although the distinction between gift and payment is surely a subtle one.

In the past three decades I have witnessed a transformation of the potlatch from an earlier "uncertain" status to its renewed prominence as a major social activity among the Kwakiutl. The underlying interper- sonal and intergroup rivalry once evident, as suggested by the title of another study, Fighting with Property (Codere 1950), is muted today; a casual onlooker might be tempted to characterize contemporary pot- latching with the cliche "If you've got it, flaunt it." Yet I recall how Henry Bell, my old Kwakiutl friend in whose name this event was in part being held--and whose estate was in part making it possible-had earlier expressed his ambivalence toward potlatching and had decided to forego the tradition:

It's no use giving a potlatch anymore. The old people don't do it; so nobody pays you back, and the young people don't even understand what it's all about.

A few surviving elders still recall traditional potlatching, which reached a crescendo in the early 1920s. Those great giveaway feasts sometimes shocked outsiders with what was regarded as shameful waste, often accompanied by wanton destruction of goods. The elders also experi- enced the punitive measures with which the Canadian government enforced its rigd prohibition against such doings (see Cole and Chaikin 1990; LaViolette 1973[19611; Sewid-Smith 1979). Negotiations were still continuing for the return of masks and regalia seized by government officials at gatherings held more than 65 years earlier. In the years that followed, any activity suggestive of potlatching had to be carried out surreptitiously. Younger generations learned it as a covert, illegal, some- what antiauthority and, thus, antiwhite activity, and a rather futile one as well, an outmoded tradition finally dying out. Given the heavy financial burden it imposed (and imposes), not everyone was sorry to see it go.

Rather than disappear, however, potlatchng has clearly enjoyed a resurgence. So, too, continues the process of anthropological interpreta- tion regarding the importance, influence, and consequences of potlatch- ing3A preoccupation with its spectacular artistic dimensions and the intensity of academic arguments about the role of potlatchng in Kwala- utl life have tended to obscure the tension inherent in, and lack of clear agreement about, the ways that prestige, status, and honor should be derived, demonstrated, or distributed among the people themselves. As with all things Kwaluutl, in these matters every individual has an opinion, and no two individuals ever seem to be in complete accord.

Perhaps because of the large number of non-Indian guests at this potlatch, specific mention was made (in English, unlike most of the announcing and speechmaking) of the central role of the potlatch in Kwakiutl social organization. Official recognition of that fact took about 40 vears, however, and I thnk it more accurate to describe once restric- tivi (and missionary) policy toward potlatching as having been slowly eroded rather than dramatically reversed. During the days of my initial fieldwork in 1962-63, officials at the Kwawkewlth Indian Agency in Alert Bay would concede only that the potlatch was "not illegal." No cautious Indian Affairs bureaucrat wanted to be on record as Kaving said more. The antipotlatch law was never repealed; it simply "disappeared" from the books in a revision of the Indian Act passed in 1951 (Cole and Chaikin 1990:l).

Stranger and Friend

Let me now put myself more squarely in the picture, my presence at the Sewide Potlatch marking my 25th year of association with the Kwakiutl (also Kwagulth or as some now prefer, Kwakwa ka'wakw, a term that identifies the people by their common linguistic heritage, Kwakwala [Macnair 19861): In 1962, as one of George Spindler's doc- toral students at Stanford, I embarked on an ethnographic inquiry into the education and schooling of Kwakiutl youth. I accepted an assign- ment as the teacher at Village Island, one of many small outlying villages in the Alert Bay region between the northern part of Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland.

My reedited dissertation was later published as A Kwakiutl Village and School (Wolcott 1964, 1967).5 Subsequently I have written only one other article related directly to my Kwakiutl experience (1987[19741). Never- theless, the 12 months spent at the village in 1962-63, coupled with a subsequent year devoted exclusively to analyzing and writing the ac- count, had a profound impact on me, and the experience launched my career in ethnographc research. I have drawn on that experience ever since, most recently in The Art of Fieldwork (1995). I could hardly have done better than to study among the people with whom Franz Boas, the "father of American anthropology," conducted major research.

I did not pursue a career as a Kwakiutl or Northwest Coast specialist. Anyone familiar with my original monograph is more likely to associate it with studies in acculturation or cross-cultural education than as part of the extensive corpus of Kwaluutl ethnography. But I did develop a deep concern for what would become of the village and villagers, particularly the youngsters whom I taught in its school, just as I felt a deep affection for many (not all) village adults. I returned to the village in August 1964, briefly joining the crew on Henry Bell's purse seiner during the summer salmon run, as I had done a year earlier. I made notes and corrected impressions for revising the dissertation for publication, and I began to track many of the lives that had intersected with mine. I have attempted to do that ever since, through personal visits when possible, augmented by occasional letters, telephone calls, and reports of other^.^ My closest contacts and strongest attachments have always been with Henry Bell and members of his immediate family, particularly his offspring and their spouses and children. I had been invited because this was a memorial potlatch to honor him. His firm hand was evident in guiding some of the events and distributing the remainder of his estate.

Formal Events

The potlatch formally began on Thursday, June 4, with a buffet lunch followed by the traditional seating of guests, welcoming address, mourning songs for the deceased, and award of new Indian names to family members. I did not arrive until 4:00 p.m., when the evening meal was about to be served. A program of singing, dancing, and dramatiza- tion of the Red Cedar Bark Ceremonial began at 7:00 p.m. and concluded at 1:00a.m.

The program the second day began in the afternoon with speech malung and a distribution of flour and rice. Dinner was again scheduled from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Evening activities began at 6:30 p.m. and con- cluded at 3:00 a.m. The main event was the Peace Dance, followed by the signing of a peace treaty with the Bella Coola Indians, an interlude for introducing special guests, and, at the conclusion of the dance program, the distribution of gfts and some final speech making.

Obviously Henry Bell was not present to organize and conduct this affair, but even at potlatches prior to his death he avoided too prominent a role in potlatches in which he was a cohost. "Jimmy's good at that sort of thing" was explanation enough. His articulate nephew James Sewid, Henry's junior by a dozen years, had always presided over the family's potlatch activities, and he was the obvious and only-although not therefore uncontested--choice to host this one. For here, too, were grounds for raising pervasive Kwakiutl apprehension about anyone in a position to exercise authority or to claim prerogatives for which ownership might be in contention. Within the family it had become apparent how difficult it would be to reach consensus on critical deci- sions and to arrive at a satisfactory distribution of privileges, obligations, and responsibilities. The potlatch also afforded a way out of the dilemma of distributing the balance of Henry's estate without creating further hard feelings. Nonetheless, vesting authority in an "outsider," even a close kinsman, virtually guaranteed that, at least on some issues, instead of only someone being unhappy, almost everyone could and would be a bit unhappy.

A common purpose in honoring Henry Bell-"The Old Man," as he was knownaffectionately by thoseclose to hm-provided the necessary cohesion to keep things going, but differences of opinion were rampant among a people who seem to find their very identity in discord. One might literally have "measured" the strength of each family member's involvement in, and endorsement of, the event by measuring the dis- tance to an imaginary set of concentric circles radiating outward from Jimmy Sewid's seat at the command post. The first circle would have encompassed relatives and friends seated nearby who contributed time, effort, and money. A second circle would have stretched to the far corners of the audience seated either on folding chairs or along several rows of permanent bleachers. (The local ice-hockey arena had been rented to double for a traditional Kwakiutl big house.) The next circle would have extended to more casual onlookers, such as the teenagers milling about in the hallways or visiting among their Indian and white friends in the adjacent parking lot, where one could be "at" the action without actually being "in" it. The widest circle would have extended at least to Port Hardy at the north of Vancouver Island and far enough south to include both Vancouver and Victoria, thus including virtually any Kwakiutl who might or might not have chosen to attend, as circum- stances permitted. In that sense, although not everyone was present, everyone was accounted for.

In one of many impromptu congratulatory speeches made at the conclusion of the potlatch, at least one speaker specifically noted "dif- ferences within the family" that had to be surmounted to bring off the event. Imagne the collective decision making involved in extending an open invitation to literally hundreds, with a realistic expectation that from 200 to 400 guests will accept. (The total number of people who attended at least some part of the two-day affair can only be estimated, although an effort was made to have everyone present for one of the three sit-down meals sign a guest book.)

Imagine the preparations for hosting two full afternoons and evenings of Indian dancing, singing, speech making, eating, and gift giving, with most out-of-town visitors expecting accommodation as well. Of the total dollar sum dedicated for the potlatch, imagine trying to resolve to everyone's satisfaction the critical issue of how much to spend on tangible gifts, how much to set aside for the important cash distribution. Who will manage the various "collections" of like items (e.g., glassware, blankets, plastic goods), who will do the actual purchasing, where will goods be stored, and who is to be responsible for keeping the accounts? Who will be accumulating the cash, and where and when is it to change hands? (I sat next to the cash during most of the second evening. It was in a plastic sack firmly held on the lap of Henry's oldest daughter as she watched the proceedings from her wheelchair, surrounded by family and friends for the most part unaware of their added responsibility as informal bodyguards.) How many roasts of beef to order, salmon to barbecue, masks to call out, goods to be prepared in home lutchens, crates of apples and oranges, sandwiches, and pop to have ready for impromptu snacks? Which local non-Indian residents, government of- ficials, or people from other tribes should be invited? Which experienced drummers and dancers can be called? Who can be recruited to dance, and who can coach neophytes in dances they have not performed previously? When and where will the event be held? Whose convenience in time or location can be sacrificed, with families and friends so geo- graphically scattered?

For the widely dispersed Bell family, Campbell River was a strange choice, the only community where no member of the immediate family resided (although that made it attractive as a compromise location). But it was where host and master of ceremonies Jimmy Sewid resided, and there was little question in anyone's mind that this was "definitely Jimmy's function." Since Sewid was 74 years old, his preferences and health were major considerations. Having heard of his recent bouts with illness, I complimented him on looking hale and hearty. "It's mostly pills that keeps me going now," he ~onfided.~

The Indian community at Campbell Ever maintains a community hall with a modern kitchen where food can be prepared and served in large quantity. That seemed the obvious venue for the potlatch. As the guest list grew, however, it became apparent that there would not be adequate space for both audience and dancers. The solution was to serve meals at the community hall but hold all other formal potlatch activities in the nearby civic arena.

The number of vehicles in parlung lots adjacent to the community hall and the civic arena proved a reliable indicator for locating the major event of the moment. In an earlier day, one would have looked instead for a harbor full of fishing boats or, earlier still, dugout canoes. Under lustorically adverse circumstances, the choice of location might have been on the basis of the least, rather than the most, accessible site; stormy weather was considered an additional asset in defying detection by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police boat or wary Indian Agent. At the Sewide Potlatch, by contrast, the currently appointed Indian agent, himself a native of Kingcome Village, took an active role, and guests were present from neighboring tribes, neighboring states, and halfway around the world.

Contesting Authority

The potlatch did "come off," well attended and successful, with power and authority negotiated sufficiently for critical decisions to be reached and for the effort to be coordinated. Backed by the momentum of the event in motion, minor adjustments were made on the spur of the moment. Additional singers, backstage assistants, dining-room helpers, dancers, and volunteers to run errands or to chauffeur guests were recruited as needed. Heaviest responsibility rested with members of the extended Bell and Sewid families.

But power and status are critical aspects of Kwaluutl life, and pot- latches exacerbate them as much as they resolve them. As late as 14hours into the potlatch ceremony, the question of who now succeeded Henry

Bell to represent the Mamaleleqala Band surfaced awkwardly during a separate ceremony that required the presence of a formal repre- sentative-a "chef"--from each identifiable village group.

The succession of Kwakiutl chieftainships into present times was greatly confounded in the evolution of a potlatch system that eventually allowed "commoners" literally to buy their way into rank and privilege once passed strictly through hereditary lines. (See, for example, Suttles 1991.) More recent circumstances further complicating the issue include: (1)confusion created by having a parallel, government-imposed system of elected chiefs and councilors for conducting official band business; (2) the relocation of entire villages from remote sites to fewer, larger, more accessible ones that are more easily administered by appointed officials;

(3) the concomitant amalgamation of these units to create new bands;s (4)the dwindling number of people who have actually resided at those "real" places in Kwakiutl history; and (5)the relatively rare occasions when the question "Who is chief [councilor] now?" is a pressing issue for former village groups that exist only on paper.

As a consequence of such lingering confusion, it was not clear just who rightfully could step forward as representative of the Mamaleleqala, the people of Village Island, given that it is no longer an active village. More profoundly, who has the authority to resolve questions as to who that person should be? At 11:OO p.m. the second evening, the potlatch came to a virtual standstill because the issue could not be resolved satisfacto- rily. The occasion was tangent to the formal potlatch itself, a ceremonial treaty signing at which every band needed to be represented. Although only a handful of people realized it, the focal point of the proceedings had shifted from the command post to the back row of chairs at the farthest corner of the arena, where Henry Bell's agng and oldest living son "Si" brought the proceedings to a halt simply by passively remain- ing seated as a nonparticipating participant. Indoing so, he was publicly confirming a tacit protest through which he had steadfastly refused to validate authority that he regarded as rightfully his and that was being usurped by others.

No one had anticipated the problems that a treaty signing might raise. Although the band suddenly needed a representative, no one knew whether Si was in the audience until I pointed hm out by the bright yellow University of Oregon cap that I had presented to him earlier in the day. But family pleas could not persuade him to participate, and the potlatch came to an abrupt halt in an invisible struggle over the legiti- mation of authority, the very essence of traditional potlatchng. Whis- pered explanations of what was (or, more accurately, was not) happen- ing were devoid of fancy social science terminology, however. Three words of explanation whispered to me summed up why everything had come to a stop: "Si won't come!"

The need to "keep things moving" so that the program would not drag on interminably-perhaps to 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., as sometimes happens- provided the inertia necessary to overcome ths unexpected obstacle. Someone had to be called to stand in as chief. The hastily recruited "chief" was Johnson Bell, a young man in his early 30s, one of my first-grade pupils at the village 25 years earlier. Johnson had been attending potlatches all his life and had been initiated as a dancer at about age 11, but tlus was the first time he had taken an active role as an adult. The evening before, he had danced his first hamatsa, a critical potlatch role ordinarily performed by an eldest son. Now, 24 hours later, he was being called to act in the role of Chef of the Marnaleleqala. "That's the first time I ever heard the word chief in front of my name," he later remarked, adding that he hoped his camera was on the proper setting as he hurriedly handed it to lus wife to try to capture the moment on film. 'Who is it?" I heard members of the audience wlusper audibly as they sought to identify newcomers in the slowly assembling group of village "chiefs" and to voice concerns as to whether those called had a rightful place there.

A View from the Sidelines

In the anthropological literature, potlatch reporting has focused al- most exclusively on the activity in the public arena, the sequence and symbolism of a culturally integrated event. But having stepped so quickly out of my role as a university professor during this opportune break between the end of classes and the beginning of exams, I had come too far, too fast; I could not seem to close the distance between myself and the activities at hand. I found myself attending less to performance and more to the "everything else" that gives meaning to human social activity. Whle the dancers were dancing, what was everyone else up to? How did the selection of dancers happen to include some members of the host families but apparently not all of them? What was happening on the periphery? And what kind of interpretation might one develop by making the assumption that, like me, many-perhaps most--of the audience members also regarded themselves essentially as marginal?

Those actively engaged in a potlatch do not think of themselves as entertainers putting on a show, but rather as players in a drama of the whole. There is constant shifting about as audience members ready themselves to take part, help others who are doing so, or move about to look after (and for) younger children. Those without formal responsibil- ity not only watch after chldren but also keep an eye on the countless suitcases in whch participants carry their costumes, especially the bulky button blankets.

Smaller chldren are free to run about until they literally "drop," behavior that sometimes evokes criticism from non-Indian visitors con- cerned at once that children are kept up too late and that one sees them asleep in adult arms, on chairs or benches, or on coats and blankets laid on the floor. Older children and teenagers seek out same-age compan- ions and appear far more attentive to each other than to events around them, except for occasional dramatic high points and the carefully noted caution that "no one gets anything" who is not seated when the distri- bution of gifts begns. Non-Indianvisitors, typically more self-conscious about audience protocol, appear more demanding of their offspring, admonishing them to sit up, to sit still, and to refrain from voicing too-candid assessments, such as one seven-year-old's complaint, "It's boring."

I found myself growing restive as the program wore on the first evening, tired as well from two days of driving. I variously found some place where I could stand for awlule, moved to back rows where I could stretch my legs under vacant chairs, or visited among others standing at the back. In contrast to their frenetically active children, Kwakiutl elders sit patiently for hours under circumstances that seem to border on endurance contests. By about 11:30 p.m., I felt exhausted and had become inattentive. I decided to return to my hotel, have a beer, and retire for the night, although the program listed many dances and dancers yet to perform. The beer and respite revived me, however, and I returned to the arena to watch the remainder of the evening's events. I firmly resolved to stay the entire ceremony the next evening rather than miss opportunities to see people and dances I might never see again.9

The following morning I was joined in the hotel coffeeshop by one of Henry Bell's grandsons, a young man of about age 30. He reported having briefly attended the evening activities prior to going off for an evening of partying. He explained that he had come in for coffee because the beer hall did not open until 10:30 a.m. He made a familiar boast that he had "not slept in three days." I do not know whether he spent the day drinking, as he said he intended to do, but he made an adequately sober appearance at dinner and he was back at the potlatch ceremonies when they began the second evening.

It was lus studied marginality that first prompted my reflections about how others-those whom I had always considered to be "insiders"- might relate to all that was happening. Here was someone else on the fringe of the potlatch, and deliberately so. Yet he seemed to be exactly where he wanted to be, in terms of both the immediate event and his engagement withn family and community. He was at the periphery, looking in and looking on. In an earlier day I might have been swept up too wholeheartedly with family concern and despair expressed over his stated behavior (rather than his actual behavior, I later realized), al- though by hs own assessment drugs and alcohol figured too promi- nently in his everyday life. A generation earlier, however, his father had set a similar course of calculated margnality, and from the perspective of time, I found myself thinking of ths young man's behavior as an adequate, if not necessarily enviable, coping strategy. He was only as alienated from lus Indianness and his family as he opted to be. Appar- ently he had agreed to take an active role in the potlatch-lus name appeared in the printed program-and had then decided against it, yet he could not disengage hmself entirely from it. I wondered how many more times he might remain on the sidelines before someday electing to participate. In some of his comments, did I detect a softening in the air of bravado that helped hm maintain his distance?

Such questions are not rhetorical. In addition to ubiquitous concerns that Indian ways are dying out and that young people are out of control, I realized that I was witnessing more participation by more young people than I could recall ever having seen previously. I watched as children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, even great-great-grand- children danced in a potlatch honoring the memory of Henry Bell and others who had passed on. From those barely able to walk, elder and toddler alike, to teenagers who had spent days practicing dances new for them, the traditions that Henry and others of his generation once felt to be dying were being kept alive, in part by the model and sponsorship Henry himself had provided.

Becoming Involved

At ths gathering, the figurative step over a threshold from margnal onlooker to involved participant was best exemplified by Johnson Bell, a great-grandson whom Henry Bell had legally adopted and raised as a son. Johnson recalls (as do I) his many hours spent years ago sitting beside the old man whenever Henry joined the elders in singng and drumming at potlatch gatherings. If Johnson's "good seat" at potlatches was the envy of others, it generated little interest in, or commitment to, what was going on at the time. At a potlatch held at Alert Bay in the mid-1970s, I remember watching him assist with the final distribution of gifts, but he did not participate in any other way. As he explains, reflecting on his earlier attitude, "I didn't need a potlatch to tell me who I am."

Johnson became what I might term a "potlatch convert." Invited (perhaps "challenged is a better word ) to dance the important hamatsa role, he had diligently practiced the necessary movements. He delighted in sharing with me newly acquired explanations about the meaning of those movements. "Do you know what it means when I move my hands first in this direction, then in that?" he asked. "I'm calling to the people from all directions to come be seated here." His new understanding left him wanting to know more and to be able to dance "even better" next time, the earlier reticence finally overcome. "He could be a really good hamatsa," people commented afterward.1° The praise was muted, as it invariably is for recognizing the accomplishments of others, but my feeling was that a young adult who heretofore had insisted he did not need the potlatch to "know who he was" now found unexpected satis- faction in hs involvement with it.

Johnson's participation in one aspect of the potlatch awakened for lum a greater interest in the whole." Assuming a role that he had seen his elders take in past years, he frequently sought me out to explain what

was going on. At the conclusion of the potlatch, he asked if I realized the significance of the brief appearance of a Kwakiutl "copper" previously hidden for years. (The unveiling was too brief for me, but I had sense enough not to ask, 'What copper?") As artifacts, coppers are plates of hammered sheet copper, typically appearing like oblong shields. As symbol, the meaning and value of each copper resides in the name and history associated with it. That an old copper was given an unexpected public viewing "means there's going to be a lot more potlatching in the near future," Johnson reported enthusiastically, anticipating hs own greater involvement.

Let me skip ahead from Johnson's participation early in the potlatch to a more personal instance nearer its conclusion. At 12:15 a.m. the second evening, almost six hours into the program, I was summoned to get ready for my part, to join in a memorial dance for Henry Bell. I was taken aback. I have never imagined that I might be called on to partici- pate, and I have never paid more than fleeting attention to the steps or movements associated with any particular dance. Too late I realized that the dance I would be doing was being danced at that very moment, while I was "backstage" being fitted with ermine-skin headgear and button blanket. The blankets were quickly taken from dancers completing their set and wrapped around the shoulders of those next to perform. The most critical part of the costume seemed to be a large safety pin to fasten the blanket around one's neck, the pin a vast technological improvement over the formerly used bone skewers.

I suddenly understood two previously overheard comments, "Didn't they just do that dance?" and 'We're putting them through as fast as we can." One of the two major traditional dances being performed was the tla'sela, which provided opportunity for family and friends to pay tribute by participating in a brief dance repeated over and over by a small, constantly changng group of dancers. (The number kept growing.) I begged instructions and received only these terse ones: "Start by facing the drummers and singers before turning to face the audience. Keep your feet parallel. Bend from the waist."

As we lined up for our entrance, a handful of down feathers (today purchased bulk in plastic containers) was placed between staves formed of (real or simulated) Steller's sea-lion whiskers on top of each head- dress. At each shake of the dancer's head, some feathers fly out and float gracefully to the floor in a symbolic act of purificati~n.'~

Since our hands and arms were hidden beneath the blanket, our feet, knees, waist, and head movements were all that mattered. One adult graciously stepped forward to demonstrate how he performed the dance. The others said nothng, and I read their silence to mean, "You've been watching this for years--now just do it."13

In what seemed no time at all we were costumed, dancing, and backstage once again, where headdresses and button blankets were quickly transferred to the next set of dancers. No one voiced approval or disapproval; I knew they would not. Perhaps at some future time a story will evolve over my surprise at being asked, at my all-but-futile attempt to glean instruction, and at humorous aspects of the evening revealed in offhand comments like "pushng them through as fast as we can." For the present, however, no comment. The old man once paid the honor of bestowing an Indian name on me at a potlatch. Now I had been able to join in honoring hm. In that brief moment I, too, became a "potlatch convert."

Program Highlights

I have noted the slow progression the first evening through 30 events listed in the printed program, a pace so leisurely that I naively assumed the dancing would stop at some point and resume the second evening. A student of potlatch tradition would know that the Red Cedar Bark (or Winter) Dance (trseE;a)will be followed by the Peace (or Healing) Dance (tla'sala) the second evening, but such information is not easy to discern from the event itself. Although ths was the first time I had seen a printed program, the sequence was not rigidly adhered to, and only as the evening wore on did I realize that we were to witness the program in its entirety the first night. The second evening was to be devoted to a complementary set of dances that in earlier times would have been performed during a different season, at a different place, and by a different tribe. At about 1:00 a.m. the first evening's program came to a close, with a brief reminder (in English) about the next evening and an even briefer one (delivered only in Kwakwala) about activities sched- uled the following afternoon.

As people rose to leave, Henry George stepped to the microphone and asked everyone to remain a moment longer. Henry was a young adult at the village when I had first met him25 years earlier. He has developed a keen interest in Kwaluutl traditions and is often invited to help others prepare and conduct potlatch ceremonies-of course risking inevitable criticism that, if he wants to have so prominent a role, he really ought to give a potlatch of hs own. I failed to detect the humor in his voice and expected an important closing announcement. Instead, he asked only, "Is Nu Nu here?" As soon as Nu Nu identified herself, Henry led everyone in a round of "Happy Birthday" dedicated to her. With far fewer singers participating, a second chorus was sung in Kwakwala. On that final note, the activities came to a close.

Unlike the youthful and family-oriented program of dances and danc- ers of the first evening, a large part of the second evening was devoted to the Peace Dance. That dance was highly appropriate for the occasion; host Jimmy Sewid had played a role in a mutual effort to arrange a peace treaty easing long-standing antagonism between the Kwakiutl and the Bella Coola people, their neighbors to the north along the mainland coast. The culmination of these formalities constituted another major part of the program. In addition to exchange visits with the Bella Coola and the drawing up of a formal document, accommodation had to be arranged for a large contingent of Bella Coola adults and young people who attended and participated in the events. After the Peace Dance and the treaty signing, the visitors reciprocated by presenting a program of their own, including recent reconstructions of dances previously given up as "lost." I watched backstage as more than two dozen dancers (with a preponderance of teenagers) were readied repeatedly for their entry, only to disperse again when formalities of the signing came to an unexpected halt, for the reasons described earlier. Ithought these young people exceedingly patient as they lined up time after time in anticipa- tion of the start of their dance and joked good-naturedly among them- selves, occasionally boosting morale by passing along some cogent reminder such as "Right foot; start on the right." What they knew, and I did not, was that each of them would be performing not one but several dances to be presented before an appreciative, if now somewhat restless, audience.

I took the conclusion of the extended dance program by the Bella Coola as a signal that the traditional potlatch was underway once again and that we were nearing the gift giving, the final event. But it was not to be. World traveler Jimmy Sewid next introduced a surprise guest, a visiting Maori "chief" whom Jimmy had met during a visit to New Zealand. This guest, too, was conspicuous by distinctive attire, the only person wearing a three-piece business suit, dress shirt, and tie. In his nicely spoken and rather British-sounding manner (for an audience not likely to detect a New Zealand Maori accent), he, in turn, introduced family and friends with whom he was traveling. Together they pre- sented a sample of Maori singing. At the end of their songs they invited everyone to join in a simple Maori dance. A responsive audience of all ages swarmed onto the arena floor.

Thank-you speeches concluded this unexpected addition to the pro- gram, with Jimmy Sewid and his wife publicly exchanging gfts with their guests. Until that moment late in the second evening, Jimmy's wife Flora had served only inconspicuously as a major behind-the-scenes organizer, guiding the sequence of events and prompting her husband and other family members. Although her seat, too, was on the sidelines, her role was anything but marginal.

The Distribution of Gifts

The potlatch resumed with a final round of dancing and speech making and then to what is unquestionably its best-known feature, the distribution of gifts. Before the gifting begns, however, the entire inven- tory of what is to be gven away is exhibited by the host(s). These displays have often been described as "ostentatious," especially in early reports intended to raise public concern about potlatch excesses. The activity still generates a sense of anticipation and awe as carton upon carton of goods is brought out in seemingly endless procession.

Those responsible for the distribution made a fairly successful effort to coordinate the placement and unpacking of goods, and the floor of the arena quickly took the appearance of an open-air market. On and on came boxes of linen towels, place mats, dishes, baskets, and art works. I can hardly begn to inventory quantities or variety, but the circum- stances themselves help one anticipate what might be found: a prefer- ence for large, bright items: colored blankets and towels and large doormats, rather than jewelry and handkerchiefs; sugar and cream sets rather than plain drinlung glasses; large straw hats or baskets or pillows rather than pens and pencils. No matter how much is brought in, the number of guests is a relentless divisor--even those who leave with "all they can carry" have increased their material wealth by little.I4 As the quickly built-up hoard of goods began almost as rapidly to dissipate in the distribution that followed, I was reminded of a comment made years ago by a village youngster who confided after hours of sitting through his first potlatch, "That's an awful long time to sit for one plate."

The distribution of gifts is by no means as casual as may appear. Young gift bearers are directed by elders who carefully oversee who gets what, aided by kibitzers anxious to ensure that certain people get certain items or that significant people in less conspicuous sections of the audience are not forgotten. Outsiders or strangers also fail to realize that seeming insiders to an event of this scale are often strangers to each other. Younger people or those whose families have relocated may be overlooked or slighted because their family connections go unrecog- nized. The special name badges distributed to members of the host families during the opening ceremony, including badges for very young children not only signaled a modern convention but also revealed how dispersed and "urbanized" the Kwakutl have become. Complaints also were voiced afterward that more people had "helped" with the distri- bution than had been invited to do so.

Concurrent with the distribution of goods was the distribution of cash to adult guests. Children had scrambled for coins at one point during the first evening, but the distribution of paper currency is serious adult business. From the innocuous-looking plastic bag came what was vari- ously estimated to be as much as, and perhaps more than, 30,000 Canadian dollars. (I understand there is a tendency for estimated amounts to increase with subsequent recountings.) The denominations I saw were wads of 20s and 50s, and the distribution was carried out systematically by Jimmy Sewid's male offspring. Only once, years ago, do I recall hearing anyone express dissatisfaction with the actual amount received, but it is hard to imagne that comparisons are not made and meanings inferred from a custom so solidly rooted in rank and status.'" Active participants in the potlatch, especially the male drummers and chanters-who tend as well to be prominent elders-may receive sub- stantial cash gfts as payment and may receive additional personal gifts as well. On the other hand, by declining cash gifts, certain individuals laid claim to their status as members of the host families rather than ~ues



Additional cash ~avments of 50 dollars were made to several im- promptu orators widstepped forward at the end of the ceremony to express approval for "this great potlatch and their esteem for the years of leadership exerted by host Jimmy Sewid. Politically oriented com- mentators commended his role in the negotiation of the peace treaty between two peoples with a history of strained relations dating back to raiding parties of the 1800s. Like everything else about that second evening, the accolades became a self-generating activity. From my van- tage point it seemed that for every speaker called upon, at least two more signaled their desire to be recognized.

Most speeches were in Kwakwala, but some individuals spoke in English, as did important visitors, including noted Northwest Coast artist and carver Bill Reid. I could not discern how the speechmalung was finally brought to a close. Nor was I aware that not all comments were as laudatory as those spoken in English. Any public display of authority invites questions as to its legitimacy, and ths potlatch was no exception. I was told later that the telephone in Jimmy Sewid's home rang continuously "before, during, and after" the potlatch with com- plaints about who had the authority to do or say what, and otherwise to voice objections.

Another activity in the final round of speechmaking was the passing on of Henry Bell's potlatch name to a young member of the family, in this case the eldest son of Henry's youngest daughter, a young man in his 20s. "I could keep ths name for myself, but instead I pass it down," host Jimmy Sewid announced, bestowing one of the recipient's grand- father's many Indian names upon him (thereby fanning other embers of discontent). At the same time, the potlatch provided occasion for Jimmy to assume-and publicly to validate-another name for himself, taking his grandfather's name, Aul Sewid (or Olsiwit), which translates as True, or Real, Paddling Owner (Bill Holm, personal communication, October 30,1987).

With the end of the speeches came the end of the potlatch. Here was one last opportunity for visiting, but it was 3:00 a.m., and virtually everyone was carrying a bundle or two-dance paraphernalia, infants and toddlers fast asleep, the accumulation of potlatch gifts--so most movement was toward the exits to the parlung lot. Final appreciations to the host and final goodbyes were said as people and goods were packed into autos, vans, and pickup trucks shrouded in an early morn- ing coastal fog.

Peripheral Participation and the Potlatch

The traditional aspects of Kwakutl potlatching have been well docu- mented in more than 100 years of reporting, and the visual documenta- tion of masks and other artifacts is stunning.16 As Roger Sanjek has observed, however, Boas directed his Kwaluutl studies to "a past from which one hundred years of Western contact was filtered out" (1990:196), and today's social scientist must resist a temptation to report the traditional potlatch intact, filtering out another hundred years sim- ply by overlooking such seemingly incidental addenda as the inclusion of songs and dances performed by Bella Coola guests, Maori songs and a Maori dance, "Happy Birthday" sung in English and Kwakwala, or a Kwakiutl elder sporting a new University of Oregon cap, sitting quietly in a back row yet able to bring the proceedings to a halt without uttering a word.

That the more personal dimensions of the event go largely unreported is not so much a matter of nostalgia as their being private, hopelessly complex, and largely unseen. I had not realized how my long association might someday help me appreciate personal aspects ordinarily unrec- ognized. Initially I was frustrated by the realization that no matter where I sat, I was seeing only part of the potlatch, and even then, as Clifford Geertz reminds, "not quite getting it right" (1973:29). But I later realized that, in spite of that rnargnality, I had begun to understand more about both the people and the potlatch than I had understood in the previous quarter century.

A simple phrase that continues to ring in my ear may have brought me as close as I will come to experiencing Kwaluutl worldview firsthand, "Si won't come." Si's tacit protest to the wielding of authority created a tension and challenge, in one sense only a minor detail to work out but in a larger sense a reminder of delicate underlying issues in the taking and bestowing of power and privilege, still at the heart of Kwakiutl social life and still what potlatching is all about. Unless someone hap- pens to whisper in your ear, an outsider is not likely to catch anything that subtle!

In titles chosen for reflective accounts about fieldwork, anthropolo- gists frequently reveal perceptions of themselves "at the fringes" of the peoples among whom they study:Marginal Natizies (Freilich 1970), Stranger and Friend (Powdermake? 1966), The Professional Stranger (Agar 1980). Any of those titles seems apt for describing my position during the Sewide Potlatch and my role among the Kwakiutl, in spite of having known many of them for more than three decades. It was my own marginality, revealed in a succession of working titles for this article-- "On the Potlatch Cusp," "At the Potlatch Fringe," "At the Potlatch MarginM-that struck me initially, until I realized that marginality was not only experienced by others but offered a perspective for looking at everyone's circumscribed opportunity for participation. There was no way anyone could have been involved in everything going on. In that sense, ezieyone was at the potlatch margin, if not by design then by the complexity of the event itself.

Rooted as it is in a view of learning as a function of active social participation rather than passive cognitive storing, the concept of "peripheral participation" might have provided both a helpful perspec- tive and a way to link ths account with my interest in cultural acquisition (e.g., Wolcott 1982,1991). But I have been reflecting on the lessons of the Sewide Potlatch since 1987, and the phrase "peripheral participation" was not introduced until the publication of Lave and Wenger's Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation in 1991. At that, the notion was not intended as literally as I employ it here, in which I take peripher- ality to refer not only to being outside the circle of "full" participants but also to include others, like Si, employing a conscious strategy to remain there.

In a more important sense, what Lave and Wenger were driving at in introducing "peripheral participation" describes what seems to have been going on at the potlatch in terms of the acquisition of culture.I7 Everyone there was drawn to the event in some way, into it in others. There were, of course, "participants" present only as onlookers, full participants in that role and destined for no other. But others--essen- tially but not entirely limited to the Kwakiutl themselves-were being drawn in more deeply in preparation for roles they will have to assume in the near future if potlatchng is to continue, as most certainly it will.

Unless you can perform an authentic Kwakiutl dance from the same instructionsI received ("Start by facing thedmmmers and singers before turning to face the audience. Keep your feet parallel. Bend from the waist"), then you recognize that even I brought more to the activity than I have conveyed. During my reflections and some note malung on the return drive home, I realized that the event with the greatest impact on me personally was the totally unexpected summons to participate in a dance.

For that brief moment, I, too, was pulled into the circle of "legtimate peripheral participation" (Lave and Wenger 1991:lOO). I was legitimate because I had access to a true community of participation, peripheral because my task was short and simple, capable of being accomplished by a novice (1991:llO). Such a constellation constitutes what Lave and Wenger call situated learning, emphasizing the social dimension of what we do rather than the cognitive dimension of what we are said to know. There could hardly be a better example of situated learning than in potlatch proceedings witnessed year after year by Kwaluutl children and youth who will neither be directed to participate nor discouraged in their efforts to do so.

In her subsequent writing about learning as an essentially social activity rather than a cognitive one, Jean Lave no longer employs the cum- bersome phrase "legtimate peripheral participation." She now empha- sizes the critical nature of social participation and, especially, the practice that is the active element in it, positing a refreshngly different and appropriately anthropological perspective on learning: "There is no such thng as 'learning' sui generis, but only changng participation in the culturally designed settings of everyday life" (Lave 199356). I am concerned that the word legitimate can too easily be restricted to its evaluative meaning, and I have tried to slip out from under it, although Lave and Wenger propose it only to distinguish genuine communities of participation from surrogate ones.18 But I call attention here to "periph- eral participationf' as a heuristic notion for thinlung about what most of us are up to most of the time in living our social lives. "Peripheral participation" not only provides an apt description for much of the behavior one sees at a potlatch--dare I generalize to all human social events?-it also helps to explain how such a tradition persists, providing easy access through what Lave calls the "way-in" (Lave and Wenger 1991:72).There are multiple ways into potlatchng, myriad roles to take. And sometimes roles can come searching for you, as they seemed to be doing here to Johnson, to Si, and even to me.

If everyone at the Sewide Potlatch was in some ways peripheral, everyone was also gaining some idea about some of the possible roles to be played, particularly for roles withn the realm of possibility in one's own future. I can only infer-and I do infer-that something similar to what happened to me was happening to others: in public, toddlers cloaked in tiny button blankets following closely in the steps of parents or older siblings, JohnsonBell not only dancing his first harnatsa but later watching his own children dance, or anemergng group of new "elders" like Henry George gaining more experience and assuming greater re- sponsibility for carrylng on the potlatch tradition, at the same time helping to shape its evolving form; out of the public eye, unseen others loolung after the money, the purchase of gifts, the preparation and serving of food, and the brokering of interpersonal tensions, or simply wondering whether or not to attend the next potlatch that is announced.

I have always wondered why non-Indian visitors ordinarily seem more concerned about where to sit at a potlatch than do the Kwaluutl themselves.I had not realized how much more there is to "see" than the dancing and gft distribution, and how much more insiders do see, no matter where they sit. But it is also important to realize how sitting and watching at a potlatch are not enough-unless sitting and watching are the only roles one will ever take. For the potlatch tradition to be carried on, its peripheral participants of today will be the ones to do it. They are already in deeper than they realize.

Hany F. Wolcott is professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon.


Acknowledgments. The author wishes to acknowledge his longtime associa- tion with, and appreciation for, Chief Hemy Bell, as well as to succeeding generations of the Bell family now extending to great-great-grandchildren who

will never have the opportunity to know him in person. For insight and technical corrections in preparing the longer essay from which this article is drawn, the author expresses appreciation to Bill ~olm and Peter Macnair, both of whom attended the Sewide Potlatch described here, and to Jerry Marr, Madonna Moss, Rob Proudfoot and Ronald P. Rohner. For editorial help with the present version, he is indebted to AEQ Editor Kathryn Anderson-Levitt.

  1. Local custom is followed here in distinguishing between Indian and non- Indian, or Indian and white, depending on context. In formal presentations today one also finds the terms First Nations and First Peoples in reference to Canadian Indian people, as in "First Nations communities" or "First Nations leaders," although these terms have not become part of everyday speech.


  2. Although potlatching is probably the best-known feature of Kwakiutl life, the term potlatch comes from Chinook Jargon, an early trade language used among peoples of the Northwest Coast. In precontact times, there never was an event such-as the potlatch per se; "rather,-there were specific ritual occasions commemorating marriage, death, the construction of a house, investiture of an heir" (Goldman 1975:131). Contemporary patlatches like the one described here not only combine occasions but compress clock time and annual seasons as well, sometimes conducting everything &om the opening rituals to the concluding distribution of payments in a matter of a few hours (see Holm 1977, 1990; Webster 1991).


  3. In addition to sources already cited, see Barnett 1938,1968; Codere 1956, 1990; Dundes 1979; Halliday 1935; Jonaitis 1991; Kan 1986,1989; Piddocke 1965; Rosman and Rube1 1986. See also the Kwakiutl-authorized documentary film Potlatch: A Strict Law Bids Us Dance (Wheeler 1975) and a photo essay of Haida potlatching by Steltzer (1984). In terms of potlatch "explanation," as Kan has noted (1986:208), theory has tended to overwhelm ethnography.


  4. For a list of some two dozen different termsused sinceBoas first introduced the spelling of Kwakiutl in 1887, see Codere 1990:376. As with other First Nations people today, the Bella Coola, referred to elsewhere in the article, also prefer their name in their own language, Nuxalk.


  5. A Waveland Press reissue of the monograph in 1989 included a new afterword, "A Kwakiutl Village and School 25 Years Later," recounting some- thing of what has become of the school, the village, the villagers, and the teacher, as well as reflections about how I would proceed were I to conduct the study today. Although the reissue is no longer available, the afterword has been reprinted in Wolcott 1994.


  6. These efforts have not been systematic in any formal sense; they might be likened to the efforts of a distant relative to keep in touch in spite of the miles and years. I continue to be amazed at how quickiy I have beeninformed on the occasion of another tragic death or the sad passing of a beloved elder. All the same, I have come to dread the long-distance calls that invariably bring such news.


  7. The pills proved inadequate for the task. Jimmy Sewid died in May 1988, 11 months later. His death reportedly provoked dissension within his own family about who gets what in terms of wealth and privileges, the same problems that ran as undercurrent to this potlatch. His passing was marked with a memorial potlatch held at Alert Bay, June 8,1991. In the Kwakiutl literature, his life is celebrated in JamesSpradley's Guests Nmer Leave Hungry (1969), based on dissertation research conducted at Alert Bay in the 1960s (Spradley 1967).


  8. For a graphic representation of the historical merging of precontact Kwaki- utl tribes into modern bands, see Codere 1990:361.


  9. Only a short while after my previous visit one year earlier, Tommy Quock- sister, another of the pupils from my classroom with whom I had always kept in touch, had taken his own life. So also had his slightly younger relative, Wally George, some months before. Both names were among those being remembered at this potlatch. More than half my former village pupils are now deceased. During the year I spent at the village in 1962-63, there were 12 accidental deaths. I learned at the time--and have been repeatedly reminded in the intervening years-never to take any Kwakiutl acquaintance, young or old, for granted. Drug-related suicides havebecome a new cause for concern. Alcohol has always figured prominently in the high accident and death rates.


  10. "Good dancers respond to the words of their songs with appropriate gestures of hand, body and head. Most young dancers today neglect this, and the exceptions are appreciated and praised" (Holm 1977:15).


  11. Reportedly some of that zeal diminished when he realized that certain privileges that might have been passed on to him (e.g., the passing on of names) went to others instead. Although in no position financially to host a potlatch, in 1993 he and two younger male relatives were contemplating a healing feast intended to bring family members closer together.


  12. This is but one example of the many theatrics of potlatch dancing that entertain and delight: animal masks suddenly appearing above the screens behind the drummers, dancers making surprise entrances, mechanically oper- ated masks whose beaks snaD own or reveal still other masks inside. It also



illustrates how the dances invite interpretive speculation. From a Freudian perspective, for example, anthropologist Stanley Walens has suggested that the down is symbolic sperm with which the dancer "fertilizes" the audience. (Walens presented this interpretation during a lecture May 2, 1989; see also Walens 1981. For a critical review of Walens 1981, see Suttles 1984.)

  1. I was fortunate to receive as much direction as I did. The Kwakiutl are not inclined toward didactic instruction. Under somewhat comparable circum- stances during our earlier fieldwork, Ron Rohner reported thatwhen he sought instructions for a dance he was trylng to learn he was reminded that the way to learn a dance is to do it, not discuss it (Rohner and Bettauer 1986[1970]:69). We came to regard this as "Kwakiutl learning style." At a grander level of generali- zation, Margaret Mead once proposed a distinction between "teaching cultures" such as our own mainstream society, with its emphasis on didactic instruction, and 'learning cultures" such as the Kwakiutl, where responsibility rests with individual initiative. (See a brief discussion in Wolcott 1982; see also Lave and Wenger 1991 :94-100.)


  2. Although I have seen lists of valuable gifts given in early potlatches (e.g., Codere 1990:369) and contemporary ones (e.g., Cole and Chaikin 1990:174) and have occasionally seen useful gifts (jackets, a rocking chair) given to specific individuals, potlatch gifts today generally are of limited utilitarian value and are "not given according to recipients' needs, but to hosts' needs for prestige which could be enhanced by distributing luxury goods in large quantities" (Snyder 1975351, quoted in Kan 1986:192). I would be inclined to use the termconspicuous instead of luxury. I recall an unexpected visit from Henry Bell and several family members in the 1970s during <heir trip to Mexico to purchase quantities of colored glassware for the very reason that it makes a good potlatch gift item.


  3. My personal "worth" has increased from 4 dollars received at the first potlatch I attended in 1962 to 20 dollars at this one, presumably reflecting some combination of inflation and my own accumulation of status-or graying hair. Two particularly memorable noncash gifts were a hand-crocheted antimacassar received at a wedding potlatch at Kingcome Inlet in 1962 and a carved miniature Kwakiutl mask given to me by Henry Bell at his potlatch at Alert Bay in 1976. More important to me is the Indian name Ek-zum kwa-nuk that Henry awarded during another potlatch held at Alert Bay in the 1970s.


  4. See, for example, the 1991 volume edited by Aldona Jonaitis that accom- panied the American Museum of Natural History's 1992-1994 exhibition "Chiefly Feasts."


  5. The concept of propriospect discussed elsewhere (see Goodenough 1981; Wolcott 1991) offers a way to acknowledge each individual's competencies in different cultural settings. It does not deal with how such competencies are acauired. which is the issue addressed here.


18. For example, had I taught a social studies unit in my village classroom years ago in which we simulated a potlatch, the community of participation would have consisted of schoolchildren and their non-Indian teacher, rather than Kwakiutl adults engaging in a 'legitimate" potlatch.

References Cited

Agar, Michael H. 1980 The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography. New York: Academic kess.

Bamett, Homer G. 1938 The Nature of the Potlatch. American Anthropologist 40:349-358. 1968 The Nature and Function of the Potlatch. Eugene: Department of An-

thropology, University of Oregon. Boas, Franz

1897 The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indi- ans. In U.S. National Museum Annual Report for 1885. Pp. 311-738. Wash- ington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Codere, Helen

1950 Fighting with Property: A Study of Kwakiutl Potlatching and Warfare, 1792-1930. American Ethnological Society Monograph, 18. New York: J. J. Augustin.

1956 The Amiable Side of Kwakiutl Life: The Potlatch and the Play Potlatch. American Anthropologist 58:334-351.

1990 Kwakiutl: Traditional Culture. In Handbook of North American Indi- ans, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. Wayne Suttles, ed. Pp. 359-377. Washing- ton, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

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Publication title, Anthropology and Education Quarterly; publication number, 0161-7761; filing date, 10/18/96; frequency, quarterly; no. of issues published annually, 4; annual subscription price, $60.00; publisher, American Anthro- pological Association, 4350 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 640, Arlington, VA 22203- 1620; editor, Kathryn Anderson-Levitt, Dept. of Behavioral Sciences, Univer- sity of Michigan-Dearborn, Dearborn, MI 48128; managing editor, none; owner, American Anthropological Association.

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